Turkey’s foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been marked by a significant reorientation from a long entrenched passive and isolationist stance to one of active engagement particularly in the affairs of the Middle East. This dramatic change in foreign policy outlook has become more pronounced since Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002.
The AKP foreign policy-makers have envisioned Turkey as holding multiple roles in world politics, though these were previously thought of as incompatible. Turkey’s continuing commitments to involvement with the West, while deepening connections with the Middle East, Latin America, Asia and Africa constitute the hallmarks of the new foreign policy vision.
Students of Turkish foreign policy since 2002 point out one person as the brain behind the foreign policy of the AKP governments: Ahmet Davutoglu. He was the chief foreign policy advisor (2003-2009) to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan before his appointment as foreign minister in May 2009. It is imperative to understand Mr Davutoglu’s concept of strategic depth, expounded in his 2001 book (reviewed in the July 2010 issue of Pragati) as it has come to guide Turkish foreign policy.
According to Mr Davutoglu, Turkish foreign policy now has a visionary approach, not a crisis-oriented approach with a consistent, systematic framework. This means Turkey’s involvement or relations in one area should not be seen as a contrast to others. Therefore, Turkey’s endeavour to develop political and economic relations with the Middle East, Asia and Africa is not an alternative to its European vocation and its strong intention to join the European Union. Turkey also has a new style, in the sense of political rhetoric, tools and instruments in foreign relations, which is essentially about soft power.
‘The balance between security and freedom’ and ‘zero problems with neighbours’ are frequently cited as the operational principles of the new foreign policy. As part of this, Turkey has developed economic and political relations with all neighbouring countries. In regional affairs, Turkey has usually employed proactive peace diplomacy. Turkish efforts for Sunni-Shiite reconciliation in Iraq since 2005, domestic reconciliation in Lebanon in 2008 and reconciliation negotiations between Serbia and Bosnia since 2009 can be seen as examples of pragmatic soft power policy in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood. Recent formal requests for mediation from different parts of the world like Somalia and Philippines indicate the possible future involvement of Turkey in other regions too. Turkey’s efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue resulted in a joint declaration in May.
Turkey sees relations with India, China and other rising powers as a part of its own re-orientation in changing global political economy. With increasing democratisation, prosperity and decreasing role of military in politics, Turks are becoming more self-confident in regional and global politics. That is the biggest change which helps to understand Turkey’s new-found international and regional activism in solving problems and bringing a new order.
Turkey and India: Beyond Cyprus and Pakistan?
History is the mirror of future. A strong historical connection between Indians and Turks exists dating back to the medieval era. India’s help in the Turkey’s War for Independence in the 1920s is alive in Turkish memory. The original financing of Is Bankasi, the country’s biggest bank, came from India. However, Turkey and India had different preferences during the Cold War; one sided with the West while the other led the non-alignment movement. In the post-Cold War era, a new definition of bilateral and global political cooperation is needed both at regional and international level.
A general picture indicates that Turkey has looked at India through the prism of Pakistan, and India has similarly done so through the prism of Cyprus and strong Turkey-Pakistan relations. At a minimum, these conceptions are outdated and no longer help understand the new existing developments between the two countries. For example, since early 2000s Turkey-India trade relations have increased significantly, although they are still far from reaching their full potential. From $429 million in 2001, bilateral trade between both the countries grew to $3 billion in 2008. Though global economic crisis affected this increasing trend, decreasing bilateral trade to $2.3 billion in 2009, both countries are showing signs of resuming stronger economic ties and a possible free trade agreement in the near future. Meanwhile, political and societal relations between the two have also undergone a transformation.
Turkey’s interest has been emphasised by the president’s visit to India in February 2010 at the head of a large delegation. India’s response has been mild so far, largely due to Turkey’s relations with Pakistan. However, the new Turkey no longer appears to be interested in formulating its Asian policy based on Pakistan, as was the case a decade ago. Turkish officials are worried about the future of Pakistan as a possible failed state. Ankara has softened its pro-Pakistani approach to the Kashmir issue. On terrorism, Turkey seems to get closer to the Indian approach in opposing all kind of terrorism without any reference to ‘root cause’.
On societal level, Turkey is becoming an important tourist destination for Indians. In 2009, 50,000 Indians visited Turkey and since July 2010 a new visa policy towards Indian citizens aims to achieve 1 million tourist arrivals from India. Those who have valid US or Schengen visa can get a Turkish visa at the port of entry.
There are two major obstacles to improving Turkish-Indian relations. The most persistent issue is the lack of information, both at the popular and the elite levels. The problem is deep-seated and requires time for an efficacious resolution. However, three strategies could be implemented: a student exchange programme; more frequent exchange of academics and researchers between universities; and co-operation between Indian and Turkish think-thanks in organising joint conferences and publications on Turkish and Indian socio-political issues.
Second is the lack of a international dynamic in Turkey-India relations. Both Turkey and India are rising powers but they co-operate at the global level – such as in the G-20 – in a limited way. Turkey could develop close relations with, and perhaps participate in inter-continental groupings like the India- Brazil-South Africa Dialogue Forum. This is the best way to attach a larger international dimension to Turkey-India relations. Considering the Turkey-Brazil co-operation over Iran’s nuclear programme, similar co-operation between Turkey and India should not be seen outside of reach.
In short, what will define the future of Turkey-India relations is not Cyprus or Pakistan, but an emphasis on mutual strengthening of economy and providing an environment for mutual understanding. Creating a stable bilateral political interaction and recognising mutual threats and opportunities will also accelerate this process.