The Erdoğan Doctrine in the Wake of Turkey’s Elections

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his new cabinet following his victory in the May 2023 presidential election, a positive mood ensued. Turkey observers especially celebrated his appointment of Mehmet Şimşek, a former Merrill Lynch economist, as finance minister. During the election campaign, Şimşek—who had served as minister of finance from 2009 to 2015—had initially rejected Erdoğan’s offer to rejoin his team, but then agreed to do so after the election. Another presidential appointment was remarkable: for the first time, Turkey’s central bank is now led by a woman, Hafize Gaye Erkan, who earlier held high-level positions at Goldman Sachs and First Republic Bank. Şimşek’s first speech raised hopes, as he confessed that Turkey has to return to “rational ground” to ensure predictability in the economy, a statement that was widely interpreted as saying that Erdoğan now regrets pursuing unorthodox policies and is aiming to make a pragmatic shift.

The Turkish president, however, created confusion when he reiterated that his perspectives in driving economic policy have not changed, but that his appointees will have leeway to move away from his unconventional approach. The skepticism now showing in global markets is not surprising. Analyzing Erdoğan’s cabinet appointments made sense in the early years of his time as president, during which a culture of teamwork was appreciated in the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. With the introduction of a new presidential system in 2018, however, strong centralization was established under the Turkish presidency, as modern Turkey’s then 95-year-old parliamentary system was discarded to pave the way for a structural shift. In the past five years, Erdoğan has replaced four Central Bank chiefs, and his cabinet members have found little freedom in making independent decisions, effectively reducing their role to senior advisors to the president.

Pragmatic maneuvers, transactional negotiations, hostage diplomacy, and tactful brinksmanship will define Turkish foreign policy in the near future.

Thus, advocates for Turkey’s return to reason—including the new finance minister—may not find Erdoğan very accommodating. In Erdoğan’s reckoning, his election victory has only vindicated him, making him an even stronger believer in his own reasoning. It is reasonable to expect that an emboldened Erdoğan will aim to consolidate his power by trying to retake the Istanbul and Ankara municipalities in Turkey’s nationwide local elections in March 2024. Therefore, he still needs to balance voices supporting structural reform with those advocating for the perpetuation of everyday populism that pays off in the short run but that leads to long-term consequences. Erdoğan’s 2023 electoral strategy was confusing to most spectators, but consistent from his own point of view. Erdoğan pursued strategic ambiguity on the most divisive issues, a strategy that provided him with votes from opposing sides. It was this ambiguity that made him favorable for both Syrian-Turkish voters and nativists, that granted him votes from both Kurdish conservatives and Turkish ultranationalists, and that allowed him to swing between pro-western and anti-western tropes in winning the support of Turkey’s business elite.

Strategic ambiguity has worked well for Erdoğan in both domestic and foreign policy matters, and until he is proved wrong, nothing will alter the way he operates. To be sure, pragmatic maneuvers, transactional negotiations, hostage diplomacy, and tactful brinksmanship will define Turkish foreign policy in the near future. This is the Erdoğan doctrine in the making.

A Top Priority: Seeking Foreign Investments to Avoid Economic Collapse

Erdoğan’s first priority is obvious. Turkey’s banking system is on the brink of collapse, and will remain there unless the government intervenes to help, thereby giving foreign investors confidence. That is why the new finance minister is making promises to usher in accountability, rules-based policymaking, transparency, predictability, and compliance with international norms. Such promises can only be realized by upholding the rule of law and restoring confidence in Turkey’s failing judicial system. It is therefore critical to watch Erdoğan’s steps regarding notorious judicial cases such as those of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala and Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas. To reassure foreign investors, senior AKP officials expect that Erdoğan’s new cabinet will announce steps to repair the judicial system.

If the Erdoğan doctrine is a lens to evaluate the issue, the Kavala case offers a good opportunity for analysis. Kavala has been serving a life sentence for the crime of allegedly trying to overthrow the Turkish government by financing the 2013 Gezi Park protests. The European Court of Human Rights, of which Turkey is a member country, has ruled that his detention is a violation of international norms. In the West, the Kavala case has now become a symbol of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism. Transactional negotiations and hostage diplomacy are not foreign to Erdoğan, who is using the case as an asset. The new cabinet may indeed announce some judicial reforms, but these would be only window dressing. For example, if Kavala is released by a court order, the Turkish government will likely be quick to propagate it as evidence of an independent judiciary, succeeding in winning some European support. But such an action would not see a simultaneous addressing of systemic problems.

The president’s new cabinet will likely begin ushering in new economic and judicial packages to gain international trust.

Thus, it is reasonable to expect that Erdoğan will offer the Turkish people old wine in a new bottle. The president’s new cabinet will likely begin ushering in new economic and judicial packages to gain international trust. But expecting Erdoğan to uphold the rule of law with accountability and freedom of speech would be ill-advised. If interest rates are increased in order to tame inflation and bring back foreign investors, Erdoğan may still fire the new Central Bank chief because of an expected slower economic outcome, which will complicate his calculus regarding the March 2024 local elections. Emboldened by Erdoğan’s recent victory, the Turkish government is continuing to harass opposition journalists and media personalities. Most recently, Turkish singer Atilla Tas was arraigned on criminal charges against him, including insulting the president in 2014—a charge the government leveled against 16,573 people in 2022 alone.

