he 20th century did not start off well for the Ottoman Empire. The expansionist states of the period saw the Ottoman Empire, which they described as the “Sick Man of Europe,” as a country whose resources and territory were to be shared.
In 1923, Turkey had won the War of Independence on the military front, but it was vulnerable to new threats from outside as it was not among the economically and militarily powerful actors in the international political system established after World War I. In addition, the Ottoman Empire was among the war’s defeated states and suffered great territorial losses, forced to give up many regions with rich economic resources, notably energy.
The newly established Republic had a population of 12.5 million, a GDP of $561.4 million, exports of $51 million, and imports of $87 million. (Table 1) With these indicators, the new Republic, whose share in the world was insignificant, directly neighbored Britain and France, the major power centers of the period, via Iraq and Syria, which were under their tutelage.
Via the Dodecanese, Turkey neighbored Italy, which had declared fascist rule with Mussolini’s rise to power in 1922 and did not hide its expansionist ambitions by calling the Mediterranean “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea). Turkey was also neighbors with the Soviet Union, another important state of the time, via the Caucasus. Under these circumstances, Turkey, surrounded by threats on all four sides, had to increase its economic and military capacity rapidly while pursuing a policy of balance through successful diplomacy in order to eliminate the risks of its relative weakness.
TABLE 1: TURKEY’S POPULATION AND BASIC ECONOMIC INDICATORS IN THE PERIOD 1923-1960
Source: Ekrem Pakdemirli, Numerical Outlook of Our Economy, Milliyet Publications
An analysis of economic data from 1940 reveals that Turkey did not make significant progress in increasing its power, and that its foreign trade volume remained at a similar level to that of 1923, despite nearly tripling its GDP in the ensuing 17 years. In this period, the share of European countries in Turkey’s foreign trade was more than 60%, indicating the weight of Europe on Turkish foreign policy.
In parallel with its low economic capacity, Ankara tried and succeeded in staying out of World War II. Despite the alliance agreement it had signed with Britain and France in 1939, Turkey did not enter the war against Germany and its allies, citing the lack of military support from these countries and maintaining a policy of balance throughout the war. However, in 1945, when the outcome of the war became clear, Turkey officially declared war against Germany and Japan.
Turkey’s economic and military weakness in the postwar period was the main determinant of its foreign policy in the newly emerging bipolar international political system. Ankara, which felt that it did not have the means to resist the pressures and threats of the Soviet Union, decided to pursue rapprochement with the Western bloc. As a result, Turkey decided to transition to democracy and sent troops to Korea to join NATO, the Western bloc’s main military organization.
By 1950, Turkey’s population had reached 20.8 million and its exports and imports had risen to $263 and $286 million, respectively. With 0.84% of the world’s population, Turkey’s share in total world exports was 0.47%, while its share in total world imports was 0.49%. Increased military and economic cooperation with the United States led to a significant increase in Turkey’s GDP, reaching $9.2 billion in 1960, but also to an asymmetrical political dependence on Washington.
Washington provided Ankara with a security umbrella in the face of threats from Moscow, and in return for this support, it became increasingly involved in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy. Turkey’s inability to increase its economic and military capacity sufficiently led to a long period of asymmetrical dependence on the United States. In 1960, the ratio of Turkey’s population to the total world population reached 0.92%, while its share in total world exports and imports declined to 0.25% and 0.35%, respectively.
The period of coup d’états that began with the coup of 1960 not only dealt a serious blow to Turkey’s political life, but also had devastating effects on the country’s economy. The three military coups and numerous coup attempts between 1960 and 1980 made Turkey even more vulnerable to the influence of the United States and other Western countries. The economic crises that inevitably resulted from political instability left the country “in need of 70 cents” by the end of the 1970s. For example: [famous response of opposition leader Suleyman Demirel when, in 1977, he heard that Turkey stopped heating the prime minister’s office]. By 1980, despite being home to approximately 1% of the world’s population, Turkey’s share of world trade had fallen to less than 0.25%.
Table 2: TURKEY’S POPULATION AND KEY ECONOMIC INDICATORS 1965-2022
|Exports of Goods and Services
|Imports of Goods and Services
Source: World Bank
Although Turkey continued to be part of the Western bloc between 1960 and 1980, it was during this period that it experienced its first major crises with the United States. The two major crises of 1964 and 1974 were caused by tensions over Cyprus. Washington prevented Turkey from using its guarantor rights to help the Turks under attack in Cyprus in 1964 with the Johnson Letter, and imposed an arms embargo on Turkey in 1974 following Ankara’s military intervention on the island after the coup d’état. Turkey’s dependence on the United States for its defense industry made it easier for Washington to pressure Ankara with measures such as the arms embargo.
Diversifying foreign policy
Turgut Özal, who left his mark on Turkish politics in the 1980s, wanted to reduce the excessive weight of the United States in Turkish foreign and domestic policy through new collaborations. In this framework, Özal revived relations with the European Union and made EU membership one of the most important goals of Turkish foreign policy.
Özal also aimed to improve cooperation with Iran, Pakistan, and later with Central Asian countries under the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), and with the countries around the Black Sea, especially Russia, through the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization (BSEC). The most important of these initiatives, which aimed to balance the U.S. by diversifying Turkish foreign policy, was undoubtedly the cooperation with the EU.
