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A nation must think before it acts.
For the past century, Turkey’s foreign policy has been driven by the need to preserve the achievements of the Lausanne Treaty in the face of often serious threats from major powers. As a result, Turkey was a predominantly status quo country, and its relations with neighboring states were largely shaped by its place in broader geopolitical struggles. With the end of the Cold War, however, and the subsequent growth of Turkey’s economic, military and diplomatic strength, this has changed. Turkish foreign policy has begun to focus on reshaping the regional order in accordance with its growing desire for influence. Going forward, the nature of Ankara’s efforts, and the response they provoke from Turkey’s neighbors, will be an increasingly crucial factor in determining Turkey’s relations with the United States and Europe. Turkey’s new dynamics will remain a source of tension under any future Turkish government, but they need not, if managed well by all sides, lead to a lasting rift between Turkey and the West. The more deeply embroiled Turkey becomes in disputes with key US allies from Western Europe to the Persian Gulf, the more difficult it will be for Washington and Ankara to have a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship. And the more Turkey views itself as a revisionist power, the more it will come into conflict with America’s allies. As a result, it is more important than ever for US policymakers to understand the historic trajectory of Turkey’s place in its region.
Turkey emerged from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire as a status quo power, an orientation that it maintained for the better part of the last hundred years. Though the new country had been shorn of its former territories in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East, it had also forcefully defeated foreign efforts to occupy the territory of Anatolia itself. For modern Turkey’s founders, the success in avoiding complete colonization far outweighed the failure to preserve the full geographic scope of the Ottoman Empire. As a result, they forged a pragmatic foreign policy tradition that prioritized preserving their achievement: a Turkish state sovereign and secure within its current borders. This goal remained constant over a long and turbulent 20th century, even as its implications changed, and allowed for Ankara to be flexible about which countries to work with to maximize its self-declared interests. In the inter-war period, when threats came largely from powerful European empires like France, Italy, and Britain, the defense of Turkish sovereignty called for a policy of neutrality and non-alignment. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, however, Turkey’s geopolitical position changed dramatically. Suddenly, the Soviet Union emerged as the most direct and dangerous threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. In this new strategic context, seeking the support of the United States and NATO became the only feasible way to preserve the imperiled status quo, equip the country’s armed forces, and ultimately defend its borders. The result was a strong and mutually beneficial alliance with the United States and much of Europe.
The success of this alliance, however, sometimes obscured the complex, constantly evolving and often paradoxical relationship between Turkey’s status quo orientation and its historically-grounded relationships with regional states. The circumstances surrounding the collapse of the Ottoman Empire created a bitter legacy, giving almost all of Turkey’s neighbors both emotional and practical reasons to feel hostility towards it. With other countries that shared a commitment to the status quo, however, Ankara had equally good reason to overcome this animosity. For countries that found themselves on the wrong side of Turkey’s geopolitical alignment, by contrast, these resentments and unresolved problems were consistently exacerbated.
The history of Turkey’s regional relationships can be read through the ever-shifting dynamics of power politics and unsettled history. In the case of Greece, for example, Ankara and Athens began an ambitious rapprochement in the 1930s when they both felt their security was threatened by Italian irredentism in the Eastern Mediterranean. When this shared threat was supplanted by the Soviet Union, the two countries were brought into an even closer alignment under the NATO umbrella. Soon though, the growing rebellion against British rule on Cyprus rendered the status quo unsustainable, leaving Athens and Ankara with radically divergent views on what should come next. Only in this context were a number of longstanding questions re-opened, such as maritime borders and the status of historic minorities in both countries. Crucially, even as tensions over Cyprus worsened, both sides still had Washington to help remind them of their shared security interests. Throughout the Cold War, the United States was in a position to manage Turkish-Greek tensions in order to pre-empt the risk of an intra-NATO war between two allies that would benefit the Soviets. In other words, by acting as a forceful advocate for the status quo, Washington helped ensure that both Greece and Turkey maintained their shared commitment to it.
With the end of the Cold War and the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, Turkey embraced not just a new foreign policy but a new foreign policy orientation. Ankara is no longer interested in maintaining the status quo—it now wants to transform it. Just as Turkey’s status quo orientation led to different policies as circumstances change, Turkey’s new anti-status quo orientation has also led Erdoğan’s government to pursue different strategies. But to make sense of these shifts, and the reaction they have provoked in the region, it is crucial to appreciate that, no less than in the previous century, Turkey’s neighbors have responded in light of their history but also, more importantly, their own orientation toward the regional status quo.