A Weak Economy Won’t Stop Turkey’s Activist Foreign Policy
By pledging unconditional support to Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey’s government is stretching its forces and its budget, but it’s also shoring up its base.
Since the resumption of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh last week between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Ankara’s rhetoric has differed dramatically from that of the rest of the international community. The United Nations, the European Union, and even Russia and Iran have called for a cease-fire. Turkey, on the other hand, expressed unequivocal support for Azerbaijan, and said that without a sustainable solution, a cease-fire is meaningless.
The government’s statement underlined that Turkey would fully support Azerbaijan with unwavering solidarity and “stand by Azerbaijan whichever way it prefers.” Turkey’s stance illustrates a broader change in Turkish foreign policy that is driven by lost trust in international diplomacy, a greater willingness to get directly involved in regional conflicts with a view to acquiring relevance and influence, and an urge to capitalize on the domestic popularity of these moves.
Turkey’s position on Nagorno-Karabakh can firstly be explained by the close emotional and identity ties linking Turkey and Azerbaijan. Turks and Azerbaijanis speak closely related languages and consider themselves part of a greater Turkic family extending all the way to Central Asia. In addition, Turkey has been firm in its criticism of the international community’s stance.
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.N. and Western powers have repeatedly reacted harshly to attempts by nation-states—such as Iraq under President Saddam Hussein or Russia under President Vladimir Putin—to acquire territory by force. Turkey contends that in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, the international reaction has been much more muted and is tantamount to a clear double standard.
The conflict in the Azerbaijani territory degenerated into armed struggle between Azerbaijan and Armenia in 1991. It ended with the occupation of the region and even additional neighboring zones by Armenian units, leading to the internal displacement of close to 1 million people. The occupied territories correspond to some 20 percent of Azerbaijan’s total land area, compelling Turkey to close its border with Armenia in 1993. Yet Ankara has argued that despite this tragic outcome, too much trust was placed in the dysfunctional mechanism of the Minsk Group led by France, Russia, and the United States to steer the parties toward a settlement for too long.
Turkey’s political support for Azerbaijan also comes in the wake of an era of deepened economic and especially military cooperation. Turkey has been instrumental in the reform of the Azerbaijani military with advisors and regular training programs, as well as the transfer of strategic assets such as armed drones. Azerbaijan has further enriched its arsenal by acquiring similar airborne platforms from Israel. The impact has become visible since the beginning of the most recent military campaign in Nagorno-Karabakh, with the Azerbaijani units’ vastly improved performance compared with previous confrontations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has stated the only solution to the conflict can come about by the full withdrawal of the Armenian forces from Karabakh and the occupied territories of Azerbaijan. But this claimed objective risks opening yet another theater of confrontation between Turkey and Russia. So far Moscow has been conspicuously unfazed. Compared with Turkey, Russia has a more delicate balancing act to uphold. Despite a historical and religious penchant for ties with Armenia, Moscow needs to sustain its political ties with Azerbaijan.
Russia is known to sell arms to both countries. It may also be that Moscow is looking to weaken the government of Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan in Yerevan, which it finds to be too friendly to the West. But ultimately, it is clear that Moscow will seek to draw a line in Nagorno-Karabakh. It can hardly countenance Azerbaijan’s recovery of the territory by force. Depending on where and when the line is drawn, Turkey-Russia relations could again deteriorate. If they do, Nagorno-Karabakh could become yet another theater of militarized dispute involving Turkey, in addition to ongoing and unsettled conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean.
The world is currently witnessing a transformation in Turkish foreign and security policy. Ankara has become a more assertive foreign-policy actor. It is now more inclined to rely on its hard power and to get directly involved in regional conflicts. There is therefore a need to understand the drivers of this change—and to question whether Ankara’s growing exposure to regional conflicts is really sustainable.
There are at least three different explanations. The first relates to the global order. The diplomatic divestment of the United States from Europe in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood has created a power vacuum that could have potentially made the EU a more influential foreign and security actor in its near abroad. And yet the EU has so far failed to overcome its internal divisions. Turkey has taken advantage of this strategic shortcoming.
The second driver is the political ideology of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Erdogan. The AKP leadership has severely criticized Turkey’s former rulers and blamed them for pursuing a foreign policy of the status quo too closely aligned with U.S. interests. In return, Erdogan has promised Turkey to return to its former imperial glory, at the very least by becoming an influential regional actor. Sometimes referred as “neo-Ottomanism,” this policy has nonetheless captured the imagination of the Turkish electorate. The electorate responded enthusiastically to making Turkey “great again” against the backdrop of accumulated frustrations with the country’s relationship with the West.
The never-ending ambivalence of European countries on Turkey’s accession to the EU, combined with the palpable rise in anti-Americanism within Turkey—especially after the botched coup attempt of 2016, coupled with the U.S. decision to weaponize the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, as its ally in the fight against the Islamic State—had already created a domestic public opinion deeply skeptical about Turkey’s relations with the West. The alliance that has emerged since 2015 between the AKP and the hypernationalist Nationalist Movement Party further facilitated this shift. Finally, Erdogan’s illiberal turn at home has tarnished mutual trust and the prospects of a mature dialogue with Turkey’s established Western partners.
Foreign policy has thus become an essential part of the story of Turkey’s rise. It has also been used to justify the more combative rhetoric that has come to dominate the foreign-policy discourse of the Turkish leadership in recent years. According to this logic, it was because Turkey was rising that the country was being challenged on all fronts by foreign actors. Whenever the country’s currency came under pressure, voters were told it was because of foreign governments or shadowy international cabals resentful of Turkey’s economic growth. Likewise, Turkey’s isolation in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East is explained as an inevitable outcome of Turkey’s rise to regional prominence.
The final explanation relates to day-to-day politics. There is a legitimate question about whether Turkey can afford the ever-increasing number of theaters where it has military exposure. Especially at a time when the country’s economy remains under duress because of the shock of the coronavirus and the lack of reforms to address long-running structural imbalances.
Since reaching a peak of $951 billion in 2013, Turkey’s gross domestic product has reversed its growth trend, falling to $754 billion in 2019 in nominal terms—a drop of $200 billion, nearly the size of the GDP of Greece, in six years. The lackluster performance of the economy has had a political impact on the AKP’s popularity at home. According to the pollster Metropoll, support for the AKP had fallen to 31 percent in August 2020—a significant drop from the 43 percent of votes the party received in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
But those who wonder whether a weak economy will eventually curb Erdogan’s activist foreign policy may be asking the wrong question. As Turkey’s involvement in Syria, Libya, and now Nagorno-Karabakh have shown, the economy may not be a constraint on the conduct of Turkey’s hard-power foreign policy, but rather its source.
The conflicts perpetuate the perception that Turkey is a country under siege, being continually attacked by malign actors. They nurture the need for strong leadership. But more importantly, they create a false dichotomy and compel the electorate to choose between economic well-being and national security. That is the dilemma facing Turkey’s policymakers today.
A foreign policy that gives priority to combative rhetoric, hard power, and maligning the West can be politically useful in the short term, but remains incompatible with the long-term requirement of stabilizing the economy. And yet it is the country’s economic performance that will ultimately determine the fate of the next national political contest when the time comes.