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Approaches to and Perceptions of Foreign Policy in Turkey 2021

Dr. Pınar Sayan, Edgar Şar

The research in Approaches to and Perceptions of Foreign Policy in Turkey” aims to analyze the overall approach of different voter groups towards foreign policy, and their opinions about the weaknesses and strengths of Turkish foreign policy. This report, which is a follow-up of the policy paper “Main Conflicts in Turkey’s Foreign Policy” published by Istanbul Political Research Institute (IstanPol) in June, focuses on the perceived problems in Turkey’s foreign policy, the causes of and suggested solutions to these problems, existing or potential threats in foreign policy, the perception of “friends” and “enemies” in Turkey’s international relations, opinions about the militarization of Turkish foreign policy, and views about the European Union as identified during focus group discussions.


Due to the increased mutual influence of domestic and foreign politics and the association of foreign policy matters with domestic political processes, there is now more need than ever for in-depth analyses into how Turkish society approaches the country’s current foreign policy. In this context, this report uses the focus group method, with six focus group discussions held with 49 respondents. In the next section, the methodology and respondents’ profiles will be described. Subsequently the research findings will be discussed.

  • The research in “Approaches to and Perceptions of Foreign Policy in Turkey” aims to analyze the overall perceptions and attitudes among voters of both the ruling bloc and opposition parties regarding Turkey’s foreign policy. The research utilized the focus group method, with a total of 49 people included in six focus group discussions and 6-10 participants in each session. When creating the focus groups, the voters of the Cumhur İttifakı (People’s Alliance), which is the ruling bloc, and the voters of the opposition parties that have groups in the Turkish parliament were separated into different focus groups.

  • The research focuses on the perceived problematic developments in Turkish foreign policy, the causes of and suggested solutions to these problems, existing or potential threats in foreign policy, perceptions of “friends” and “enemies” in Turkish foreign relations, opinions about the militarization of Turkish foreign policy, and views about the European Union.

Overall Perception of Foreign Policy

  • In all of the focus groups, the economy, high cost of living, education and migration emerged as the most important problems of Turkey. Foreign policy was not considered one of the major problems in Turkey either by the participants who support the ruling bloc or those who support the opposition parties. Nevertheless, the question of migration and migrants/asylum-seekers, which is directly related to foreign policy, was listed as one of the crucial issues in Turkey by both groups as they believe it may affect the country’s social, economic and future demographic structure.

  • Half of the participants who support the ruling bloc believe Turkish foreign policy is successful. This perceived success is essentially based on Turkey’s autonomous stance in international relations, the discourse used by politicians, Turkey’s extended impact area and the increasing capacity in arms production and warfare technology.

  • The question of migrants/asylum-seekers, Turkey’s problems with its neighbors and financial assistance to other countries were the three main foreign policy issues criticized by the voters of the ruling bloc. It is striking that assistance to other countries was raised as a critical issue by the young voters of the ruling bloc in particular. Furthermore, participants’ comments suggest there is a strong consensus on the idea that the question of migrants/asylum-seekers has become a problem in domestic politics, especially due to unemployment, the high cost of living and nepotism.

  • In general, the opposition groups believe that the ruling bloc’s foreign policy is unsuccessful. The problems the groups highlighted in particular include the failure to manage international relations as they should be, lack of transparency and integrity, the question of migrants/asylum-seekers and the personalization of foreign policy. Nevertheless, opposition voters drew a correlation between failures in foreign policy and the domestic problems and resulting structural issues in Turkey. According to this perspective, although the current economic crisis has made Turkey more vulnerable in the international arena, the foreign policy adopted by the government ignores this fact.

  • As is the case among the voters of the ruling bloc, the voters of the opposition parties, particularly supporters of the İYİ Parti (Good Party), see the question of migrants/asylum-seekers as a problem resulting from foreign policy and refer to problems they encounter in this area during their everyday lives. Some respondents who are HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) voters had a different approach to this issue than the voters of the other opposition parties.

  • Another striking idea among opposition voters about foreign policy is that issues of injustice, nepotism, incompetence, deinstitutionalization, which are perceived as the origin of problems in domestic politics, are also the sources of Turkey’s foreign policy woes.

Solution of Problems in Foreign Policy

  • Respondents who support the ruling bloc emphasized that the country must be economically strengthened, particularly in terms of production. There was a wide consensus that countries which have solved problems related to domestic politics are much stronger in foreign policy, and that such strength can only be achieved by countries which have the necessary financial and technological infrastructure. 

  • The majority of the respondents who are voters of the ruling bloc were against sending troops to conflict zones outside Turkey and stressed that Turkey must act in a balanced way in foreign policy, using diplomacy effectively.

  • Opposition parties, emphasized that foreign policy problems can only be addressed if the current government recognizes its responsibility and appoints competent individuals in government positions. Furthermore, they stated that the problems in domestics politics in the areas of economic growth, education, science and technology must also be solved and they underlined the importance of reconciliation in international relations.

 Perceptions of “Friend,” “Enemy” and “Threat”

  • When voters of the ruling bloc were asked to list Turkey’s friends in the international arena, the most popular answer given was Azerbaijan, followed by Pakistan and Qatar. When asked why these countries were seen as friends of Turkey, the answers were essentially based on historical and economic justifications. However, some respondents also questioned the friendship of Azerbaijan and suggested that Turkey does not have any friends in the international arena. It was respondents who are MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) voters that supported this view in particular.

  • When asked which countries were Turkey’s enemies, the voters of the ruling bloc listed several countries, with Armenia and Greece standing out. Some of the ruling bloc voters suggested that it was normal to have a high number of countries in the list of countries considered “enemies,” while some others were not pleased to have so many countries that are seen as “enemies of Turkey.” It was striking that the voters of the ruling bloc who stated that Turkey should have better relations with some of its neighbors and other countries were predominantly women.

  • The respondents who vote for the opposition parties were relatively more cautious when asked which countries are Turkey’s friends in the international arena, and they broadly emphasized that international relations were generally based on interests rather than relations of friendship or enmity. Some of the opposition respondents made a distinction between Turkey’s friends and the ruling bloc’s friends. Furthermore, Azerbaijan was the country most frequently mentioned in the opposition voters’ focus groups; however, these groups also had a more cautious stance towards Azerbaijan’s government.

  • Arab countries, Armenia and Greece were the most cited countries in the answers given by opposition voters in response to the question about the enemies of Turkey. Nevertheless, some respondents made a sharp distinction between states and the people of these countries, emphasizing that they do not consider the people “enemies.”

  • Both among the voters of the ruling bloc and the voters of opposition parties, there were many critical comments about Middle Eastern countries and Arabs in general, although they were not always precisely categorized as “enemies.

  • When asked about the threats facing Turkey in foreign policy, the most dominant theme in the answers of the voters of the ruling bloc was “a terrorist state” that may be established across Turkey’s borders, while the voters of the opposition parties mainly emphasized potential threats from religious groups, religious orders and migrants/asylum-seekers. Many respondents, including voters of the ruling bloc and the opposition parties, suggested that there were several domestic problems, including underdevelopment in education, science and technology as well as shortages in production, which were much more significant for the future than the threats in foreign policy.

 Turkey’s Military Presence Abroad

  • In general, voters of the ruling bloc believe Turkey’s military presence abroad is important in order to showcase its military power. Nevertheless, the majority of the respondents were rather critical about long-term foreign missions of Turkish troops, regardless of the location of the missions. This criticism is based on the idea that each country and their citizens should be responsible of protecting their own territories and that Turkey already has enough domestic problems to have a military presence abroad for extended periods of time. In fact, although there was some support among the respondents for Turkey’s continued military presence abroad, those who supported this idea were clearly in minority. Again, criticisms related to foreign missions of Turkish troops predominantly came from women.

  • There was also a critical perspective among the respondents who are opposition voters. Although differences were observed among the approaches of voters of different parties, there was a general conviction that a military presence abroad is associated with the interests of the ruling bloc. While some of the respondents were in favor of the idea of military interventions, there were also respondents who suggested that the policies accompanying these interventions are essentially wrong.

 Accession the European Union

  • Although there were skeptical opinions about the European Union (EU) among the respondents who vote for the ruling bloc, including references to a “Christians’ Union” or “Crusaders’ Union,” the majority of the respondents had positive views about Turkey’s membership. These positive views were particularly influenced by factors such as living standards, economic development and visa-free travel among member states. Those who do not support Turkey’s EU membership emphasized that Turkey has to be independent.

  • There were both positive and negative ideas about Turkey’s EU membership among the respondents who are opposition voters. Nevertheless, it is striking that there were many skeptical views about the likelihood of Turkey’s EU membership and about the perspective of the EU towards Turkey’s membership. In this framework, respondents primarily underlined the importance of achieving EU standards rather than becoming a full member.

 Incorrect Information on Foreign Policy

  • One of the most striking issues in the focus group discussions was the misinformation shared by the respondents when answering questions. These pieces of misinformation were mainly related to migrants/asylum-seekers and they primarily came up during the discussions with voters of the ruling bloc.