When the recent history is analyzed, it could be said that Turkey’s political and economic relations with the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have progressed at a limited level. Given Turkey’s long and common historical background with MENA countries, it could be stated that this restricted level of relations stand largely awkward.
From a more detailed point of view, it could be said that there are not concrete reasons for Turkey to be so distant from this region for such a long time.
Above all, the long-lasting domination of the Ottoman heritage (which has been taken over by Turkey) can still be seen in the MENA area. What’s more, unlike the reignin the Balkans, this domination did not come to an end resulting in a series of problems. Additionally, the existence of a common religion shared by hundreds of millions of people should also be emphasized in this sense. Within this scope, a vast majority of the people in the region and a large amount of the Turkish people belong to Islam. Culture wise as well, people in Turkey and MENA countries do not show considerable differences.
Therefore, it is poignant to ask this question here: Despite this historical background and common points, then why Turkey and countries and people of the region have undergone a process of alienation? In other words, contrary to the expectations of a rapprochement between Turkey and the region, why did an atmosphere arise where the shared history has been ignored? It could be said for certain that decisions of both sides have played an influential role in the formation of such an alienation process. Nevertheless, when the matter is taken into account from the perspective of Turkey only, it could be said that priorities of the Turkish foreign politics and basic dynamics of the international system have been determinant factors in country’s being distant from the MEDA region.
Thus, Turkey’s indifference to the MENA region cannot only be explained through the preferences of the country. In fact, it would not be appropriate to confine foreign politics to neither inside nor outside of a country. To put it differently, foreign politics is neither the only activity field of internal and domestic players nor is it wholly the result or imposition of the external dynamics and players. To James Rosenau, a famous theorist in the field of international relations, foreign politics is a field that comes into being with the combination of international politics and domestic politics and it is rather loose and has no exact borders. In international relations terms, this field almost always refers to power and authority. In other words, when either power or this field is referred to, one inevitably calls to mind the other.
Form this point of view, at the point where domestic mingles with international, a frontier appears. This frontier is exactly the domain of international field. In a practical sense, it means that foreign policy activities are shaped by the domestic preferences, dynamics, parameters, and priorities of the international relations system. That is to say, foreign policy decisions are certainly the combination and common product of preferences and systemic priorities and dynamics alike.
It would be of utmost importance to evaluate the foreign politics of the new Turkish state (which was built upon the Ottoman heritage) from this perspective and try to understand why it has remained distant from North Africa and the Middle East within this context. The newly established Turkey had two crucial foreign policy determinants; these are both reflected in the domestic dynamics and preferences of the country, influenced by the international system and conjuncture of the day. The real matter for the newly established Turkey was to ensure its security. This was also the requirement of the fragile post war period, or the Versailles order. The then new system, which was planned to meet French demands and desires, inevitably included revisionist forces as well. These forces were the ones that were not satisfied with the new system and were in the quest of expansionist wishes. Some of these posed a threat for Turkey as well. For Turkey, which was in line with the maintenance of the status quo, it was necessary to focus on security and look for “peace at home, peace in the world.”
Due to this necessity, Turkey preferred to be closer to the non-revisionist governments of the period. Another factor making this preference meaningful and obligatory was the wish to build the new Turkey as a nation state. Within this scope, Atatürk wanted to see the new republic in a Western model nation state. This is, in fact, not a drastically radical decision considering that, as of the mid 19th century, the Ottomans were already a state in a Western sense within the international system. The international system had also already stood rather Western-oriented until the beginning of the 20th century. To put it differently, the geography outside of the Europe was not part of the international system. Thus, the Ottomans, as the player within the then system, and of course Turkey, as the continuation of the Ottomans, became inevitably intertwined with the West.
Consequently, Turkey’s preference to be close with the West could be defined as largely being dependent on systemic reasons; the country’s concerns over security are also closely related to the priorities and parameters of this system. Its security concerns had been able to be settled in this period thanks to Westernization. The same case applies to the post-World War II period as well. In the newly emerged system, Turkey underwent security concerns again. Within this scope, the only thing that changed had been the source of the concern. It was no longer Italy or Bulgaria that caused grave concerns for the country, but instead, afterwards it was the Soviet Union and Greece. Likewise, the way how to overcome these security concerns did not change either. Turkey, once again, needed the help of the West. Unlike the priorities and preferences of the pre-war period, this time, the real addressee was the US (United States). Similarly, this time Westernization for Turkey had been in the form of being within the Western institutions.
In this period as well, Turkey was an important player of the system and had to make its choices in compliance with the realities imposed by the system itself and determine its position accordingly. This does not mean that the entire preferences of Turkey during this period were correct. In general, under the reasons why Turkey adopted such a foreign policy in this period for sure lie systemic factors and in the same vein, internal dynamic and priorities of the country had been influential in this sense. However, in the implementation of this policy, there had been sometimes mistakes in finding the optimal degree and method for the foreign policy. For instance, the fact that Turkey had been in line with France during the independence process of Algeria was a considerable mistake. It could be said that Turkey had to make a choice and had to be indifferent to North Africa and the Middle East since it wanted to be within the Western institutions. Nevertheless, there had been material mistakes in such specific issues as it was seen been in the case of Algeria.
Following the second World War and with the disintegration of the Soviet Union after the Cold War, the system once again went through a transformation process. That is to say, a new opportunity appeared for a new order to emerge within the system. In this new period, even though security still has showed importance, it has been less important compared to the Cold War period. In parallel to this, preferences of the Western players have also changed. This has, in turn, necessitated a redefinition for the relations between Turkey and the West. In this redefinition, less emphasis has been attached to Turkey’s security priorities.
Here, it should be noted that Turkey found the chance of paying attention to the MENA region and developing policies towards this region. To put it differently, systemic forces or impositions in the new system did not prevent Turkey from dealing with this region. Hence, this new period provided Turkey with an opportunity in this sense. However, Turkey was not able to make use of this conjunctural opportunity, as the Turkish foreign politics was relatively mismanaged.
As for today, it could be said that this situation has further changed. Turkey can make use of opportunities and make its preferences accordingly. Among its preferences, the Middle East and North Africa are also included. From now on, rather than a security-based foreign politics, Turkey has the chance of developing a foreign policy which aims at strengthening economic relations and focuses on regional welfare and peace.
Translated by Hacer Şartepe