Sunday, September 24th, 2017

Turkish Foreign and Security Policy: Challenge for EU and NATO?

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Criticism of contemporary Turkish foreign and security policy

Unrest and turmoil of the so-called Arab spring sweeps North Africa and Middle East with uncertain outcome, Europe fights the financial crisis with alternating successes and failures and image of the USA in Muslim world is seriously damaged after Afghan and Iraqi interventions. What is the role of Turkey in this confusing situation? In the last years there were loud voices warning of dramatic change of Turkish foreign policy with significant security connotations. According to some, Turkey does not only live up to EU membership aspirations anymore but had turned its face from the West, broke traditional alliances and aligned itself with neighbouring states. Today, in the wake of Syrian and Iranian developments, these claims were proved false. But for better understanding of contemporary conduct of Turkish foreign and security policy, deeper analysis is necessary.

In the course of last years, Turkish accession process into the EU has been stalled; Turkey developed closer relations with its neighbours, Arabic, Muslim and Central Asian states as well as Russia and China, while disagreed multiple times with USA on various matters. At the same time, ties with Israel faced serious complications. Western allies of Turkey embodied by EU and NATO member states, their politicians, analysts and academicians expressed their doubts and concerns about Turkish attitudes. Here are some of them: “Even traditionally friendly Turkey is now clearly moving in the direction of Islamism and anti-Zionism, not to mention a neo-Ottoman foreign policy” (Fergusson, 2011, p. 93). New Turkish foreign policy is characterized by distancing herself from the West, enhancing relations with neighbouring Muslim countries and cooling relations with Israel, while the first indication of change occurred in March 2003 when AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party, moderate Islamic) -led parliament denied U.S. troops permission to use Turkish territory to open a northern front against Iraq and Turkey crossed the Rubicon when sided with Iran on the nuclear issue (Inbar, 2010, p. 135, 143). Or from another perspective “Ankara has established close ties with Iran and Syria, adopted a more active approach toward the Palestinians’ grievances; and improved relations with the Arab world more broadly, which was an important departure from recent Turkish foreign policy (Larrabee, 2007). According to more “The AKP government most clearly has departed from the traditional Kemalist policy. The Kemalist approach had been to keep away from the Middle East and Muslim countries, The Kemalist legacy dictated good relations and integration with the West” (Inbar, 2010, p. 136). In order to determine what kind of change and why occurred in Turkish foreign and security policy, we need to understand the previous (or so-called “traditional Kemalist”) policy and circumstances, which led to these changes.

Turkish traditional foreign policy

The main sources of the traditional foreign policy of the Turkish Republic are the tradition of the balance of power stemming from the times of Ottoman Empire, isolationism and Sèvres syndrome as direct legacy of WW1 and independence war, and policy of Europeanization and modernization” (Murinson, 2006, p. 945).

Conduct of foreign and security affairs had been in the hands of military officials and bureaucrats, mainly through National Security Council, thus effectively out of public, and political control (Aktay, 2010). After loss of the empire and successful establishment of Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turks have always been haunted by the spectres of Sèvres. They decided not to participate in any war if possible, to avoid chance of another defeat and subsequently further loss of territory. This could be clearly seen during the WW2, when Turkey picked sides and declared war on Germany on 23rd February 1945, when defeat of Germany seemed inevitable (Akşin, 1999, p. 289), effectively securing a place on the winning side without materially contributing to war efforts.

Turkish isolationism had only been broken in few instances. Most notable was participation of Turkish soldiers in the Korean War in quest for NATO membership, which has been awarded to Turkey alongside with Greece. Turkey, threatened by USSR, decided to take part in foreign war, to secure its own political sovereignty and territorial unity in times of raging Cold War. In the following years, Turkish NATO membership was validated as mutually beneficial.

Another example was Cyprus intervention, when Greek military junta seized power on the island and Turkish Cypriot citizen’s status of the constituting nation was about to be changed into nothing more than political minority.

Third and possibly the most relevant example of breaking the silence was for the sake of this article the Turkish support in Second Gulf War, pushed forward by President Turgut Özal (who was extraordinarily active in foreign policy) and accompanied by closure of oil pipelines from Iraq. This move had been domestically harshly criticized as damaging Turkish economy, as well as serving foreign interests at the expense of Turkish. This can be easily evaluated as an exception. It did not happen as an inevitable step concerning national interest of Turkey and as such has been subject of criticism of the traditional elites (Jung, 2003).

