Power politics, whether politically or economically related, have been the fundamental causes of conflict throughout history. Such an assertion may seem incredibly simplistic; however, history offers numerous examples of why states with great ambition play larger roles in the international sphere than others, employing several tactics in parallel to outpace their rivals.
Though expansive empires and absolute monarchs driven by sacred duties to conquer others are a thing of the past, it is unquestionably fair to say that such players and ideologies have been replaced by reason and rationality – the eternal gifts of the Renaissance.
Nevertheless, the rules of the game still remain the same. This is to say that the struggle for power is still deeply rooted in human nature; survival is what determines world politics and underscores the nexus of international-interpersonal relations. This is a reality that a country with the historical hinterland of Turkey has exhibited throughout time, irrespective of political trends; the survival of some sort of state anchored on Asia Minor has always been a priority.
With power politics still being the dominant force in global politics, countries can be broadly classified into three groups: States that rely more on soft power methods (Scandinavian quadruple), states which prioritize the use of hard power (Russia, China and North Korea), and states such as the U.S., Britain and France that strive to combine both soft and hard power – smart power.
The intention here is to draw attention to explanations as to why states resort to the most destructive iterations of power not only as a last-ditch resort but also as the ultimate expression of force. Theory defines hard power as the use of tangible resources, such as population, territory, natural resources, and economic and military strength. Morgenthau laid great emphasis on this, noting that "in international politics in particular, armed strength as a threat or a potentiality is the most important material factor making for the political power of a nation." Though incredibly relevant, Turkey's hard power has been employed throughout time as a last resort, where the inherent diplomacy and neighborliness in Turkish culture has had to be supplanted for survival.
Legacy of the past
In order to understand Turkey's long journey to establish stable and sustainable socio-economic conditions within its territorial borders, the triple lenses of survival, defensive and offensive realism must be applied.
The first lens portrays Turkey as a country in a state of survival. Particularly, after the declaration of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's priority was to populate the country, which had already lost the majority of its population and ergo manpower at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries following a series of wars. This was a central element in solidifying the demographic base of the new iteration of the Turkish state, helping to initiate the urbanization and industrialization processes which the underdeveloped country then yearned for.
The second lens scrutinizes the period commencing from the post-World War II period up until the collapse of the Soviet Union, in which Turkey applied defensive realism to its foreign policy. The numerous uncertainties and threats posed by the Soviet Union, such as irredentists claims on Turkey's eastern cities posed a great problem to the new state. Moreover, Turkey also found itself in a vicious struggle for superiority, in cultural and military terms, and in a constant state of rivalry from its neighboring countries, all of whom which were former colonies or vassal states. In this regard, for example, the reinvigoration of ancient rivalries played an important role in informing Turkey's relations with Bulgaria, Greece and Armenia.
The third lens examines the developments concerning Turkey from 1992 onward, in direct relation to which the country started developmentally overtaking its peers in terms of democratic institutions, population, military and economic power. These developments paved the way for an official transition from defensive to offensive realism, in which the Turkish political elite decisively aspired to reincarnate the country into a regional superpower. Turkey's seemingly perpetual oscillation between offensive and defensive realisms has underscored its international relations. In this regard, it can be argued that the Turkish political elite mishandled setting the boundaries on how much power the state needed to achieve its hegemonic goals from 1992 onward.
Instead, they tackled many regional and global issues from the perspective of power-centrism and overemphasized the fact that power was still the fundamental feature of politics, in a rapidly globalized and steadily liberalized new world order.
Indisputably, this led to periodic inconsistencies in the implementation of soft and hard power mechanisms in Turkish foreign policy. A set of highly critical mistakes in Turkish foreign policy, such as Turkey's socio-political ambiguity toward the Balkans and Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, were notably important. This is exactly because Turkey failed to conceptualize the terms soft and hard power and dismissed the interrelation between them. In other words, the Turkish political elite failed to understand the fact that hard power methods come into play where soft power mechanisms are deemed ineffective and/or fruitless.
