Burak Bekdil – The Dynamics of Policy, Ideology, and Personality in Turkish Foreign Policy

Burak Bekdil is a Turkish columnist writing for Hurriyet Daily News. Also, he has covered Turkey for U.S. weekly Defense News. Previously, Bekdil worked as Ankara Bureau Chief separately for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He contributes to annual national defense sector reviews for anti-corruption institutions like Transparency International and Global Integrity.

In his lecture for Club Turkey, Mr. Bekdil said that for the first time in Turkish political history, Erdoğan’s AKP government made the average Turk a part of the foreign policy-making process. By regularly measuring the pulse of the masses through opinion polls, which included questions on the various aspects of Turkish foreign policy, the AKP government imparted a sense of importance to ordinary citizens. This fact is further augmented by the “feel-good atmosphere” as a result of Turkey’s transformation from a “Mr. Nobody” in world politics to a regional power house.

Mr. Bekdil argued that Turkey’s bold foreign policy choices have proved to be a cure for the country’s “collective inferiority complex.” Therefore, one of the reasons for Erdoğan’s success is his realization that people enjoy being a part of policy-making and not be mere spectators as they used to be. (During the 1990s, people had very little interest in Turkey’s foreign policy. They even did not know who their foreign ministers were. News on foreign policy had minimal coverage in the media. This stands in stark contrast to today when daily newspapers devote at least two full pages to foreign policy issues.)

By pumping news to the media regarding Turkey’s initiative to produce its own national defense products instead of relying on Western ones, the AKP government harvests popular support. In addition to its populist foreign policy choices, this also has the potential to positively affect future election results.

Despite its hawkish stance on certain foreign policy issues, as seen in its attitude towards Israel, Turkey’s foreign policy can also be defined as pragmatic. Once the Turkish government realized that China was “too big to bite,” Turkey dropped all mention of the oppression of ethnic Uighur Turks by China.

The increasingly more conservative characteristics of Turkish society have foreign policy repercussions in that AKP government’s choices find much more grassroots support.

AKP makes its foreign policy choices through the lens of religion. Both Erdoğan’s and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s rhetoric reflects this phenomenon. Their ideas are shaped by the memories of a nostalgic Ottoman past and on this basis, they set out to “correct the flow of history” and to “resurrect Turkey’s past glory.” One major obstacle for this ambitious plan is that AKP thinks in terms of the Ottoman Empire’s heterogeneous past and ignores the reality of the Turkish nation-state.

Mr. Bekdil said he does not think that much will change in the near future in Turkish foreign policy choices, especially when Erdoğan is expected to become Turkey’s first executive president in 2014.