After examining these examples, we can conclude, that Turkish traditional policy is characterized by isolationism, broken only in clear and direct cases of threats against national and territorial sovereignty. When we look at the denial of Turkish support for US Iraqi intervention, it is quite understandable that Turkish inaction is in accordance with this concept. And last but not least, the motion in Turkish parliament for US support has been defeated and strongly opposed by all CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, Republican People´s Party, Kemalists) deputies, while only minority of AKP abstained or voted against it (Leicht, Schwarz, 2003).

Another important characteristic is policy of modernization and Europeanization. It is undeniable, that in early years of the republic, there were radical changes in state and society. However, after Ataturk´s passing, his political supporters did not advocate much further change, but probably tried to freeze momentarily the state of affairs instead. Paradoxically, in Turkey´s quest for EU membership, Turkish old establishment itself became one of the main obstacles for success. Second half of the 20th century in Turkey was full of military coup d’états, starting in the 60´s and ending no later than in 1997 by the so called “postmodern coup”, when the government dominated by Islamic forces resigned after receiving memorandum issued by Turkish army.

On the other hand, AKP government achieved in the early 2000´s unparalleled progress in EU accession process, which came to halt mainly only through outside shocks from various EU member states (France, Greece, Cyprus, Germany…). National Security Council in Turkey has been changed from main “political” decision making to advisory body and military leadership has been finally put under civilian control. Conservative and moderate Islamic elites proved to be more modern and Europeanised than their Kemalist counterparts, simply because it served their interests better, since more democracy in Turkey translates into less influence of Kemalists and more power for popular political parties (i.e. especially AKP). In this sense it is not objective to criticise Turkey under AKP leadership for less efforts in modernization than the traditional Kemalist elite.

Neo-Ottomanism and strategic depth

Contemporary Turkish policy has been regularly characterised also as “Neo-Ottoman”. This denomination bears almost inevitably negative connotations of Ottoman legacy. There are different possible interpretations of this term. Its loose use is rather misleading, while Ottomanism was nineteenth-century international liberal political movement aiming at the formation of a civic Ottoman national identity overarching ethnic, linguistic and religious identities, later briefly reinstated as “neo-Ottomanism” to characterize the foreign policy overtures of Turgut Özal in the late 1980s (Grigoriadis, 2010, p. 4). It was also characterized as an intellectual movement that advocated Turkish pursuit of active and diversified foreign policy in the region based on the Ottoman historical heritage (as pursued also by Özal). The neo-Ottomans envisioned Turkey as a leader of Muslim and Turkic worlds and a central power in Eurasia (Murinson, 2006, p. 947).

Today we are again witnessing unusual Turkish diplomatic activism in the Middle East area. After tense and complicated relations with neighbouring Muslim states, with AKP´s rise to power, Turkish foreign policy has been more and more influenced by Ahmet Davotoǧlu, who as successful academic became firstly main advisor of Turkish prime minister for Foreign Affairs and today serves as Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey. He introduced his vision as early as in his defining work Strategic Depth in 2000 (Davotoǧlu, 2000).

In this book he argues that a nation’s value in world politics is predicated on its geostrategic location and historical depth. Following this logic, Davutoglu explains, Turkey is uniquely endowed both because of its geographic location, particularly its control of the Bosporus, as well as its historical legacy as heir to the Ottoman Empire (Walker, 2010, p. 2).

Turkey is a centrally positioned international player. “Turkey is a country with a close land basin,” he writes, “the epicenter of the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus, the center of Eurasia in general and is in the middle of the Rimland belt cutting across the Mediterranean to the Pacific (Walker, 2010, p. 2).

As such, Turkey is a Middle Eastern, Balkan, Caucasian, Central Asian, Caspian, Mediterranean, Gulf and Black Sea country, can simultaneously exercise influence in all these regions and thus claim a global strategic role (Grigoriadis, 2010, p. 5).

Contradicting the traditional concepts of identity along with Huntington´s understanding, Turkey has multiple regional identities that cannot be reduced to one unified character or a single region, necessitating it to extend its influence simultaneously to Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Caspian, and the Mediterranean (Ziya, Yilmaz, 2009, p. 9).