In order to understand the Turkish inclination toward hard power, it is imperative to look into Turkey's historic experience, which in some way shape of form has played a hand in taking an inevitable hard power approach. This can be seen through the events that ensued in Cyprus from 1963 up until 1974 when the systematic discrimination against and pressure on ethnic Turks turned into a massacre, forcing Turkey to intervene in Cyprus militarily to establish peace. Even though the Turkish Armed Forces had conducted operations only against the armed Greek-Cypriot militias, it was interpreted in the West as a direct infringement of the 1959 Zurich Agreement. As a consequence, military and economic sanctions were imposed on Turkey, which created a bitter legacy surrounding this issue in Turkey.
Such historic experiences augmented Turkey's mistrust of the West. This was followed by Turkey's decision to take a more skeptic stance toward the West and become more self-sufficient. In fact, this was the main motivation for Turkey when it began developing its military industries by manufacturing highly sophisticated weapon systems, as well as aircraft, helicopters, and missiles in order to meet the goals that were set in the 1980s. More recently, the dramatic events that shook the Arab world, and the current attempts by radical (Daesh and its affiliations) and separatist groups (mainly the PKK terrorist group) in northern Syria to form an independent state were perceived as national security threats, which prompted Turkey to accelerate the reform of its defense industry.
Assertive foreign policy
Today, Turkey's use of hard power is being driven by two main objectives. The first involves Turkey's desire to fortify its stance as a major regional actor with great potential to become a superpower, given the sheer size of the population it may influence. Thereby, Turkey frequently challenges external interventions that aim to diminish its role in the region.
The second objective contends that Turkey needs to act more decisively in ongoing regional crises by collaborating with other regional players, such as Russia and Iran. Accordingly, this should augment Turkey's indispensability as a regional power not only for the Russia-Iran axis but also for the West.
To achieve these objectives, Turkey started investing more in the defense industry. For President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his foreign policy, the development of an independent Turkish defense industry became central to the concept of military deterrence that should increase Turkey's regional role. It therefore quickly became apparent that relying solely on a handful of conventional weapons suppliers was a major obstacle toward fulfilling Turkey's goals and retaining its political independence.
Despite the undue Western focus on Turkey for its decision to purchase the Russian missile system, the vilification of Turkey, in fact, started long before the S-400 agreement with Russia. For instance, the reasons for U.S. Congress having blocked the transfer of two Perry-class guided missile frigates to Turkey in 2015 remain unknown. Similarly, the reason behind the German Bundestag's decision to cancel 11 arms shipments to Turkey in June 2017 remain unclear.
Whether it was the West that willingly pushed Turkey away from its post-war socio-political and military sphere or not, the recent crisis between Turkey and NATO, regarding Turkey's decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system, resuscitated debates as to whether Turkey still has a place in the Western world. Amid such discussions, the U.S.' top brass opted for provocative language instead of deterrence, and threatened Turkey with the elimination from the joint F-35 fighter aircraft project.
Such drastic change in Western attitudes toward Turkey led the Turkish political elite to perceive the matter as one of national pride, which further motivated them to proceed with the purchase of S-400 missiles. Consequently, this has turned out to be a lose-lose game for both sides, considering Turkey has commenced launching S-400 missiles on its soil, and the West removed Turkey from the F-35 project, which de-facto meant Turkey shifted toward the anti-Western Russian sphere.
Shedding of the Western skin
Amid speculation whether Turkey will acquire Russian made aircraft as replacements, the country is in active process of pursuing an altogether different path: Its own, domestically built fifth-generation aircraft (TF-X fighter). In fact, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) displayed a prototype of the TF-X fighter at last month's Paris Air Show, which is expected to be in service in 2028. On this specific matter, experts have stated that the country can operate its F-16 till the end of 2030 and replace them with TF-Xs.
According to reports in the Turkish media, 400 orders for the TF-X have already been placed during the Paris Air Show presentation, which would markedly boost sales for the early mass production of these aircraft.
