Throughout history, the African continent faced immense adversity with the rise of colonialism and the European slave trade in the late 1800s.
It is a known fact that the indigenous African communities were occupied, exploited, and killed during the European invasion of Africa, also known as the Scramble for Africa. Thus, such a long history of undesired interaction with the West transformed African communities irreversibly.
Over the centuries, African nations formed close relationships with various external actors such as China and the US in addition to the traditional actor the EU. Subsequently, the African continent not only hosted traditional actors such as the EU but also hosted other nations such as China and the US that wanted to develop their interests in the continent. Thus, it can be stated that various external actors including China, the US, India as well as the traditional actor EU construct the power dynamics in contemporary Africa.
In light of the current power dynamics in Africa, one newcomer to the African scene remains understudied: Turkey. While Turkey’s recent intervention in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean received negative responses globally and domestically, it is crucial to analyze Turkey’s prior stance as an external actor in Africa in order to understand Turkey’s motives in the region. Hence, this brief analysis of Turkish foreign policy in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean aims to provide insight into Turkey’s position in Africa while discussing the international responses to Turkey’s increasing involvement in Africa.
The literature (Ozkan, 2010; Ozkan and Akgun, 2010; Langan, 2016) suggests that Turkish foreign policy opted for a pro-Western attitude in its early stages following the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Given the founder of the modern Turkish Republic Atatürk’s ambition to be among the “civilized” nations of the West, early Turkish foreign policy matched Atatürk’s vision. Hence, Turkey operated as an extension of the West rather than a nation with an exclusive foreign policy in its early years.
Ozkan and Akgun (2010) note that this was mainly because of the Cold War era and the consequent bipolar power dynamics in the global arena. Consequently, the early Turkish foreign policy supported Western ideals partly because of its geographical proximity to the former Soviet Union as well as its fragile state as a newly established Western-style nation-state. Thereupon, two things happened: Turkey failed to act as its own state in the global arena with a unique foreign policy and its foreign policy remained extremely limited to the West. Thus, Ozkan (2010) notes that only after the 2000s Turkish foreign policymakers included Africa in Turkish foreign policy and built an exclusive agenda after the AKP (Justice and Development Party) assumed power in Turkey in 2002.
Consequently, Turkey’s recent intervention in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean raised eyebrows given its seemingly very recent and baseless presence in Africa. However, it should be noted that Turkey’s presence is not that recent, or baseless, due to its Ottoman past in the region. While the Republic of Turkey was established as a Western-style nation-state in 1923, the AKP government adopted Turkey’s Ottoman past prior to 1923 in its foreign policy.
According to Celik and Iseri (2016), Turkey adopted a “civilizational framework” that re-imagines Turkey as a “central country” with a “transnational identity” that goes beyond the borders of the Turkish nation-state under the AKP rule. While Turkey’s Neo-Ottoman re-imagination of its area of influence has been deemed as ‘worrisome’ by the EU, it should be noted that the presence of the EU is substantially evidence of Neo-colonialist ventures of the West in Africa. Consequently, it can be argued that Turkey has more potential of exerting soft power in Africa as compared to other actors due to its Ottoman past and the so-called Muslim benevolence.
Accordingly, Langan (2016) notes that “Turkey’s rise as a ‘virtuous power’ in Africa” could potentially damage “the EU’s moral credibility” in the continent. Furthermore, Asya Akca of the CSIS (2019) notes that “leaders within the African Union (AU) have stated that Erdoğan has “won hearts and minds” through his humanitarian assistance and support for Muslim communities” in Africa. Even though Turkey is portrayed as a lone player in Africa with no feasible allies in the region, possible African partners are willing to work with Turkey, nevertheless.
As some analysts predict that the second half of the 21st century will be an African century, global interest in cooperating with African nations is growing. Knowing this, African nations look for alternative options that are not necessarily China or the US. Akca (2019) notes that “the Turkish construction company Yapı Merkezi won a $3 billion railway project deal in Ethiopia and Tanzania over Chinese competitors.” And once again, the Turkish construction company had the upper hand because of Turkey’s cultural compatibility with the local community as one local resident conveys that “‘the Turkish workers know how to live and work with the local community’ because ‘they have a similar culture’” (Akca, 2019).
Accordingly, it can be asserted that Turkey has more leverage than any other actor in the continent since it has a greater potential of exerting soft power based on its Ottoman past and Muslim identity. Thus, Turkey’s newly established Neo-Ottoman foreign policy has greater potential than the EU who has a colonial history in Africa, or the US who operates based on security concerns and military interests in the region. But is this enough for Turkey to become a dominant actor in Africa and the eastern Mediterranean?
It can be stated that soft power can always benefit foreign policy strategies. However, soft power is simply not enough for a nation to become an influential actor in its targeted territory. Hence, Turkey’s next step in Africa should be reinforcing its Neo-Ottoman foreign policy with realistic elements such as economic and military prowess in the region. In this sense, it can be concluded that Turkey’s recent intervention in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean is a step in that direction.
Research by Eylül Arslan