(Bloomberg Opinion) — In 2010, Turkey’s “Zero Problems” foreign-policy doctrine was the marvel of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country was using diplomacy and commerce to develop cordial — or at least civil — relations, not only in its neighborhood and near abroad, but across the world. Erdogan himself was the toast of the high table of international affairs, where leaders of the great powers sought his counsel and company.
Ten years later, Turkey’s foreign-policy landscape might more accurately be described as “Only Problems.” Ankara is deploying hard power and harsh rhetoric, rather than diplomacy, to maintain its influence.
It is in various degrees of confrontation with most countries that adjoin either its land borders or the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean: Greece, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Iraq, Armenia and Egypt. Farther afield, it is in conflict with France, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
And at a time when the world powers can’t seem to agree on anything, they seem to reached near unanimity that Erdogan is a troublemaker.
Turkey’s pugnacious president has recently been attracting sharp jabs even from those who used to pull their punches. The U.S. State Department has said it “deplores” Turkey’s decision to restart a controversial geological survey of the Eastern Mediterranean, and called on Ankara to “end this calculated provocation.”
This language is some of the strongest that the Trump administration has directed against Erdogan, who has the ear and affection of his American counterpart.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin, described by Erdogan as a “good friend,” is taking a dim view of his role as cheerleader of the Caucasian conflict, where Turkey is enthusiastically backing Azerbaijan against Armenia. The Kremlin has accused Turkey of adding “fuel to the flames” of the long-simmering dispute over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh. A ceasefire called by Moscow has not ended the fighting.
Other sources of criticism are more predictable. French President Emmanuel Macron, who has fulminated against Erdogan for Turkey’s intervention in the Libyan civil war (pot, meet kettle), has added its conduct in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Caucasus to his list of grievances. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has fended off wider European calls to punish Turkey, finds herself in an awkward position with the resumption of exploration in the troubled waters. It “most certainly would be anything but conducive to the continued development of EU-Turkish relations,” her spokesperson said.
As if all this wasn’t enough, condemnation has come from unexpected quarters — such as India, which was not pleased by Erdogan’s comments about Kashmir to the United Nations General Assembly. “Turkey should learn to respect the sovereignty of other nations and reflect on its own policies more deeply,” sniffed New Delhi’s Permanent Representative to the UN.
The “how” of Turkey’s foreign-policy freefall is well documented: Most of Ankara’s conflicts are of Erdogan’s choosing. He might have easily avoided entanglement in the Libyan civil war or the Caucasian crisis, and held his rhetorical fire on Kashmir. In each instance, he elected to wade in.
The “why” of it all is harder to fathom. Those seeking doctrinaire explanations for Erdogan’s adventurism can choose from neo-Ottomanism, Turkish ethno-nationalism and Islamism. Others point to geopolitics: Turkey, they say, is maneuvering for space in an emerging multipolar order, where it sees itself as a mid-sized world power, with an economic and cultural reach to befit that status as well as the requisite military muscle. Seen in this light, the aggressive foreign policy is an assertion of rights.
Still others focus on more narrow mercantile motivations, such as the scramble for hydrocarbon resources and the quest for new markets. And then there’s the argument from domestic politics, which posits that Erdogan, his approval ratings sinking amid the deepening economic gloom, is waving the Turkish flag abroad to distract his people.
There is more than a little truth in all those explanations. But if you’re looking for a unifying theory for Erdogan’s foreign policy, it is this: Turkey’s president does what he does because he gets away with it.
Whether in domestic politics or regional trade, he has not paid a significant price for his adventurism. The cost in Turkish blood has been remarkably low, not least because a great deal of the fighting is done by foreign mercenaries recruited from the killing fields of Syria. If there is any Turkish presence in the Libyan or Caucasian frontlines, it is more likely to be in the air — showing off the country’s burgeoning capabilities in drone warfare — than on the ground.
In terms of Turkish treasure, the costs are likely to be substantial, but Erdogan can reasonably argue that these will be defrayed by economic gains. By intervening in Libya, for instance, Ankara hopes to salvage construction deals worth $18 billion, as well as open up new opportunities for oil and gas exploration. The maritime maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean are designed to lay Turkish claim to vast gas reserves, as well as show off some naval muscle. And economic ties to Azerbaijan will be strengthened by the sale of Turkish military hardware.
In purely commercial terms, the potential profit from these forays greatly outweighs any loss of opportunity with, say, Greece, Armenia or Egypt, none of which is a major trading partner. Turkish businesses complain they’re being pushed out of the Saudi market because of the hostility between Ankara and Riyadh, but the numbers involved are relatively small. (Remarkably, bilateral trade with Israel has held up despite the acrimony between Erdogan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.)
In contrast, Turkey’s antagonists among major powers have enormous economic leverage, but they have been reluctant to use it. In the European Union — far and away Turkey’s biggest trading partner — diplomats talk airily about a “carrots and sticks approach” toward Ankara, but they are beginning to recognize that it isn’t working. The problem is that they are unwilling to wield the stick.
Despite Macron’s repeated calls for economic sanctions, the EU has yet to summon the collective will to follow through on threats to punish Turkey. This reluctance can only partially be explained by Erdogan’s counter-threat to unleash waves of refugees westward. The EU’s rules for imposing sanctions are too unwieldy for the group to deploy them as a weapon.