Such uneasiness among bureaucrats forced Turkey to introduce a new, sophisticated, self-sufficient defense industry program. To this end, new tax measures were introduced to help create revenue for defense spending. The former Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek revealed that an additional $4.9 billion would be allocated to the Ministry of National Defense and military industries in 2019. He also stated that the creation of additional arms systems is on the Turkish agenda to enable Turkey to cope with the threats it faces.
All these developments underline Turkey's journey from being an importer to becoming an important exporter of defense equipment, which is also reflected in their trade volume with other countries.
Accordingly, Turkish exports of defense and aerospace equipment and systems rose sharply to nearly $1.7 billion last year. Significantly, export contracts came from friendly countries such as the Gulf nations, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Moreover, it is expected that this trend will continue with Turkey's Eurasian and Turkic-speaking neighbors.
As Turkey becomes militarily self-sufficient and manages to launch operations (Operation Euphrates Shield, and Operation Olive Branch) with its own resources, it can start extending its influence to other regions, namely by deploying military bases abroad. Today, Turkey has a military base in Qatar, which consists of around 3,000 troops from land, air and naval forces, as well as military instructors and special operation forces. Turkey also has military bases in Somalia with some 10,000 soldiers, which makes it the fifth country in the world with military bases on the African continent. Moreover, today Turkey equips and trains the fraternal Azerbaijani Armed Forces, which gives it a privileged position and access to both Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The instructor of hard power
In this regard, Azerbaijan is worth scrutinizing mainly for its prominent place in Turkish domestic and foreign policy, given its linguistic and cultural proximities with Turkey.
In the past, the two republics shared a common pan-Turkic dream (or Turan – the unification of Turkic people), when the first president of Azerbaijan, Ebulfeyz Elcibey was elected and was actively promoting the "Turkish model" for Azerbaijan. However, when Elcibey was ousted in a coup in June 1993 – widely believed to have been orchestrated with Moscow`s aid – this dashed Turkey's initial hopes of using Azerbaijan as a springboard for the expansion of its influence in Central Asia. Despite this failure, Turkey continued training and equipping the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. Moreover, Turkey has actively engaged in the training of Azerbaijan's military officers at Turkish military schools and has helped modernize the Azerbaijani military education by bringing it in line with NATO standards. These Turkish-trained Azeri officers later participated in Turkey`s peacekeeping missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan.
In recent years, bilateral ties between Azerbaijan and Turkey have been based on the famous motto of "One Nation, Two States." In line with this motto, both countries have strengthened their military interdependence by signing an agreement in 2010, which includes "Casus Foederis" that is, an attack against one, is considered as an attack on both countries. The developments in the Turkish defense industry have had positive effects on the advancement of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces. That is to say, Turkey started exporting its own military commodities to Azerbaijan, which gave Azerbaijan an advantage in its ongoing war with the self-declared republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. For instance, the reoccurrence of the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia for control over Nagorno-Karabakh in April 2016 came to a halt with considerable territorial gain by the Azeris, mainly due to the modernization of their armed forces and the acquisition of Turkish military products. Overall, all these factors indicate that Turkey pursues a more assertive foreign policy. However, this is a double-edged sword for Turkey.
On the one hand, it is true that Turkey has become more competent in the defense industry, which has enabled the country to improve its reputation as a self-sufficient country. Therefore, Turkey's military deterrence is still imperative for Turkish assertiveness in the region. On the other hand, Turkey has found itself on the verge of losing its traditional allies in the West. If Turkey faces total exclusion from the Western alliance system, this may bring serious economic, technological and socio-political consequences for the country. Therefore, the Turkish political elite should refrain from proceeding with anti-Western agenda as a state policy. Moreover, they should also avoid transforming the country into a military and aggressive power in the region. This is precisely because a total exclusion of Turkey from the Western world would not only put an end to Turkey's own plans of becoming a regional and/or superpower, but would also result in losing the hearts and minds of the people that are looking to Turkey for a change. Therefore, Turkish policymakers need to carefully balance their methods in order to retain influence in both camps.
* Op-Ed contributor holding a master's of Science degree in Conflict Studies and Nationalism from the London School of Economics (LSE)