Domestic Transformations and Foreign Policy Change: The Rise of Revisionist Turkey

The article was first published on Changing Turkey, 06 May 2015.



The presentation I delivered during the 6th Changing Turkey workshop at Warwick University sought to explore Turkish foreign policy change under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) towards the Middle East from a Neoclassical Realist (NcR) perspective and it was based on my PhD thesis.[i] It was argued that systemic changes in Turkey’s geopolitical environment have been primary in driving Turkey’s foreign policy behaviour with domestic politics being secondary. Within this NcR framework the system level comprises of three independent variables (international power changes, external threat perceptions, international economic interdependence) and two intervening variables (elite ideology and domestic interest groups). The dependent variable is essentially the foreign policy outcome – Turkey’s foreign policy behaviour – with the possibility of variation between status quo and revisionist foreign policy behaviour. To trace the change in Turkish foreign policy (TFP) since the AKP’s election to power (2002) I briefly evaluate the domestic and systemic context of the 2002-2011 and 2011-2013 periods. When it comes to the domestic level I remain focused on one of the two intervening variables (i.e. the AKP elite ideology) for brevity purposes.

2002-2011 – Systemic Context

With regard to the first period (2002-2011) it is argued that the systemic context was relatively benign despite changes in international power relations (i.e. the main independent variable) such as the war in Iraq (2003) and its geopolitical consequences for Turkey and the region. It was benign not because of the absence of security threats – there were plenty of those; but rather because it provided Turkey with the opportunity of re-engaging the region due to deteriorating relations with the United States (US), growing anti-American sentiments in the Middle East, improved relations with Iran and Syria, and so on. This rather favouring geopolitical environment, of the 2000s, in conjunction with the AKP’s struggle to overcome political obstacles posed by the traditional Kemalist establishment domestically, produced an outward foreign policy behaviour mainly characterised by cooperation, mediation and the employment of “soft power” tools more generally. Its economic relations with the Arab/Muslim world improved drastically – while its economic relations with the EU declined also due to the economic crisis and the Turkey-EU stalemate – even as it undertook significant mediation initiatives such as the one between Syria and Israel, albeit unsuccessfully. It was a period when Turkey, once again in its history, came to be referred to as a model of fusion between democracy, liberal economics and conservative values.

Though this outward foreign policy orientation of Turkey resembled past initiatives such as those of Turgut Ozal and Necmettin Erbakan in the 1980s and 1990s it proved to be something more during this time period. It was more focused, broader, deeper and arguably more serious and successful. It was all due to the ideological differentiation that gradually came about domestically with the election of the AKP to power. This is not to say that the AKP elite ideology was the primary factor. As mentioned, systemic changes are considered to be the primary driver of TFP. But the elite ideology of the state, the one that filters the geopolitical changes and the domestic constraints according to NcR, is very important in the shaping of the foreign policy outcome. The system-level changes could prompt different foreign policy outcomes depending on the dominant ideology and worldview of the (policy-making) elite; but without systemic changes foreign policy change is rarely, if ever, induced.

Elite Ideology & Domestic Transformations

Having said that, one has to identify the AKP elite ideology and thus its character and features. Based on research on texts, speeches and interviews of AKP elites (e.g. Ahmet Davutoglu, Abdullah Gul, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Bulent Arinc, Ibrahim Kalin) and a comparative analysis between the AKP and its traditionalist predecessor Welfare Party (Refah Party – RP) of Necmettin Erbakan, I suggest that the AKP elite ideology (not of the AKP as a whole) is based on a version of Turkishpolitical Islam which is actually more traditionalist than reformist, as the AKP argues. On the front of foreign policy and strategy in the Middle East, this worldview or set of beliefs, perceives the region as a primarily post-Ottoman and geoculturally integrated Islamic space; one that Turkey, from the AKP elite perspective, rightfully claims leadership over (as the successor of the Ottoman Empire).

In this sense, the AKP elite ideology is revisionist, provided that revisionism is defined (in Realism literature) as a state’s efforts to change the geopolitical status quo to its own benefit. As noted previously, the domestic power struggle between the Kemalist establishment and the AKP did not leave much room to the latter to freely express and implement its revisionist goals. For example, the AKP’s shift towards the Middle East was not significantly opposed by other domestic powers or groups insofar as it did not take place at the expense of relations with the West. Once the AKP managed to win the power struggle and predominate domestically through a process that roughly started in 2007 and had largely succeeded by 2010, its policies became more openly revisionist. However, by that time domestic groups (of mostly Kemalist ideology) were unable to successfully oppose or constrain the AKP’s policies as the Kemalist establishment, the traditional and most noteworthy political force, was to a great extent marginalised and crippled.

2011-2013 – Systemic Context & Revisionism

The impact of these historical domestic transformations became even more evident in the next period under examination (2011-2013). The systemic shifts that came about with the Arab uprisings caught Turkey by surprise, challenged the regional relationships that it developed as well as its geopolitical stature. As such, the systemic environment was no longer benign; it had become unstable and greatly insecure, brewing conflict and multiple security threats. This had a great impact on Turkey’s ability to implement its revisionist elite ideological vision in a benign way and through “soft power” tools. Perhaps the most significant examples of Turkey’s revisionist foreign policy behaviour since 2011 are the case of Syria and Egypt. In the case of the Syrian civil war Turkey, for the first time in its history, adopted the revisionist strategy of regime change, albeit with some delay. Not only that, but it also seemed reluctant to carry out its threats towards Syria while preferring to “bandwagon-for-profit”[ii] which essentially entailed that it chose to achieve its strategic goals through its reliance on Western powers for regime change in Syria.

Similarly, Ankara’s stance towards the ousting of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood (2013) points to mingling in Egypt’s internal affairs. It was revisionist foreign policy behaviour because Turkey actively, if politically, tried to reverse the changes under way in Egypt that would deprive it from an Egyptian government that was ideologically and politically close to the AKP. Since then Turkish-Egyptian relations have deteriorated dramatically. Other examples of revisionism in TFP can be remembered such as the coercive diplomacy employed against Israel and Cyprus in 2011.


Overall, Turkey, over the past 13 years or so has experienced great economic growth and development as well as democratic reforms. At the same time it has risen as an openly revisionist state. The domestic transformations and the substitution of the largely pro-status quo Kemalist politico-military establishment by the AKP’s revisionist elite ideology, resulted in a revisionist foreign policy behaviour. Foreign policy action that is prompted by system-level changes is increasingly being filtered through the ideological lens of the AKP – and specifically President Erdogan. Because Ankara’s revisionist goals cannot be achieved in the turbulent post-2011 Middle East, it often resorts to “hard power” or other revisionist tactics that exacerbate regional polarisation and highlight its revisionist foreign policy strategy even more.

[i] Zenonas Tziarras, Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Middle East under the AKP (2002-2013): A Neoclassical Realist Account, Department of Politics & International Studies, The University of Warwick, Coventry, 2014.

[ii] A term borrowed from Randal Schweller. See, Randall L. Schweller, “Bandwagoning for Profit: Bringing the Revisionist State Back In,” International Security 19, no. 1 (1994): 72-107.


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