Turkey: All Alone in Global Space?

IWMPost Article

Turkey has had few strong and enduring international alliances. Its ambiguous standing between rich “Northern” and poor “Southern” countries is part of a constellation that has prompted feelings of loneliness and misfit among Turkish officials. While shaped by Turkish particularities, however, these experiences also reflect a recent trend in which an increasing number of countries face uncertain and shifting global positions.

Turkey is alone. This is what government officials in Ankara state off the record when asked whether the country has any natural allies in global politics. Formally, Turkey is embedded in a plethora of international groupings, from the United Nations and the Organization for Islamic Cooperation to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and smaller bodies such as the Turkic Council. At a closer look, however, Turkey’s international position has never been stable or squarely in line with dominant templates. As a successor state of the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey has gone through fundamental transformations over the last century. Together with political upheaval, financial crises, economic growth, and waves of authoritarianism at home, it has faced a complex position in international circles. Outside the European Union and in a difficult relationship with Russia, Turkey is embroiled in tensions with most of its neighbors, from Greece to Armenia, Iran, and Syria. Relations with Arab partners such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have fluctuated significantly. Frictions with India and China have centered on the fate of Muslim populations within both countries’ territories. For Turkish diplomats, strong and enduring alliances have been a scarce good.

An often-overlooked field where Turkish experiences of loneliness or misfit have been particularly visible is international development. A dominant view holds that international cooperation on development-related issues—from poverty reduction to the fight against climate change—mostly unfolds along binary lines: rich(er) “developed” countries in the “North” support poor(er) “developing” countries in the “South.” While this simplistic narrative overlooks obvious complexity, the North-South binary has been a defining feature for the institutions and practices of international cooperation. Turkey has always been at odds with this binary. Unlike most “developing countries,” it was never formally colonized. To the contrary, the Ottoman Empire was part of nineteenth-century alliances among colonial powers, even though the dominance of European imperialism contributed to its demise. In the twentieth century, the Republic of Turkey was long qualified as a developing country by international organizations. It never joined the club of Northern donors within the OECD and still receives development assistance from abroad. At the same time, however, Turkey has also had a lukewarm relationship with projects of Southern solidarity and remained outside of the official developing-country grouping at the United Nations.

Since the turn of the millennium, successive Turkish governments under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party) have tried to bolster Turkey’s standing as a donor country in line with OECD standards, while trying to highlight the extent to which Turkish altruism contrasts with Northern self-serving practices. They have strengthened Turkey’s development agency and expanded links across world regions, arguably to present Turkey as a benevolent force, to strengthen political ties, and to secure markets for Turkish companies. Turkish cooperation initiatives have mostly targeted Muslim-majority societies in the Middle East, Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and Africa but also countries in the Pacific and Latin America. More recently, the government has begun to frame these expanding relations as “South-South” cooperation, suggesting that Turkey is not a typical Northern donor but indeed part of the South. Turkey’s partner countries are often full of praise for their “big brother,” as representatives from war-torn Somalia have put it. Others have been more critical, highlighting links between the Turkish government’s efforts to stage superiority abroad and increase the authoritarian grip at home.

Irrespective of how one judges decisions taken by Erdoğan and his administration, Turkish particularities shed a different light on established forms of international interaction. Turkey is neither a Southern developing country nor a Northern developed country. It still receives development assistance but also acts as an increasingly vocal cooperation provider. This position unsettles the traditional binaries that have shaped international cooperation institutions and arguably epitomizes the in-between: Turkish roles and positions draw on elements of both Northern and Southern engagement patterns and, increasingly, challenge the very binary underlying these framings. In times of major international power shifts—from the economic and political rise of China to the relative decline of Western European countries and the United States—Turkish experiences contribute to recalibrating the global geographies of influence and wealth.

Turkey’s rather atypical position in the politics of international cooperation, for all its specificity, also reflects a more general trend. Experiences of misfit with traditional North-South templates are shared by a growing number of countries, from Mexico, Brazil or Colombia to India and Indonesia. They also resonate with smaller states such as Costa Rica or Rwanda that, irrespective of their domestic challenges, provide assistance to other countries. In different ways, they all defy the binary of rich Northern donors and poor Southern recipients. Turkish realities, then, are not an isolated phenomenon in global space. While Turkey faces a particular set of challenges as a country straddling Europe and the Middle East, similar experiences of misfit and unease with traditional frameworks are increasingly widespread. Once—or still—dominant global players, including the United States and Western European countries, are also not immune to the potential fragility of international life. Their uncoordinated and self-absorbed initial reactions to the coronavirus pandemic are only one example of challenges to their seemingly stable positions in the politics of international cooperation. They highlight the extent to which taken-for-granted assumptions about interstate relations—including the distinction between the capable North and the destitute South—need to be revisited. Across the board, questions about ambiguity and disorientation in a complex and evolving world are unlikely to fade away soon. In this, Turkey is far from alone.

Sebastian Haug is a post-doctoral researcher at the German Development Institute (DIE) and Ernst Mach Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).