Comment & analysis

What next for Turkey?

12 April 2013 Thomas Wheeler

Turkey is playing an increasing role in conflict-affected and fragile states. In this blog Thomas Wheeler shares his thoughts from a recent Saferworld trip to find out more about Turkish foreign policy.

In March, Saferworld programme and policy staff visited Turkey with a long list of contacts and an even longer list of questions. We wanted to find out more about Turkish foreign policy, particularly towards conflict-affected states, building on our similar engagement in China and India (part of Saferworld’s rising powers programme).

Turkey had nearly 7% average annual economic growth between 2002 and 2011, and is the world’s 18th largest economy. With growing economic ties with the rest of the world, Ankara’s diplomatic reach is progressing at an equally rapid pace – in 2009, Turkey’s Foreign Minister announced the opening of 33 new embassies alongside an increase of budget and personnel for his Ministry. In 2012, a year when deficits were forcing traditional donors to cut aid, Turkey increased its official development assistance by an enormous 98%. Much of this aid has gone to states affected by conflict, where Turkish NGOs – that raise money from a now more prosperous public – also operate.

For the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has stated that it wants the country to be in the ranks of the world’s top ten powers by 2023, Turkey is a rising global power. This ambition is primarily driven by its economic, cultural and historical ties across a wide – and often unstable - landscape that spans Central Asia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, North Africa and the Horn. Some commentators have referred to this strategy of influence as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’, a label the AKP flatly rejects. For them, Turkey is a key power because of its ability to provide innovative solutions, a result of its close and unique understanding of the region’s problems.

Conflict-affected states loomed large in all of our conversations. The AKP has sought to base its foreign policy on a “pro-active and pre-emptive peace diplomacy”, as seen in its attempt to mediate between Israel and Palestine, or its training of police in Libya. Other examples are its capacity building of Afghan provincial governors, its recently supportive stance in favour of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, its participation in peacekeeping in Sudan, and its hosting of international meetings on Somalia. In 2011 the Prime Minister and his whole family even visited Mogadishu at a time when very few other heads of state would consider the same. In short, unlike other rising powers, Turkey is by no means shy about engaging on conflict-related issues in other countries.

Unsurprisingly, the crisis in Syria is currently a pressing issue, from the universities of Istanbul and the buzzing offices of Islamic humanitarian organisations, to the plush confines of influential think tanks in Ankara. Also hotly debated is Turkey’s influence on the progress and turbulence of the Arab Spring. This includes nearby countries where Saferworld works, such as Egypt, Yemen and Libya, but conversations also touched on relations with Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Kosovo and Bosnia.

While its ambitious foreign policy agenda has certainly faced setbacks, caused both by capacity constraints and factors beyond its own control, Turkey’s leadership appears resolved to remain in the international spotlight. In fact, chewing over our thoughts in the departure lounge of Istanbul Atatürk airport, one thing was clear – Turkey’s engagement in conflict-affected states is only going to deepen.

Thomas Wheeler is Conflict and Security Advisor at Saferworld.

Read more about Saferworld's work on rising powers.

“Turkey is by no means shy about engaging on conflict-related issues in other countries”

Thomas Wheeler