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The Current State of Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Professor Doga Eralp describes the current state of affairs in Turkey and what the US-Turkey relationship might look like during a Biden administration.

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Over the past few years, Turkey, under the continued leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has undergone drastic shifts when it comes to its foreign policy as it has made global headlines with its involvement in conflicts around the Middle East and Eurasia. Also, although Turkey has no official religion per a constitutional amendment in 1928, it has undergone changes that undermine its status as a secular country. We spoke with SIS professor Doga Eralp to learn more about the current state of affairs in Turkey as well as what the US-Turkey relationship might look like during a Biden administration.

Under President and former prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s foreign policy has changed drastically, and the country is now involved in numerous conflicts globally. What was Turkey’s foreign policy like before Erdoğan, and what is his reasoning for involving Turkey in several theaters of conflict?
The Erdoğan government had followed a more independent orientation to its foreign policy making and implementation after the US gradually and strategically removed its presence in the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, starting with the Arab Spring. Before 2010—during the first Erdoğan era of 2001-2012—Turkey positioned itself as a traditional strategic ally of the US in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Turkey's support of US initiatives in Libya and Syria attests to that alliance. However, especially in the latter half of the Obama administration and later during the Trump years, Ankara decided to go it alone and build on its own military technology and strategic preferences without consulting the US.
Turkey is a critical member of NATO, and its relations with NATO allies have become strained over the years. Why have these tensions with NATO arisen and what are the implications of them?
Ankara's divergence from NATO started soon after Trump's announcement that the US was no longer willing to leverage NATO to further American interests in the Middle East and against Russia. By 2016, Turkey's policies in war-torn Syria had to be recalibrated in coordination with the Russian troops on the ground. This later evolved into a transfer of the Russian S-400 missile defense system into Turkish Armed Forces, who by the virtue of their NATO membership can only use NATO-approved weapons systems. Furthermore, Turkey's gas drilling explorations in the East Mediterranean put Ankara recently at odds with two other NATO members—France and Greece—and led to a state of regional cold war in the region with Turkish warships escorting the drilling stations against any military intimidation by fellow NATO countries.
Another big change under Erdoğan is a shift away from secularism. Why is the country becoming more religious? Do you believe the official status of Turkey as a secular nation will ever change (constitutional amendment), or will Erdoğan simply move Turkey in a direction where it is secular in name only?
Turkey is becoming more nationalist with very strong Islamist undertones. This is a consequence of Erdoğan's alliance with the ultra-nationalist Grey Wolves organization, which developed after the Kurdish peace process collapsed in 2015. While the majority of Turks are turning more nationalist, interestingly, the society is embracing secularism as a way of life now more than ever in reaction to widespread corruption by Erdoğan-appointed Islamist bureaucrats. Turkey's secular system seems to be much stronger at the societal level now, as Islamism is seen as synonymous with corruption in the public eye.
What is the US’s relationship with Turkey like now, and what might it be like during the Biden administration?
Since the end of World War II, Turkey-US relations have been mostly shaped by a mutual understanding of strategic preferences on both sides. Trump was quite envious of Erdoğan's autocratic ways and had built very close business connections through his immediate family members. Biden comes from a more conventional democratic tradition of emphasizing human rights in the US's foreign policy orientation and will make it known to Ankara that the White House will not be tolerating such widespread systemic violations of individual liberties. However, it is fair to expect both sides will reset the relationship. Erdoğan already started taking certain steps in accommodating possible future criticisms by the Biden Administration and sacked two of his ministers who have problematic pasts with the US.