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Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Middle East, 2002-2013


A review of Turkish Foreign Policy towards the Middle East under the AKP (2002-2013): A Neoclassical Realist Account, by Zenonas Tziarras.

This thesis seeks to explain Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East under the AKP (Justice and Development Party) government. Drawing on neoclassical realism debates and focusing on foreign policy towards Syria and Israel during the period from 2002 to 2013, the author seeks to offer a “comprehensive and systematically integrated approach which analyses drivers, causal chains and foreign policy behavior.”

Part 1 of Tziarras’s dissertation brings together two chapters, which aim to provide context for the empirical investigation that follows. The first reviews the existing literature on Turkish foreign policy and categorizes works into those that base their analysis on the international system, those which focus on domestic affairs and, lastly, those that try to combine elements of both. In the second chapter, the author presents the methodology and analytical framework of the dissertation, which draws on neoclassical realism to reflect on the case studies: Turkish foreign policy, in both security and economic terms, towards Syria and Israel, during 2002-2011 and 2011-2013.

The second part of the dissertation opens the empirical investigation of this study and starts with a chapter that reflects on a number of exogenous factors that affect Turkish foreign policy and, more specifically: a) changes in international or regional powers; b) perceptions of threats; and c) economic interdependence. The author finds that 9/11 events and the Global War on Terror, the stance of the European Union (EU) towards Turkey’s accession progress, and the global economic crisis are the most important factors in this regard. We are also told that the combinations of those factors led Turkish foreign policy to prioritize relations with immediate neighbors in the Middle East at the expense of relations with the “West,” and especially with the EU. Chapter 5 elaborates on Turkish foreign policy towards Syria and how it has been informed by domestic factors, especially the elite ideology of the ruling AKP interest groups. The author finds that, while domestic factors are less significant than system level influences, elite perceptions and public opinion still play an important role in Turkish foreign policy. Chapter 6 focuses on the same intervening variables but this time reflects on Turkish foreign policy towards Israel. As before, the author finds security shaping foreign policy more than economy and the role of AKP, but interest groups are also quite important.

The third and last part of Tziarras’s dissertation starts with a chapter on Turkish foreign policy towards Syria and Israel during 2011-2013, which also allows the author to capture post-“Arab Spring” developments. The final chapter of the thesis, Chapter 8, undertakes a comparative analysis of Turkish foreign policy towards Syria and Israel and also a comparison of the different periods (before and after 2011). In the end, the author concludes that systemic factors—especially international power changes—have been most important in determining foreign policy, followed by domestic factors—particularly elites’ ideology. But the author again underlines that comprehensive analysis of Turkish foreign policy without considering both international and domestic factors is impossible, and that a combination of the two elements allows for the account of material and non-material triggers of change and also the linkages between different “drivers.” Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East during the period under discussion is found to be, overall, “revisionist” and, unlike in many other works, security concerns are seen here as more important than economic ones.

It is not very often that such a developed conceptual framework informs analysis of Turkish foreign policy. Neoclassical Realism, with its focus on how systemic (external) and unit (internal) level factors “shape” state behavior, lends itself well to the analysis of Turkish foreign policy and how it has been influenced by domestic politics and also by international developments. Indeed, Ankara’s foreign agenda in recent times represents one of the most fascinating stories of Middle East and international politics—not least because of changes in Turkey’s domestic affairs, particularly the rise of AKP, but also because of developments in the external environment, especially the country’s rise and fall as a candidate for EU accession and increasing instability in the region due to the “Arab Spring.”

As a result, Tziarras’s work not only focuses on a very important case of foreign policy during a heated decade in the region of the Middle East, but also skillfully manages to use neoclassical realism lenses in order to reflect on various developments within and outside Turkey that shape (and are shaped by) the country’s foreign policy. What is more, the work does not address external and internal factors in isolation but makes an extra effort to combine the two and explain how their interplay shape foreign policy in Turkey and beyond. At the same time, Tziarras has also shed light on issues that are very often overlooked in similar analyses of Turkish foreign policy: for example, the discussion of Turkish interest groups, which are often associated with “lower politics,” and their role in the context of foreign policy is a very interesting and innovative aspect of this work. The final result is a very convincing argument and a very rich empirical work, also supported by extensive interview material and its interesting interpretation by the author. As such, Tziarras’s holistic and conceptually-informed account of the complex interplay between Turkey’s own affairs, its foreign practices and developments in the neighborhood is a fascinating read, a very important contribution to the debate as well as a useful resource for anyone who wants to grasp where Turkey is going next.

George Kyris
Political Science and International Studies
University of Birmingham

Dissertation Information

University of Warwick. 2014. 397 pp. Primary Advisors: George Christou and Nicola Pratt.

Primary sources

Interviews with experts, interest groups representatives and officials
Justice and Development Party documents
Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Turkey
Media reports

Image: “Davutoglu in a meeting with top diplomats”

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