“When it comes to the Arab revolts and Turkey’s relations with its near abroad, there are more questions than answers to be found,” claimed Cengiz Candar. He argued that Turkey’s foreign policy agenda seems to be complicated by its inconsistent approach to the revolutions in the Middle East and Turkey’s publicity-seeking Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. “Zero problems with problematic neighbors is a problem in itself.” Candar said, and explained the significance of the June elections.

Candar presented the four factors that have motivated Turkish foreign policy: promoting the country’s economic interests; creating strong relations with its neighbors based on soft power; distancing itself from Iran; and raising the country’s standing in the Middle East. These four motivations, Candar asserted, often work against each other. For example, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt had long been a major power in the Middle East and had stood in the way of Turkey’s ambitions of raising its status. At the same time, Turkish business had economic contracts with Egypt that were imperiled by the revolution. Turkey’s “zero problem” goal, therefore was neither instructive nor credible after state legitimacy was questioned throughout the region.

Other weaknesses have become clear as well. Turkey had developed excellent relations with its neighbor Syria. However, the revolution brought Syria’s problems directly to Turkey, in the form of thousands of refugees who crossed the border. “Turkey’s closeness with Syria not only forced [Prime Minister Recep] Erdogan and Davutoglu to make hard choices they were unprepared to make, but forced them back into the world of realpolitik,” Candar said.

Another factor complicating Turkey’s response to the Arab spring is that Turkey itself is in the midst of its own internal transformation. When the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) was elected in 2002, it signaled a profound domestic shift and the government has worked since then to blend traditional Muslim values with further democratization of the state’s institutions, while maintaining its eye towards Europe. This difficult balancing act and especially the proposed amendments to the Constitution would be judged in the June elections. Candar said that it was unlikely AKP would lose its majority, but cautioned that if Erdogan succeeds in achieving the constitutional changes he has promoted, a shift from a parliamentary to a presidential model would allow him to extend his term for 12 more years.

In such tumultuous times, Candar said, Turkey can no longer maintain the status quo, and must adjust policies accordingly to react to regional events. Candar suggested that Erdogan and Davutoglu switch their emphasis from realpolitik to a “moralpolitik,” in which officials make decisions based on the country’s values. Given Turkey’s desire to be seen as a model for the region, it can no longer remain indifferent to the troubles of its neighbors.

By Andri Orphanides and Elise Alexander
Edited by Nida Gelazis
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies and History and Public Policy Program  


  • Cengiz Candar

    Senior Political Columnist, Radikal (Turkey)
  • Christian F. Ostermann

    Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project