Turkey has the capability as well as the responsibility to follow an integrated and multidimensional foreign policy… To contribute actively towards conflict resolution and international peace and security in all these areas is a call of duty arising from the depths of a multidimensional history for Turkey (Grigoriadis, 2010, p. 6). It is quite understandable, that this concept of Turkish identity is deliberately maximalist with an aim to positively use all historical, geographical, cultural and political ties of Turkey. But if not handled carefully, this approach could also lead Turkey to the situation, where none of these mentioned regions will recognise Turkey as a genuine member of that particular area, as for example in Europe (if at least for some of the political elites and most of population, which is more than enough to exclude Turkey from eventual EU membership).

Davotoğlu emphasises this multiple identity as a chance for enhanced inter-civilizational dialogue, but rejects the perception of Turkey solely as a bridge between Islam and the West, as this would relegate Turkey to an instrument for the promotion of the strategic interests of other countries (Grigoriadis, 2010, p. 5).

After this short characterisation of contemporary Turkish foreign policy, certain “neo-Ottomanism” is arguably implicit in the sense of revitalizing those often neglected ties in modern Turkish history. However, the term “neo-Ottomanism” implies imperialism, thus Davutoğlu and other AKP officials tend to avoid this term (Warning, Kardaş, 2011, p. 147).

Even when Neo-Ottomanism is probably the most popular title for contemporary Turkish foreign policy, there are also other names in use for it. The term “Soft Euro-Asianism” could be the substitute, which refers simply not only to a shift of foreign policy orientation in a direction focusing more on former Soviet space and the Middle East. Rather, it means that foreign policy activism is pursued with respect to all neighbouring regions but with no firm EU axis as was previously the case. What makes it distinct from “hard-Euro-Asianism” is that the Western orientation and the Atlanticist element of Turkish foreign policy continues, but in a looser and more flexible form (Ziya, Yilmaz, 2009, p. 13).

Although Davutoğlu’s theories are controversial and an exclusive focus on him might underestimate other important actors in the foreign policymaking process, there is nonetheless a general consensus that Davutoğlu has been playing a very influential role in the reformulation of Turkish foreign policy since 2002 (Warning, Kardaş, 2011, p. 149). He is often perceived as a brilliant architect and mastermind behind Turkish foreign policy, some, however, see him as “an overzealous academic with visionary ambitions beyond Turkey’s actual foreign policy capacity” (Meral, Paris, 2010, p. 81).

It is necessary to remember also few other crucial factors behind the dynamics in Turkish foreign and security policy that would have been present even if there was no AKP in power. In the last ten years of 20th century, conditions have changed. Collapse of USSR meant the end of main common enemy and turbulent changes in the international environment. There are many new states in the post USSR space, many with Turkic population. After the 9/11, US interests and interventions in the Middle East complicated Turkish position in the region, where Turkey tries to deal especially with the Kurdish issue and avoid any clashes with regional extremism. Turkey attempts to adapt to these new conditions and at the same time to safeguard its vital interests. As a state which wants to act as an important energy hub in the region, Turkey needs resources to satisfy not only domestic demand but also foreign consumers. Energy needs thus considerably influence relations with states rich in supplies, among which Russia and Iran are no exception. This applies not only for Turkey, but as well for members of the European Union.

EU and Turkey – another episode in never ending story

After initial success in carrying out far-reaching reforms in many areas, containing the power of military, improving the standing of Kurdish people in Turkey and making progress on Cyprus and Armenia issues, EU opened the accession negotiations with Turkey. In Turkish eyes, when the Annan plan for reunification of Cyprus has been defeated by Greek part, EU awarded the Republic of Cyprus membership and immediately imposed unacceptable demand on Turkey. Turkey should have applied the rules of customs union on new member states of EU (i.e. also Republic of Cyprus). This would mean de facto recognition of Republic of Cyprus as a representative of the whole island, which would mean abandoning the Cypriot Turks and Turkish interests on the island. When Turkey refused, some of the negotiation chapters have been frozen right away, followed by more being blocked by Greece and France which claimed along with Germany that Turkey should not become the EU member, but may be given special “privileged partnership” status instead. Some of EU member states passed domestic laws, which oblige them to put Turkish membership in EU to public vote in referenda – in case that Turkey fulfilled all accession criteria and satisfied all EU member states demands (which would most likely result in denial of membership). Lastly, in the second half of 2012, Republic of Cyprus holds presidency in the Council of the European Union, which marks possibly the worst period of relations between EU and Turkey in the 21st century so far, when Turkey refuses to acknowledge this role for Republic of Cyprus and to be satisfied with anything less than full EU membership. In light of these developments, there is little incentive for Turkey to follow in the EU direction more vigorously, especially when there is no additional room for accession negotiations progress, when almost all remaining negotiation chapters are frozen by EU member states.