Syria Is at the Top of the Regional Policy Agenda

The Erdoğan doctrine is also useful for analyzing what may be coming on the Syrian front and what Ankara’s regional policy will look like in the near future. The recent appointment of Hakan Fidan, former chief of the Turkish National Intelligence Organization, as the new foreign minister is the best evidence of centralization around Erdoğan using an “surveillance state” model. Fidan is perhaps the only confidant who has endured around him in the past two decades. He served as the key interlocutor on many critical files, including the Oslo peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Iran nuclear deal negotiations, deals with Syrian opposition groups, and most recently, renewed meetings with the Assad regime in Syria. The spymaster was behind the extrajudicial kidnappings of many Turkish dissidents around the globe, and enforced disappearances and torture by intelligence agents skyrocketed under his watch. Erdoğan could not find a better candidate to run the foreign ministry with a culture of hostage diplomacy, transactional deals, and secret extortions—the very defining features of the Erdoğan doctrine.

On the Syrian front, Erdoğan’s election victory put him in a stronger position. Ankara has escalated drone attacks in northern Syria, including an attack that targeted Russian soldiers in Aleppo Province. Although the Kremlin did not publicly respond to the attack, Russia announced a meeting of representatives from Syria, Iran, and Turkey in Astana on June 21, with the goal of preparing a roadmap to advance Turkey-Syria ties.

Turkey’s first National Security Council meeting after the elections put Syrian refugees as its top concern. Erdoğan will ask for Putin’s support to expand Turkish safe zones in northern Syria, forming an Arab belt against the Kurdish separatist threat by sending refugees back to this area. Such maximalist plans are sure to be protested by the Assad regime, which demands Russia’s help to ensure Turkey’s retreat from the occupied territories in northern Syria. Ankara will benefit from the current status quo; more construction is on the way in the occupied territories, and thanks to a new Qatar-backed initiative, a total of 240,000 homes will be constructed in nine locations across northwestern Syria, aiming to create permanent cities to repatriate one million Syrians from Turkey. Moreover, given Russia’s now stalemated war in Ukraine, Erdoğan is no longer worried about joint Syria-Russia advances causing the collapse of the Turkish-backed Idlib opposition government. It is not hard to see that Turkey-Syria talks will face deadlock in the short term. However, Erdoğan will be keen to keep negotiating with Damascus to stop the Assad regime from developing stronger ties with the Syrian Kurds. Turkey’s intentions may appear confusing to Damascus, but the back-and-forth will remain fully consistent with the Erdoğan doctrine.

Turkey’s New Geopolitics: Sustainability, Not Consistency

The hardest test for Erdoğan’s brinksmanship skills will be Turkey’s posture in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). There is an emerging western perception that Erdoğan’s Turkey is not a true ally in NATO due to both the cozy relations with Moscow and Turkish government officials’ hostile anti-western rhetoric. The Ukraine war has provided an opportunity to rehabilitate Erdoğan’s image through a narrative that depicts Turkey as a useful mediator in delivering positive outcomes for NATO members. However, Erdoğan faces a tough challenge over Sweden’s accession to the alliance. Turkey’s objections to Sweden’s membership are becoming more irritating as the annual NATO summit, set to be held in July, fast approaches. The longevity of the crisis is not helping to restore Erdoğan’s image in the West, but without any guarantees to conclude a pending F-16 deal with the United States, Erdoğan is not willing to end the drama.

Turkey will likely be recognized as a marginal NATO member whose independent policies need to be tolerated.

The entire episode gives a hint of what the future of Turkey-NATO relations will look like, wherein Turkish exceptionalism will define the transactional nature of the relationship. As a free rider, Turkey will continue to undermine the bilateral trust element that was traditionally expected from Ankara. Turkey is not going to lose its NATO membership; rather, the likely outcome is that it will be recognized as a marginal member whose independent policies need to be tolerated.

Turkey’s geopolitical choices in the Black Sea region, as well as its policy in the Eastern Mediterranean will be closely watched by NATO members. In his new term, Erdoğan will be building upon what he has already sown: the amelioration of ties with Israel and Egypt, keeping Gulf states on Turkey’s side at the expense of Greece, and finding a negotiable path among different factions in Libya. Overall, the Erdoğan doctrine does not seek consistency; the goal will be to achieve the sustainability of Turkish exceptionalism in geopolitics.

Where Does Washington Stand in Facing the Erdoğan Doctrine?

A recent interview with US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan revealed the Biden administration’s perspective in dealing with Erdoğan’s Turkey. Sullivan stated that Turkey is “charting an independent foreign policy but one in which we can have a constructive relationship with them even in the defense space”—a reference to the F-16 deal. It is striking that Washington’s expectations from Turkey have become so minimal that the F-16 transaction between the Biden and Erdoğan teams is being marked as a win despite enduring bipartisan objections to the arrangement in Congress. Sullivan’s answer to a question on anti-American discourse in the Turkish government was also revelatory. He called Turkey a democracy, without making any comments on the new reality of the Putinesque regime under Erdoğan’s presidential system. Thus, Washington is signaling that it would not care about Turkey’s domestic developments as long as the transactional aspects of the bilateral relationship are secured.

The Erdoğan doctrine is thus emerging as a winner. This new reality is forcing an adjustment of western expectations regarding Turkish foreign policy. The idea of Turkish exceptionalism has benefited from images that represent Turkey as being “both East and West,” culturally and geographically. Yet the Erdoğan doctrine is not immune to major risks. The doctrine is not based on intellectual rigor; rather it rests on skillful brinksmanship and successful execution. Such a model is not easily replicable and is hard to sustain in the long run. Given the close linkage between Turkey’s domestic politics and its foreign affairs, the management of the economy will be the greatest puzzle for Erdoğan. The close nature of the domestic policy-foreign policy nexus is also a reminder to Turkey’s western allies, who should never dismiss the domestic scene in the country. Erdoğan’s structural efforts to establish a Putinesque regime at home will have long-term consequences on Turkish foreign policy. The Erdoğan doctrine may outlast Erdoğan himself, but its successful implementation will not be easy for future Turkish presidents.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Twitter/Recep Tayyip Erdoğan