July 8, 2016 | The Cipher Brief

Erdogan’s Weathervane Foreign Policy

On June 27, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey would be normalizing relations with Israel and Russia. This 180-degree policy shift came after his outreach to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, two countries with which Ankara has squabbled over the Arab Spring and the Muslim Brotherhood. Now there is talk among government circles that Erdogan might be ready to initiate a reconciliation process with Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The question now is, do Erdogan’s maneuvers represent a coherent ideology or is his wavering foreign policy simply an expression of his goal to establish one-man rule at home?

Thirteen years of rule by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has steered Turkey from its traditional Western-oriented trans-Atlantic foreign policy. In stark contrast to the 80 years of secular-republican diplomacy, Erdogan has combined the rhetoric of pan-Islamism and neo-Ottomanism with the pragmatism of trade diplomacy and transactionalism. This explosive mix, along with the Turkish president’s personal self-righteousness, has been a recipe for inconsistency and embarrassment.

Erdogan has made a career out of anti-European tirades yet didn’t hesitate to court the European Union (EU) when it served his domestic agenda of counterbalancing the military and the judiciary. Neither did he shy away from reaching out to Russian President Vladimir Putin in November 2013 to allow Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Ironically, on the second anniversary of Erdogan’s reaching out to Putin, Turkey downed a Russian jet on its Syrian border, leading to a seven-month crisis with Moscow and pushing Ankara back to the EU to try to get leverage against Moscow.

Erdogan’s diplomatic zigzags raised suspicions about the sustainability of the AKP’s foreign policy. As the rift between rhetoric and performance grew wider, so critiques of Erdogan’s adventurism became more vocal. As early as 2012, Richard Falk, a controversial Princeton professor, wrote in Foreign Policy Journal that Ankara must push the “reset button” on a foreign policy characterized by “an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other.” In the run-up to the 2014 presidential election, which saw Erdogan move from being Prime Minister to president, some analysts saw an overhaul of Turkey’s “train wreck” foreign policy as unlikely, while others thought his new position could serve as an opportunity for reset. That long-awaited reset seems to have finally arrived this June.

To optimists, the diplomatic troubles of the last decade served as a learning experience for Erdogan – a former Istanbul mayor who spoke no foreign languages and received no formal training in diplomacy – in the nuances of realpolitik. For proponents of this view, if Erdogan continues on this current trajectory of rebuilding bridges, he can steer Turkey out of the mess which he brought to the country in the first place.

For Erdogan’s devotees, however, his flip-flop is simply an adaptation to the changing global context in line with the AKP’s game plan. As Erdogan supporter Burhanettin Duran recently argued in a Daily Sabah article, it was understandable for Turkey to use “big words” at the height of the Arab revolutions, but the president’s rhetoric “never got in the way of rational calculations.” He therefore warned that those who believe Ankara’s quest for regional dominance has ended are in for a surprise.

A better analysis would place Erdogan’s foreign policy vacillations as part of a fight to survive in a hostile domestic setting. Erdogan, after all, managed to survive coup attemptsparty closure casesgraft probeseconomic crises, and intra-party spatsfor the last 13 years. Just as he skillfully turned former allies into enemies and vice versa, he used the same tricks abroad with an eye on the next ballot box – whether local, national, presidential, or constitutional referenda. Behind his firebrand Islamist rhetoric, Erdogan’s actual foreign policy could reasonably be construed as merely an outgrowth of domestic calculations.

After 13 years in power, Erdogan resembles a diplomatic weathervane. Ultimately, he might be as puzzled as the pundits who struggle to decipher each of his foreign policy volte-faces. The great secret to the weathervane could simply be that it points in no particular direction, but swivels and swings with the changing wind.

Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015). He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief.  Erdemir holds a PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, and is co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge).