The Origins of Turkish Expansionism and Militarism in its Foreign Policy

By Guillermo Pulido Pulido

Turkey’s foreign policy, over the past few years, has become progressively more expansionist, militarized and confronted with its Western partners.

Erdogan’s Turkey did not always have this drift. Let us remember that until a few years ago Turkey pressed to be a member of the European Union and made internal reforms to adapt to be accepted (the death penalty was abolished, justice reforms to increase judicial independence, etc.).

The usual explanation often given, that of former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s neo-Ottoman doctrine of “Strategic Depth” as the source of Turkish expansive and militaristic behavior, is unsatisfactory. The concept of strategic depth is based in turn on the concept of “zero problems with neighbors”, which indicates a non-coercive and peaceful approach with its neighbors (as opposed to current expansionism and militarism).

Davutoglu noted that Turkish relations with its neighbors were characterized by mistrust and coercion. In fact, during the 1990s Turkey was on the brink of war on several occasions: in 1992 with Armenia, in 1996 with Greece and in 1998 with Syria.

According to Davutoglu, Turkey had to change this aggressive and coercive drift by taking advantage of its Islamic and Turkic cultural heritage, forging a series of new cooperative alliances. In addition, Turkey should also move away from the Westernism and Atlanticism of post-WWII foreign policy (NATO membership, etc.), and should take advantage of its central geographic position as a nexus between Europe and the East.

Drivers of change

However, several events, internal and external, have converged so that Turkish foreign policy has been moving away from the peaceful intentions of Davutoglu, who tried to make Turkey a great regional power based on an eminently geocultural perspective.

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Result of the last Turkish parliamentary elections (2018)

The first of these events were the parliamentary elections June 2015, in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdogan lost the majority it had enjoyed since 2002, which started a negotiating process with the party of far right of the MHP led by Bahceli, after the new parliamentary elections in November made him lose half of his seats. Since then, anti-Kurdish rhetoric, anti-Western political positions, as well as greater assertiveness and aggressiveness, are explained by the influence of the extreme right in the Erdogan governments.

The Western policy towards the Kurds, is another root of the current increased aggressiveness in Turkish foreign policy. Both the US and its European allies began to favor the Kurds to fight the Islamic State and other jihadist militias had spread throughout Iraq and Syria (in 2014 Mosul had fallen and the so-called Caliphate of ISIS was constituted).

Negotiations between the Turkish government and the Kurds failed in 2015, and a war broke out in the Kurdish area Turkey with the Kurds of the PKK. Since Westerners wanted to create a practically independent Kurdish area in northern Syria that would serve as a logistics base for the PKK, Turkey began a series of military operations to create a zone of influence in northern Syria and create a security zone.

Current situation in northern Syria, after several Turkish offensive military operations in recent years

For its part, European Union by accepting Cyprus as a member in 2004 and de facto rejecting (freezing) Turkey’s accession to the EU, also induced Turkish foreign policy to become more Eurasianist (increase ties with Russia, Iran, etc.). Turkey considers that its rights and interests in its adjacent Aegean and Mediterranean seas are heavily undermined by the Exclusive Economic Zones of the Greek islands and Cyprus.

These challenges to national security and subsequent military operations broke with the “create problems” policy of the previous era. In 2016 Turkey published a new Security Concept, which advocated military intervention abroad to defend the national interest; an armaments policy was established that would achieve the greatest possible national autonomy in the manufacture of weapons; it was recommended to create military bases abroad; etc.

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Today, Turkey has bases and military personnel present in Qatar, Somalia, Libya, etc., and has not hesitated to use armed force and deploy its military in expeditionary operations.

Turkey today produces most of its military equipment

The 2016 coup attempt, is another inducer of the current Turkish foreign policy. Traditionally, Turkey’s foreign policy had been dominated by the bureaucratic apparatuses of the Armed Forces and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which were more pro-Western). Erdogan was eroding the power of these bureaucracies in various processes (such as the one derived from the Ergenekon case) through continuous purges.

After the 2016 coup attempt, which Erdogan interpreted as a maneuver by Western governments, the “deep state”, the Gulen organization and Arab governments such as that of the United Arab Emirates. In reaction, Erdogan carried out a deep and extensive purge of the entire public bureaucracy, thus eliminating many civil servants and public employees who hindered the implementation of the policies emanating from the Turkish president.

This also added many Eurasianists to the governmental elite. Seeking to improve relations with countries traditionally opposed to the West (such as Russia and Iran), now it was not a simple question of ideology of a particular vision of how foreign policy should be, but it was imperative for Erdogan’s political survival.

Finally, another fundamental factor that explains the greater assertiveness of Turkish foreign policy is found in the 2017 political reform that made Turkey a presidential regime. Erdogan saw in presidentialism, a way to consolidate himself in power. Remember that presidential elections are won by majority and give all executive power to the winner without having to seek parliamentary support. As the AKP hovers around just over 40% of the vote, and his MHP partner around 11%, Erdogan could perpetuate himself in power without fear of hypothetical parliamentary paralysis, motions of no confidence, etc.

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In addition, the broad executive powers that the presidency has in a presidential system, allows to circumvent the bureaucracies of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Armed Forces, facilitating the execution of much more expeditious policies. This is one of the reasons that presidential countries such as the United States or France tend to have a much more decisive foreign policy than parliamentary democracies, which, if the ruling party does not have absolute majorities, requires constant negotiations between various political parties of the government coalition.


That Turkish foreign policy is currently so militarized and expansionist does not obey an ideology with a hidden agenda that Erdogan and the AKP had to re-found the Ottoman Empire.

On the contrary, the current policy is mainly a progressive reaction to the serious security challenges that, gradually, the Turkish state and the Erdogan government have been facing, and thus try to ensure their survival in the face of these existential threats from both abroad and within. .

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