That is not a problem for the Trump administration, which dispenses sanctions like candy. But the American president has been coy about applying them to Turkey. When he has, they have carried all the sting of a rap on the knuckles — and Trump has been quick to lift them.
The most enduring disciplinary action the U.S. has taken against Turkey is its suspension from the purchase of F-35 jets and participation in their manufacture. Erdogan still went ahead with the purchase and installation of Russian S-400 missile-defense systems. Trump has disregarded a bipartisan clamor from Congress for sterner measures.
Without full-throated support from the U.S., NATO will not exact any punishment upon its recalcitrant member. Erdogan can dismiss the alliance’s concerns without fear of Turkey’s expulsion.
That leaves Russia as the only other power that might be able to push back against Turkish aggression. The Azeri-Armenian war is the second theater, after Libya, where Erdogan stands in the way of Putin’s objectives. (The two have some common interests, if not always a shared goal, in the third: Syria.)
The Russian leader has tolerated Erdogan’s presumptions in order to pursue Moscow’s greater goals of undermining NATO and prizing Turkey away from the West. In turn, the Turkish president has been careful not to turn his sharp tongue on Russia, a courtesy he has not offered to any Western leader who crosses him. The last time the two men were in a face-off — in the fall of 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian jet near the border with Syria — Putin, using Erdoganesque rhetoric, called it a “treacherous stab in the back,” and announced economic countermeasures. Erdogan backed down, with a written apology.
In the Caucasian conflict, Erdogan has again avoided barbs at Putin, but he has name-checked Russia in his attacks against the international community for failing to hand the Armenian-majority Nagorno-Karabakh region over to Azerbaijan. And for the first time, Turkey is intervening in what Moscow regards as its sphere of influence: the Caucasus is closer to Russia — not just geographically but also in historical, cultural, strategic and economic terms — than Syria or Libya.
That explains Moscow’s “fuel to the flames” riposte to Erdogan. But it is not in the same league as a “treacherous stab in the back.” What’s more, it didn’t come from the lips of Putin, nor was it accompanied by the threat of sanctions. Moscow is not — or at least not yet — inclined to put Ankara on notice.
For Erdogan, the absence of a red flag is a green flag: He will see Moscow’s reticence as license to pursue his agenda.
In the Caucasus as elsewhere, this pursuit has been opportunistic and the agenda jerry-rigged to fit the circumstances. Seen from a high altitude, Erdogan’s adventurism does not fit any comprehensible doctrine, certainly nothing as coherent as “Zero Problems.” Rather than follow a systematic game plan, he has made it up along the way.
As a result, the Erdogan doctrine is different things from different points of view — a kind of foreign-policy Rashomon.
It is neo-Ottoman to the extent that many of the places that have drawn his attention were part of the old empire. Erdogan frequently embraces Ottoman-era symbolism, and peppers his speeches with invocations of ancient glories. But his adventurism doesn’t follow the map of the world once ruled from Istanbul. There are have been no forays into Eastern Europe, the Balkans or Georgia, all of which were more integral to the empire than, say, Libya. And he seems perfectly happy to coexist with the Ottomans’ sworn enemies, the Persians.
Likewise, the religious motivations for Erdogan’s adventurism are often overstated. He is an avowed Islamist, and can lace his rhetoric with citations from religious texts and expressions of solidarity with Muslims in foreign lands. Much is also made of his support for the Muslim Brotherhood and, especially in Israel, for Hamas. To some of his critics, this all adds up to a quest for leadership of the Muslim world.
But look closer, and you’ll see faith is an instrument rather than a motivation for Erdogan’s foreign policies. Here, too, opportunism is a better explanation than dogma. Meeting with a top Hamas leader is an easy way to set Israeli noses out of joint. Bringing up Kashmir at the UN is a convenient way to please Pakistan, and especially useful when Prime Minister Imran Khan is at odds with his country’s traditional ally, Saudi Arabia.
Ethno-nationalism? If you strain very hard, you might make the case for ancient ties between modern Turks and the Azeris, but the binding power of oil and gas pipelines that connect Azerbaijan to Turkey is a much stronger argument.
Hydrocarbons are at least as thick as bloodlines, and they connect more of the dots that form the outline of Turkish foreign policy than most other theories. In general, economics offer a more consistent explanation for Erdogan’s international outreach — going all the way back to the start of his stewardship of the Turkish state in 2003. At the height of the “Zero Problems” years, he rarely traveled abroad without a retinue of business leaders, and the success of his visits was measured in signed contracts.
But economics don’t explain everything. After all, a leader driven by commercial considerations would be more inclined to make nice with India rather than Pakistan, for instance. He would more likely make common cause with Saudi Arabia and the UAE than be at loggerheads with their leaders. And he might be more circumspect about antagonizing his country’s biggest trading partner.
That leaves the argument from domestic politics, that Erdogan is using the assertion of Turkey’s “deserved place in the world order” to shore up his support base against the headwinds of economic difficulty. Foreign policy has provided the one bright spot in the president’s reign, and his approval ratings have indeed edged upward in recent weeks, despite the decline of the Turkish lira.
But if this is indeed the underlying motivation for Erdogan’s aggressive forays abroad, then the we should all brace for more as the coronavirus-stricken economy worsens. As long as he has opportunity for troublemaking and impunity from punishment, Turkey’s president is not going to stop.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.