Turkey

Erdoğan’s switch to realism

Realism is perhaps the most prevalent international relations theory among all others, entailing some challenging ideas such as that (1) states are principal actors in international relations, (2) the international political system is anarchic, (3) states act for their interests, and (4) states are in pursuit of power for survival. If analyzed carefully, it can be seen that realism is almost a moral-free theory. There should also be no mercy as per realists since other actors are supposed to be wild and selfish.

From Thucydides to American politicians, statesmen either acted or were expected to act according to the above principles. Actually, as constructivist theory points out, states do not see other like-minded states as threats but there is still selfishness in their foreign policy. This is why “America is first” for the American administration, and its friends such as European states and Israel are privileged as opposed to other countries. Such preferential friendship based on interests and ideology has not created a peaceful world order, which might have been in favor of all states. Unfortunately, it led to unfair treatment against small states, endless support to criminal but friendly states against innocent nations, colonization of others, massacres of the masses, etc.


As can be expected, in such anarchic conditions where anarchist minds are dominant, it was/is not possible for moral leaders and countries to pursue a moral foreign policy. One of the victims of callous realism were President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his government. In fact, the Erdoğan-led Türkiye has traces of realism in its foreign policy but additionally it adhered moral values, too. It is beyond all question that Türkiye comes first for Erdoğan, a general behavior expected from all leaders for their countries.

Yet, Erdoğan also does not hesitate to unveil his preference of Turkic, Muslim and historically friendly countries. He has no problem with Western states in general and tried to be in line with Türkiye’s NATO allies. Making Türkiye an European Union member was one of his greatest objectives until recently (or perhaps he still has such a desire). However, after seeing that the West acts hypocritically and forces him to bring its terms, he reluctantly parted ways, though did not close the door.

However, tired of being kept waiting in front of the EU’s gates due to simplistic and illogical reasons, not getting support from Western allies against Türkiye’s enemies and realizing that the West wanted him to be overthrown with the failed coup of 2016, he began to play with Western rules based on realist ideas. For instance, when the Arab Spring began, he sided with the Arab public against authoritarian regimes but was eventually left alone by pro-democracy countries. He probably was shocked when Europeans blamed him for Türkiye’s democracy but at the same time supported Arab dictators and opened their gates to the coup plotters of 2016.

Erdoğan’s balance policy

Regarding solidarity among NATO allies, due to America’s support for the YPG and NATO members deserting after Turkish air forces downed a Russian jet in 2015, he was likely convinced that the alliance was on paper only. Hence, Erdoğan seems to have changed his foreign policy and started to locate it on a more realistic/realpolitik basis. This argument is true, particularly for countries that are not in the inner circle. As can be witnessed, he did not accompany the U.S. and the EU in sanctioning Russia since not Vladimir Putin’s Russia but Türkiye would suffer more. So, he prioritized state interests in Turkish-Russian relations. On the other hand, as for Ukraine, he did not leave this country alone against Russian aggression, as it would be immoral. Therefore, Erdoğan’s balance policy has both realist and normative faces, aiming to preserve Turkish interests without sacrificing moral values.

Actually, realism can partly be defined as an inhuman theory as it mostly lacks moral and spiritual values. Instead of acting like wolves in the forest, the best way to solve conflicts across the world would be to act with justice by supporting the victim against the aggressor. Had Syrians been protected against the Assad regime, Arab people against dictators, Palestinians against Israel, migrants against racists or black people against white supremacists from the beginning instead of pursuing hypocritical policies based on self-interest, the world would be more peaceful.

If the majority goes on the wrong way, those insisting on the correct way have to give up in the end. In the case of Erdoğan, he seems to define his stance according to the intention of others. Be realist against the realist, be decent against the decent, be selfish against the selfish: This is virtually what Erdoğan adopts as foreign policy nowadays.

First published in Daily Sabah

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About the author

İbrahim Karataş

İbrahim Karataş

İbrahim Karataş is a columnist at Yeni Akit, a daily newspaper based in Istanbul.

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