Turkey’s Reactive Foreign Policy in the Covid-19 Crisis: Islam-Nationalism and Multidimensionality

This pandemic which we are in the midst of has become such a phenomenon that it appears able, in a single stroke, to eradicate the issues that were central to our daily lives at more normal times. This is also applicable to the relationships between international politics and nations. Despite the sluggish return to some issues, other key matters are still lost in the shadow of Covid-19. For instance, Brexit and the great game of dominance along the axis of gas and petroleum in the eastern Mediterranean no longer have the same presence on the agenda as they did previously. These are, undoubtedly, critical and ongoing issues, but for now, we can say that they have somewhat fallen from the front pages of newspapers. This imperative and, frankly, inherently tragic agenda change in global politics and foreign policy appears not to have affected Turkey — a relatively surprising turn of events. The fundamental reason for this is the persistence of Turkish foreign policy instrumentalised around Covid-19, rather than the disease being purely a domestic occurrence. In other words, the infighting in Turkish domestic politics has continued despite Covid-19’s gloomy conditions, while foreign policy has maintained course, embracing the issues of Islam, regional and global power struggles, soft power, public diplomacy and diaspora governance, all under the guise of Covid-19 assistance.

Installed upon the pillars of security and balance classic Turkish foreign policy, has evolved into a more active understanding, which would have been insufficient during the era of the Gülen Movement and AKP partnership. During that period, the first in which cultural and religious values were employed to the extreme, the influence of prime minister Davutoğlu submerged foreign policy into a somewhat adventurous form of proactivity. Nevertheless, burgeoning authoritarianism after 2016 and the desire to gain domestic popularity through international displays were replaced with a reactive understanding of foreign policy — one which synthesised Sunni Islam and a nationalism that carries whiffs of the nation’s Ottoman past. On the one hand, Turkey, seeking to influence the Balkans due to historical links is diving into a race for global authority alongside Saudi Arabia and Egypt by instrumentalising Islam. On the other hand, it may build relations with both western and eastern blocs to suit its own seasonal interests depending on various circumstances. My mention of reactive foreign policy refers to swift yet foundationally unstable foreign policy choices. Lying beneath this reactivity is the current administration’s view of itself as being sure about  every issue, occurrence and situation.

This pattern of political behaviour revealed itself during the pandemic. We can connect the aid distributed to more than 80 countries for Covid-19 and the repatriation of many diaspora Turks on private planes, despite the excessive cost, to foreign policy preferences that rest on a horizontally and vertically multidimensional and multilayered order.

We can also interpret the aid sent to the Balkans, for instance, as the continuation of Turkey’s claims to be a great actor in the region, with its historical, religious and cultural characteristics, in opposition to the growing regional influence of Russia and China. However, the aid sent to countries with large Muslim populations around the world — from Sudan to Somalia — represents an ongoing initiative in its foreign policy choices to be seen as the dominant actor of Islam and in the Muslim world. For example, Egypt, as Gerasimos Tsourapas suggested, assumed a role similar to that of Turkey and is sending material assistance to nations as an indicator of soft power, crafting an image of itself in these countries as the patron of the Muslim world. But, while the declaration ‘Aid sent from the people of Egypt to the people of the recipient nation’ is affixed to shipments from Egypt, the emblem of the Turkish president is featured on most of the aid sent from Turkey. This demonstrates that, in this struggle, a leader figure has emerged as a priority for Turkey. The use of Islam in foreign policy and this being imposed on other leaders proves the identity change in the Turkish state. The lack of notice that the aid from Egypt garnered in the international arena and Saudi Arabia’s aid being left in the dust have further highlighted Turkey in this battle.

We should interpret the assistance Turkey sent to western states along with aid agreements — though often not publicised / announced — and the support offered to the diaspora. While providing resources to countries through these agreements, to some extent, in domestic politics Turkey is working to portray the current regime as powerful. Expressed differently, this propaganda, more than explicitly sending assistance to other great nations, emphasises that Turkey is influential enough to extend its helping hand to its citizens living abroad. As the pandemic debilitates the world, it would not be feasible to measure the degree to which Turkey’s accentuation of its unfaltering endurance, has resounded around the world, though it is apparent that it is being used discursively in domestic politics.

Turkey is pursuing a multiform divergent foreign policy using Islam, transnational state apparatuses and the domestic media in the Covid-19 era. In the eyes of many countries this may appear to be true, but this situation, where the continuity of this recent and reactive foreign policy, should not come as a surprise.

A. Erdi Öztürk

Ahmet Erdi Ozturk is a lecturer in politics and international relations at London Metropolitan University. In 2021-2023 he will work as Marie Sklodowska-Curie fellow at Coventry University in the UK and at GIGA in Germany. He is also an associate researcher (Chercheur Associé) at the Institut Français d'Études Anatoliennes and editor of the International Journal of Religion. He was a Swedish Institute Pre and Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute for Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO), at Linköping University, Scholar in Residence at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. He is the author of more than 20 articles, numerous policy reports, opinion pieces and co-editor of four special issues and two books on religion and politics and Turkish politics. He is a regular contributor to media outlets such as Open Democracy, The Conversation, Huffington Post and France 24.

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