Because of this, less interest of Turkey in EU can be explained by European understanding of Turkey as “being in but not of Europe” (Rumelili, 2011, p. 236), or simply not European and not destined for EU membership. Davutoğlu argues that Turkey cannot wait forever at the EU door, and needs to develop a genuinely multidirectional foreign policy by utilizing its geostrategic advantages (Murinson, 2006, p. 952).

In this situation, it is not for the first time when Turkey, disappointed by EU´s approach, diverted part of its attention towards the East (as e.g. in 1997, when it failed to secure candidate status). Yet it would be simplistic to view Turkey’s activism in the Middle East as a reaction to its exclusion from the EU. Even if Turkey was a member of the EU, it would be exercising its institutional power in order to shape European foreign policy in the direction of closer engagement with the region (Rumelili, 2011, p. 243).

Relations with Israel and USA, Middle East and NATO

Important changes happened in relations of Turkey with Israel. Turkey had for years very good relations with Israel, undertook common military exercises and even attempted to mediate between Israel and Syria. Since then, many things have changed. There was a famous quarrel between Erdoğan and Perez in Davos, a cancelled military exercise, humiliation of Turkish ambassador in Israel and most notably the Gaza flotilla incident. In its quest for closer relations with other Muslim nations, where Turkey wants to claim the leading role, Turkey decided to ignore the Israeli-Palestinian issue no more. Since “the key to the hearts of Arabs and Muslims is the Palestinian issue. Turkey has criticized and will continue to criticize Israel for its policies and its positions that have obstructed peace” (Middle East Reporter, 2010, p. 10).

That all could have been bearable in the eyes of the West, if there were not for few cases, which seriously increased doubts about Turkish motivation and damaged Turkish image. It was the invitation of the Hamas leader Khalad Mashal, when Turkey tried to integrate Hamas as winner of elections in the Palestinian territories into the peace process and later the invitation of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese leader indicted by the International War Crimes Tribunal, when Turkey was after getting Sudan’s support for the former’s UN Security Council membership (Sözen, 2010, p. 120). Israel also cannot forget Turkish support for Iranian nuclear program, “those who criticize Iran’s nuclear program continue to possess the same weapons,” said Erdoǧan (Haaretz, 2009). But in the long term, Turkish–Israeli relations have most probably already reached the lowest point and will improve in the course of the coming years (Erhan, 2012).

Main point of contention for Turkey in time of US intervention in Iraq was safeguarding the territorial integrity of Iraq. Greatest fears were voiced -that Iraq would disintegrate into three parts, with the neighbouring one constituting a Kurdish entity (or state), which would raise the pressure for Kurdish autonomy or a state within Turkey. Even a slight possibility of this scenario was unacceptable. But it did not mean that Turkey would break its ties with US. Almost ten years later when the situation escalated in Libya and especially in Syria on the Turkish doorstep, with similar implications for Turkey as in case of Iraq, USA assessed that military intervention in Syria is not really desirable. Under these circumstances, both US and Turkish officials advocate change of regime in Syria and their countries enjoy one of the best periods of cooperation in history. In case of Syria, Turkey is following almost the same pattern as in case of Iraq.

When Syrian regime proved too violent, Turkey provided space for the so-called “Friends of Syria” meetings on Turkish soil, but did not support military intervention. When violence in Syria escalated and inflow of refugees from Syrian Kurdish area increased, this was immediately evaluated as a threat to Turkish security and possible for arrival of PKK members to Turkey. And so there are not only humanitarian but also security reasons behind Turkish animosity towards the Syrian leadership. Turkey initially acted as one of the last friends of Syria in the region, but with passing time and increasing number of civilian casualties as well as refugees on Turkish territory, the time for Syria is already up. Civil war touches upon Turkish interests, causes unrest on her borders and may serve as a possible entry point for further PKK members. Importance of the whole thing has been underlined by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who described the situation in Syria an internal Turkish issue (Mohammed, 2011, p. 88).

