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Back to Zero Problems? Recent Developments in Turkey’s Foreign Policy

American policymakers should squarely face the challenges confronting Turkey, as well as their implications for greater U.S.-Turkish cooperation

During the twelve years that Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been in power its foreign policy has undergone a dramatic shift: away from its traditional Western- centric focus and toward the Middle East. Even within the context of this East-ward turn, Turkey’s foreign policy under the AKP has often been erratic, with numerous changes in both its relationships with its neighbors and its allies in the West. In the midst of political turmoil, Turkey appears to be rethinking its foreign policy once again.

Its attention consumed by domestic struggles, its once energetic pursuit of regional leadership seems to have been laid aside, at least for the time being. In its place, the AKP is portraying itself as seeking to gain new partners and repair old alliances, likely in an attempt to bolster its waning standing at home with a demonstration of international credibility. So far, however, there has been little to indicate that the AKP’s new rhetoric of cooperation marks an actual substantive change in its behavior abroad.

The AKP derives part of its claim to power from highlighting its good image internationally, particularly in the West, where President Barack Obama once extolled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as among the leaders with whom he shared the deepest “friendships and the bonds of trust.” However, Erdoğan and Obama’s relationship has noticeably cooled in recent months. Beginning with the Turkish government’s violent crackdown on protestors during last summer’s Gezi Park demonstrations and continuing with the December 2013 revelation of corruption charges against high-ranking government officials and their associates, Turkey’s international standing has been jeopardized. Indeed, the accusations of graft levied against the AKP government appear to target specifically Turkey’s reputation abroad—focusing on its continued economic relationship with Iran (even in light of international sanctions) and its dealings with known members of terrorist groups.

“Erdoğan’s determination to hold onto power at all costs—banning social media, rooting out media, eroding the rule of law, and adding to the government’s repressive powers—risks Turkey’s standing as one of only two democratic, stable U.S. partners in the Middle East…”

Even before the revelation of these corruption charges, Erdoğan’s government were attempting to return what had become an increasingly sectarian foreign policy—focused on support for Sunni factions in Syria, Gaza, and Egypt at the cost of relations with other regional and Western countries—to the early days of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Now, with an 18-month long electoral season underway and its international standing crumbling, the AKP seems to be articulating a policy closer to “zero problems outside the neighborhood,” in an attempt to both score some foreign policy triumphs and demonstrate to increasingly alienated Western allies that, despite growing authoritarianism at home, it can still serve as an important partner.

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