BACKGROUND: Ahmet Davutoglu, a political scientist by formation, completed his education in Turkey, after which he pursued an academic career in Islamist-ruled Malaysia. He gained a reputation in particular with the publication of his foreign policy study Strategic Depth, in which he outlined the policies that the AKP government was subsequently to implement.
Aiming to transform Turkey first into a regional, and then a global power, Davutoglu’s ambitious thesis is that Turkey has a vocation to become a “center” country, in keeping with its supposed historical and geopolitical heritage. Davutoglu has consequently advocated that Turkey abandon its traditional role as a “periphery” country that keeps a low, international profile. According to him, this will eventually enable Turkey to establish its own international relations paradigm. In Strategic Depth, Davutoglu outlined the policy that should be pursued under four main titles.
The first is a “Zero problem policy with its neighbors”. Turkey is to abandon the longstanding assumption that it is surrounded by enemies and develop good relations with its neighbors. Solutions to the Kurdish and Armenian problems and to the issue of Cyprus are to be sought within this framework. A completion of the EU integration process is accorded high priority.
The second is a “Multidimensional foreign policy.” Davutoglu sees a static foreign policy, which depends on a single parameter, as limiting Turkey’s opportunities in the new world order. Turkey is thus to diversify its foreign policy and seek a role as a mediator in its neighborhood. In this way, Turkey would attain a status as the center country in the Middle East. New strategic relations are to be established with the EU and with Russia in this context, and none of these should be thought of as excluding the other alternative.
The third is “A new diplomatic language”. Davutoglu duly emphasizes Turkey’s unique position as a bridge between the East and the West, as well as its strategic centrality. The search for a reconciliation of the East and the West, and the realization of Turkey’s integration with the EU are accorded equal importance. In this framework, Davutoglu underlines the importance of not leaving diplomacy to diplomats exclusively. Instead, he deems the inclusion of the academic community and of the public in the process of foreign policy evolution crucial.
Finally, the fourth element is “Transition to a rhythmic policy.” In order to improve the effectiveness of Turkish foreign policy, bilateral relations with regional countries are to be developed, including frequent visits to their leaders and capitals, and with Turkey hosting high-level visitors from its neighborhood.
The AKP government has, particularly during its second term, prioritized the development of relations with the Muslim countries of the Middle East. That is explained by the slowdown in the EU integration process as much as by the AKP’s Islamic background. The slowdown of the EU process, for which Turkey and the EU are equally responsible, has nevertheless had the effect of benefiting the perspective proposed by Ahmet Davutoglu.
Davutoglu’s advocacy for deepened ties with Turkey’s “strategic depth” appeals in particular to pro-AKP business circles that expect to be able to take advantage of the huge surpluses that have accumulated in Middle Eastern countries as a result of skyrocketing oil prices. And tellingly, high-level visits to the capitals of region are more frequent than the visits paid by Turkish officials to other parts of the world, while official visits to Turkey from Middle Eastern countries have increased proportionately.
The reorientation, or diversification, of Turkish foreign policy has not necessarily been viewed unfavorably in the West. On the contrary, it has seemed to suggest that Turkey, positioning itself as a “bridge” to the Muslim world, will become an even more useful asset for the United States and Europe. Indeed, Davutoglu has stated that in several instances, he has found that Turkey and the United States under the Obama administration share the same perspective on international politics. Yet, despite the superficial resemblances of the Turkish and American approaches in general – with reciprocal priority given to “dialogue” and understanding – there are real differences that are sure to make themselves felt eventually. When hard choices impose themselves, the differences of perspective will inevitably resurface.
IMPLICATIONS: Ahmet Davutoglu’s thesis is attractive not least because it represents a welcome intellectual effort to decamp from the kind of siege mentality that has traditionally prevailed in Turkish foreign policy thinking, and which has become even more entrenched in certain parts of the state establishment – notably in military circles – during the last decade. The supposition that Turkey is surrounded by enemies that, abetted by the United States and Europe, scheme to take it apart, is a poisonous paranoia that infects the Turkish body politic to great harm, defeating the efforts to liberalize the country. Yet Davutoglu’s thesis appears to make unrealistic assumptions about foreign relations, notably positing the existence of a state of harmony where interests and priorities would somehow not collide, and where good intentions alone would be capable of neutralizing threats to national security.
On one significant account, Ahmet Davutoglu’s thesis has already collided with harsh regional realities: the “zero problems with neighbors” approach has in fact not stood the test of reality. The strategy to normalize relations with Armenia and the offer to open Turkey’s border with Armenia provoked a crisis with Azerbaijan. Hence addressing problems with one neighbor created problems with another.
Meanwhile, in the case of Iran and its nuclear program, Turkish foreign policy risks exposing the country to risks to its security while isolating it from its Western allies. Turkey has long been making calls for dialogue as a way of defusing the problem posed by the Iranian nuclear program, without seeking to harmonize its overtures with Western countries. Today, the Turkish orientation may be in tune with the policies adopted by the Obama administration; yet it remains to be seen what would happen to Turkey’s approach if and when current tactics concerning Iran are revealed as ineffective and the U.S. is forced once again to re-evaluate its approach to the Islamic republic. However, seduced by Davutoglu’s harmonious vision, decision-makers in Ankara do not seem to quite appreciate what the implications of a nuclear Iran would be, in terms of regional balances and in terms of Turkey’s ability to assert its influence in the region.
Indeed, the zero-problem approach itself carries far-reaching logical implications. It fails to take into account the possibility that Turkey’s neighbors willfully pursue policies that are to Turkey’s detriment. In that case, a zero-problem policy would effectively fail to safeguard national interests.
CONCLUSIONS: The pull of economy and of ideology – of Arab capital and of political Islam – is inevitably making Turkey more Muslim Middle Eastern in its foreign policy outlook. Yet, the assumption that guides this foreign policy reorientation, personified by Ahmet Davutoglu, suffers from important weaknesses. The expectation that Turkey, empowered by its “strategic depth,” is destined to move to the center of international politics has already been revealed as highly unrealistic.
The effort to search for dialogue and understanding in a region beset by power rivalries, and not least by pathological suspicions of the intentions of the “other”, is laudable in itself. Yet the tendency to postulate a state of harmony, of the possibility of having “zero problems” with all neighbors, reflects a wishful thinking that is sure to be tested severely by regional realities.
© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2009. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (www.turkeyanalyst.org), a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".