Turkish role in the Syrian issue is quite complicated. Turkey needs to stay away from the military intervention in order not to lose support of fellow Muslim nations, support the Syrian opposition and prepare ground for future possible cooperation with new Syrian political elite, as well as diminish the intensity of the conflict to avert even greater humanitarian crisis on its doorstep. In this case, in contrast to Iraq in 2003, we are witnessing very close Turkish and US cooperation to solve the problem to the best interests of both (Aljazeera, 2012).

Since Iran is currently the only main regional friend of Syria, relations between Iran and Turkey are deteriorating. Turkey established closer ties with all neighbours (even tried to improve those with Armenia, but was slowed down by the Nagorno Karabakh problem) including Iran. Western countries, and especially Israel, became increasingly worried over Iran´s nuclear programme. Turkey has been confident that the generally enhanced relations with Muslim and Arabic countries would keep Turkey off target for Islamic forces.

But no matter how Turkey and Iran act, there are issues to be resolved by mutual cooperation and at the same time attributes inherent to both Turkey and Iran, which make them natural rivals in the region (Sunni and Shia, Turkish secular state and NATO membership, etc.). They share common interests in dealing with Kurdish issue and the energy agenda, but at the same time try to limit influence of the other in the region. Turkey voiced its support for Iranian nuclear programme, even hosted the talks on this topic, but in the end joined the US and EU led sanctions on Iranian oil exports (EUbusiness.com, 2012).

Turkey continues to play a significant role in NATO missions, when using its unique identity among the member states in relations with the states in the Middle East and Central Asia regions. Turkey did not suffer a single fatality as a result of hostile fire in Afghanistan (Taylor, 2009). “The respectability and importance of Turkish Armed Forces in Afghanistan illustrates the fact that the NATO forces hoisted the Turkish flag on their convoys while launching an operation and returning from it in order not to be attacked although it is forbidden” (Eksi, 2010, p. 146, 147).

Conclusions

Contemporary Turkish foreign and security policy is truly different than the traditional Kemalist concept. It has been partially caused by external and systemic changes. On the other hand, main differences dwell in the fact that the military has been put under firm civilian and political control, unlike in previous days and in development of “Strategic Depth” doctrine, which has been put to use. It favours not only ties with West, but also calls for activism in all regional systems around Turkey, as well as engagement with Turkeys’ neighbours. These new relations should improve Turkish position on the international stage, and especially in the Muslim world. They should not constitute absolute alternative to the western allegiance, but rather complement it. This is also connected to criticism of Israel´s handling of the Palestinian issue, but does not mean severance of all ties with Israel. In light of current developments, there are prospects for slow but continual improvements in mutual relations. As eloquently put in leading Turkish newspapers, “Turkey’s heart is with Gaza but its mind looks westward”(Todays Zaman, 2010).

Turkey and USA cooperate very carefully on the Syrian issue, which serves to bring them much closer than in previous years. But it does not mean total obedience to US interests, “the Obama administration is now facing a stronger and more assertive government in Ankara that can and will disagree on key foreign policy issues, ranging from Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s Gaza offensive” (Walker, 2010, p. 3).

Syria became not much more than a burden on Turkish shoulders and ties with NATO and EU states remained closer and stronger than those with Iran. Turkey is continuously contributing to NATO missions and as a Muslim member with positive ties to Middle East and Central Asia is even more valuable. Regarding the current unpleasant situation in EU-Turkish relations, EU should focus more on engaging Turkey in mutual cooperation as much as possible. There is already a back-up plan developed by Enlargement Commissioner Štefan Fülle called the “positive agenda.” If given real substance, this could be the basis for real “privileged partnership,” which could theoretically in the future under very favourable circumstances be transformed into full membership.

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Šulík, Rudolf , 2012, Turkish Foreign and Security Policy: Challenge for EU and NATO?  In: Majer, M. – Ondrejcsák, R. – Tarasovič, V. (eds.): Panorama of global security environment 2012. Bratislava: CENAA, pp. 245-258.

This analysis was written by

Šulík Rudolf – who has on this site

Rudolf Šulík holds a PhDr. degree in international relations, currently a Ph.D candidate of international relations at Faculty of Political Sciences and International Relations in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. He studied at Fatih University in Turkey, participated in international conferences, most notably in Ankara, and completed internships at MFA and MOD of the Slovak Republic and other in Brussels, Berlin and Adana. His main subjects of research include – EU CFSP, Enlargement (Turkey, Serbia).