The Turkish Sonderweg: The New Turkey’s role in the global order

The overarching features of Turkey’s neo-nationalism are the cult of state worship, an evergreen suspicion of foreign enemies, and an emphasis on the central role of a strong leader.

Right in front of Istanbul’s brand-new airport, which opened in April 2019 and is one of the largest in the world, stands a mosque. Until a few months ago, a huge poster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – which read: “We are building the New Turkey” – stood at its entrance.

But what is the New Turkey? Since 2014, the supporters of the Turkish president have been using the term as the antithesis of what they regard as an elitist, pro-Western regime – a shorthand for the rebirth of a nation under Erdogan’s gaze. Yet there is more to it than simply a negation of Turkey’s former political culture. The New Turkey is also a forward-looking project to expand the country’s global role in the twenty-first century. In a multipolar world marked by geopolitical competition, Erdogan’s Turkey wants to be a standalone power with a foot in each camp.

Neither east nor west, transatlanticist nor Eurasianist – Turkey’s current leaders hope to forge a non-aligned power on the periphery of Europe. The project is helped by the decline of the Western liberal order and US President Donald Trump’s disregard for the multilateral institutions that Turkey has been a part of for decades. In this self-centred world, Turkey’s fears and ambitions converge on an evitable outcome. With the rise of Turkish nationalism and an increasingly assertive foreign policy, Turkey is pursuing its Sonderweg (special path).

Sonderweg is a term typically used in reference to Germany – and there is always a danger in borrowing an expression from another country’s history. But this can also be useful. Historians have used Sonderweg to refer to the dilemmas Germany has wrestled at various times in its modern history – and to underline its revisionist impulses during these periods. Turkey’s own circumstances and history are, of course, unique. But the idea that Turkey’s interests are better served through a non-aligned path; the notion that Turkey is destined to be a great power; and the self-conscious effort to differentiate Turkey from others in its region are all themes that echo the debate on German history.

The prevailing sense in Ankara is that Turkey’s external engagements in Libya and Syria, and its military footprint elsewhere in the Middle East, are a necessity, if not a part of its destiny

This is not to suggest that Turkey’s Sonderweg will replicate Germany’s. Turkey will have its own course. The overarching features of the country’s neo-nationalism are the cult of state worship, an evergreen suspicion of foreign enemies, and an emphasis on the central role of a strong leader – championed by Erdogan’s supporters as a necessity for the survival of the state. Erdogan is not exclusively nationalist, Ottomanist, or Islamist – he is a mixture of all these things. But Ottomanism is central to Turkey’s Sonderweg in that the conservative rulers of modern Turkey want to constantly remind the nation of a glorified past, whether in new television dramas or in theme parks, and to promise a golden future.

Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) laid the ideological foundations of the concept early in its 18-year reign. In his seminal work Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic Depth), former Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu advocated a kind of Turkish Sonderweg – arguing that, to fulfil its historical destiny and emerge as a global superpower, Turkey would need to complement its Western orientation with deeper involvement in the Middle East and the Balkans. While Davutoglu has left office, his approach remains the guiding principle for the cadres that run Turkish foreign policy in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. Turkey no longer seems willing to contract out its neighbourhood policy to transatlantic institutions or the European Union. The cold war deal no longer works.

The failed coup attempt of 2016 and Turkish perceptions of the West’s culpability in the plot significantly changed the calculus in Ankara. When Turkey’s current leaders look around, they see an increasingly Hobbesian world full of hostile powers, in which Turkey is a lone wolf. The prevailing sentiment among Erdogan and his bureaucrats is that Turkey will work with the West or work around it in a fierce geopolitical competition.

But how far can Turkey go in that direction? What is the country’s capacity to exert influence beyond its borders? As big as it can manage, it seems. The prevailing sense in Ankara is that Turkey’s external engagements in Libya and Syria, and its military footprint elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, are a necessity, if not a part of its destiny – but certainly not a liability. “Within half a century, even if we don’t end up witnessing it, Turkey will emerge as one of the strongest powers of the world, sailing into larger accomplishments,” Erdogan said in February 2020. “[Turkey will] be crowned with victories from Iraq to Syria – from the Eastern Mediterranean to other regions.”

Ankara’s confidence in its own path manifests in its quest for self-sufficiency in defence procurement and its desire to expand its military footprint in regional conflicts. Over the past few years, Turkey has increased its military capacity by opening bases in Qatar and Somalia, deploying troops to Libya, providing training in Sudan, and supporting Sunni militia groups in Syria. It has developed defence capabilities in flagship Turkish projects in various stages of development – such as Turkish-made tanks, missiles, sniper rifles, frigates, submarines, armoured vehicles, and, of course, drones. All this underlines Turkey’s goal of reducing its dependency on the outside world (mostly NATO allies) in defence procurement.

No doubt, Erdogan’s Turkey wants its place under the sun – and will pursue autonomous policies in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East. The idea that the West is in decline – and, therefore, Turkey should not bet on it – remains a major theme of Turkish politics. The New Turkey will be challenged by capacity issues and the glaring gap between its ambitions and true reach. But the strong ideological foundations of the New Turkey and the country’s historical experiences suggest that its Sonderweg is likely to outlast the Erdogan period.

A post-Erdogan Turkey may rekindle its relations with the West, but might find it difficult to become a member of the club. In the absence of a grand offer from the West, Turkey’s relationship with its traditional allies such as Europe and the United States will likely be transactional – and unpredictable. It is important that Turkey’s partners get used to a new reality in which there is not only cooperation but also conflict with Turkey. When constrained by its allies, the country will change the parameters of their relationship or go it alone, as it has in Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Whether by choice or necessity, the New Turkey will try to pursue its Sonderweg.

A longer version of this piece was originally published by the Istanbul Policy Center-Sabanci University-Stiftung Mercator Initiative.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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