Warming up Turkey: The importance of economic engagement

Throughout the Cold War, Turkey was recognized as a solid and reliable member of the Western-led world order. More recently, however, Turkish priorities and preferences have drifted away from those of its traditional transatlantic allies. In Syria, Turkish policies have clashed with those of the United States, particularly since the rise of the Islamic State (also know as ISIS or ISIL). The Turkish government has insisted on prioritizing regime change in Syria over defeating ISIS, leading some to even advocate for Turkey’s expulsion from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey’s muted response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine, coupled with its enthusiasm for closer economic relations with Russia, have raised questions over Turkey’s commitment to the values defining liberal Western order.

Turkey’s drift away from its Western moorings began with the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, followed by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008. Turkish leaders began to believe that the West was weak and that Turkey no longer needed or wanted a Western anchor. Slowly but surely, Turkey’s governing elite charted a course increasingly independent of their transatlantic partners on a wide range issues. In 2010, for example, Turkey voted against a United Nations Security Council resolution on Iran sponsored by the United States. More recently, Turkey refrained from joining sanctions against Russia and avoided enlisting in the military coalition against ISIS. 

Domestically, this transformation was driven by a newly found confidence that the governing elite (first elected in 2002) drew from successive electoral victories and Turkey’s strong economic performance. Unlike the previous governments, they did not bind themselves to the traditional precepts of Turkish foreign policy, like non-involvement in the domestic affairs of third countries and a commitment to the transatlantic alliance. They increasingly encouraged a stronger bond to Arab and Muslim countries. The 2011 Arab Spring and the manner in which Turkey was touted as a model boosted the temptation for an independent foreign policy course.

The Turkish government sought closer relations with countries like Brazil, Russia, India, and China and aspired to join their ranks. As protests in Kyiv in November 2013 unfolded in support of a Ukraine with closer ties to the EU, Turkey’s then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to admit Turkey into the Russian-led Eurasian Union. Erdoğan declared Turkey was tired of waiting to join the EU. 

His words resonated with widely-held public frustration in Turkey towards the EU. According to the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF) 2010 Transatlantic Trends Survey, support in Turkey for the idea that “EU membership is a good thing” plummeted from 73 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2010. These widely held public opinions also helped legitimize the enthusiasm with which the Turkish government supported the Arab Spring and opposed the Assad regime in Syria. The belief that a new “order” would be emerging in the Middle East also justified the souring of relations with a string of regional governments from Egypt and Israel to Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

These developments unfolded at a time when Turkey’s government was adopting domestic policies which increasingly undermined its democratic credentials abroad. Turkey’s positive image quickly eroded as many in the region questioned its policies and motives. Turkey appeared as an actor not so different from those contributing to the post-Arab Spring chaos throughout the region. The Turkish government attributed its growing isolation in the region and failure to influence events to its highly ethical and moral foreign policy principles, which they labeled “precious loneliness.” Despite this bleak situation, there is an opportunity to bring Turkey back into the transatlantic community and help it play a more constructive role in the region. The reality is that Turkey’s independent course has clearly failed. It is now surrounded by an arc of chaos stretching across the Black Sea to the Middle East. This degree of disorder is naturally pushing it closer to its erstwhile Western allies. 

Less well understood than the dire security situation is that Turkey’s foreign trade has also been adversely affected by the chaos in the region. Turkish exports to the Middle East have dropped significantly over the last few years and a similar trend is emerging with Russia and Ukraine. In contrast, Turkey’s exports to the United States and the EU, as well as to Israel, continue to rise. Foreign trade is critical to the well-being of the Turkish economy since it amounts to almost 50 percent of its gross domestic product. The time is ripe to engage Turkey and re-anchor it in the transatlantic community. The best place to start is with economics and foreign trade. In March, Turkey and the EU formally agreed to work towards upgrading their customs union and expand it beyond just trade in manufactured goods into agriculture, service and public procurement sectors. Today, the customs union is increasingly seen as one of the most strategically significant steps taken in integrating Turkey into the global economy. The United States should support upgrading it.

Turkey is also now seeking inclusion in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). There is now broad recognition that TTIP, if concluded, will adversely impact Turkey as well as a number of pro-Western countries like Canada, Mexico, Norway, and Switzerland that have close trade relations with the EU or the United States. It has become clear that TTIP negotiations will not be expanded to include these countries. But the United States can play a constructive role by ensuring that TTIP does eventually include provisions allowing these countries to join as long as they meet TTIP standards. In Turkey’s case, the United States can signal that the successful conclusion of an upgraded customs union with the EU would open the doors to a bilateral free trade agreement with the United States. A Turkey more economically integrated with the transatlantic community will also be more constructive on the difficult issues in its neighborhood. Now is the time to reengage Turkey in the search for order in its neighborhood. If the West starts with economic engagement, the rest is sure to follow.