Özal hoped to alleviate the discomfort that Turkey’s pursuit of a more independent foreign policy would cause in Washington. Thus, while Turkey’s improved relations with the countries of the Middle East and Central Asia, as well as with Russia, would have disturbed the United States, it would not be easy for the U.S. to object to Turkey’s rapprochement with the European Union.
However, the EU shifted its interest in enlargement to this region in the wake of the Eastern European revolutions and no longer saw much need for Turkey’s security contribution. As a result, in 1987, the EU rejected Turkey’s application for full membership, exposing the limits of Özal’s policy of rapprochement with Europe. Moreover, even though Turkey’s economic capacity increased significantly during the Özal period due to its shift to an export-oriented development policy, the dependence on Western countries for foreign trade and foreign direct investment continued.
The weight of the West in the world economy and the U.S. dominance in the Cold War resulted in the U.S. and European countries being the most important determinants of Turkish foreign policy in the 1990s. During this period, Turkey was once again governed by coalition governments, which led to political instability and the February 28 coup d’état. Following this coup, which was supported by wide circles in the U.S. and European countries, the weaknesses in the country’s economic management led to the 2001 crisis, one of the biggest economic crises in Turkey’s history.
One of the most important consequences of the crisis was Ankara’s increasing dependence on Western countries and the international financial institutions they dominate. After coming to power in late 2002, the AK Party government had a very difficult task ahead of it: to manage this relationship without harming Turkey’s interests.
The 21st century also began with difficult conditions for the Republic of Turkey. Turkey was experiencing one of the biggest economic crises in its history and was struggling politically with the instability caused by the February 28 coup in 1997. After scoring a victory at the November 3, 2002 elections, the AK Party came to power alone and brought stability to Turkey. Rapid economic growth and military capacities were able to suppress foreign pressure and intervention in the 2010s, making Turkey more resilient.
Multilateral balanced policy planning
On the one hand, the AK Party administration had to maintain close relations with the U.S. and European countries in order to access the financial resources Turkey needed, and on the other, it had to prevent Washington and European capitals from excessively interfering in Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy. The first major tension in this context was with the United States. Washington had expected Ankara to support the intervention in Iraq, which was against international law, in return for its economic support to Turkey; however, as a result of the March 1 decree, the U.S. could not open a front against Iraq through Turkey which led to a long-lasting crisis in Turkey-U.S. relations.
The steps taken by the U.S., which had invaded Iraq, to foster the development of the PKK in that country and to prevent the Turkish Armed Forces from continuing their operations against this organization in northern Iraq once again demonstrated that Turkey needed to establish a more balanced relationship with the U.S. in line with its national interests.
The first serious crisis in relations with the EU, which had been progressing well in line with the goal of membership in the first years of the AK Party’s rule, emerged over the Cyprus issue. The Merkel government, which came to power in Germany in 2005, openly expressed its opposition to Turkey’s EU membership, and the Cyprus issue was used as leverage to block membership. The 2007 French presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy, who was openly against Turkey’s membership, led to a crisis in Turkey-EU relations.
Turkey’s move towards a more independent foreign policy as a result of its economic and military prowess in the 2000s caused discomfort in the U.S. and its European allies. Their pressure and sanctions in the 2010s to bring Ankara back to Western-oriented policies, in turn, led to an escalation of the crisis.
The formal or de facto arms embargoes and economic sanctions imposed against Turkey by the U.S. and some of Turkey’s European “allies” led Ankara to increase its search for a policy of balance. Turkey’s relations with Russia, Middle Eastern countries, and Asian countries in the framework of these searches increased the discomfort of its Western “allies,” but the multipolar structure of the international political system facilitated Ankara’s policy of balance.
The intensification of the power struggle between the U.S. and Europe, on the one side, and Russia and China, on the other, has prevented them from increasing pressure on Turkey, which does not hesitate to take uncomfortable steps in pursuit of an independent foreign policy. In addition, the fact that Turkey has improved its economic capacity and increased indigenization to 80% in the defense industry are additional factors that have prevented Western countries from exerting the same level of pressure on Ankara as in the past.
Despite starting the 20th century as the “Sick Man of Europe,” losing a significant part of its territory in World War I, remaining one of the weak actors of the global political system throughout the 20th century in spite of gaining its independence in the War of Independence, and having an asymmetrical interdependence relationship first with European countries and then with the United States, Turkey has recently gained an important place for itself in the international political system with its economic, military, and diplomatic moves.
As the world’s 11th largest economy in terms of GDP according to purchasing power parity, Turkey exerts an influence that goes beyond the limits of a classic regional power as can be witnessed in Turkey’s relations with countries such as Libya, Qatar, and Somalia. Turkey continues to pursue an independent foreign policy through a policy of balance, which is enabled by its power and the structure of the international political system.
The global power struggle is intensifying by the day, however, and Turkey, despite all these achievements, is far behind countries such as the U.S., China, Japan, and Germany, especially in the economic field. Therefore, the preservation of the gains achieved in terms of independent foreign policy and the further advancement of these gains will only be possible if Turkey increases its economic, military, and diplomatic capacity even more.