It is against this background that the emergence of Turkey from its accustomed shadow land of subordination to the United States is one of the most encouraging dimensions of the global setting in this second decade of the 21st century, and offers the world a secondary model of diplomatic leadership that is already exerting a major influence within its region and beyond. The credit for this extraordinary development belongs to the top echelons of the AKP, the political party that has governed Turkey since 2002 with increasing populist backing from the citizenry. The priority of this new leadership when first elected was to push as hard as possible on the closed doors of the European Union with the goal of Turkish accession to membership within a few years. This was a natural issue to concentrate upon as it bridged the basic divide in Turkish society, enlisting even the grudging support of the strict secularists who did little to hide their hostility and suspicions about the AKP and of military commanders who had previously resisted elected leaders that seemed to cross the red lines of Republican Turkey. The Turkish military periodically intruded upon the governing process whenever their leading generals perceived departures from the vision for modern Turkey fashioned by Kemal Ataturk, whether these departures were attributed to the Marxist left or more recently to conservative Islam. The unifying effort to satisfy the EU gatekeepers also allowed the AKP to explain and justify its reformist initiatives within Turkey, allowing the government to take some major steps to improve the protection of human rights and even to set limits on the former degree of military control exercised over the civilian governing process. This disciplining of the notorious Turkish ‘deep state’ should not be underestimated in the continuing struggle to deepen constitutional democracy in the country.
As time passed two developments dampened Turkish eagerness to pursue the EU track: first, an eruption of Islamophobia in several crucial European countries (France and Germany), which meant that Turkish membership in the EU would not come about soon, if ever, no matter how many policy gymnastics demanded by the Europeans were acceded to by Ankara in its futile effort to satisfy EU admission criteria; and secondly, in light of these locked EU gates, it seemed increasingly sensible for the Turkish government to let go of national hopes and expectations of soon becoming part of Europe, while not altogether abandoning the Turkish goal of eventually being accepted by the EU. With this understanding, Turkish foreign policy began to pay increasing attention to an attractive array of non-European diplomatic options.
The principal architect of Turkish foreign policy throughout this exploratory period was Ahmet Davutoglu, first as Chief Advisor to the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and for the last two years as Foreign Minister. Turkey has been extremely fortunate to have the benefit of Davutoglu’s deep historical, political, and cultural understanding of the challenges and opportunities that lie on the country’s horizons, and the main political leaders of the AKP, especially Prime Minister Recip Teyyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul, deserve credit for appreciating and supporting Davutoglu’s diplomatic vision, which inevitably has given rise to domestic controversy and is not without risks. It is rare for a major government to put its trust in such an outstanding intellectual and morally upright personality as Davutoglu, someone who did not emerge from either the corridors of power or the enclaves of economic privilege, was not beholden to any special interests, and seemingly harbored no political ambitions beyond a professed interest in returning to academic life at the earliest possible time to fulfill his dream of establishing and shaping a world class university as a learning community responsive to his vision of humane politics and ecumenical culture. Davutoglu combines a brilliant political mind with astounding energy. He is endowed with the skills of a seasoned diplomat, which is rather amazing considering his prior absence of government service. Beyond these capabilities, what is most impressive about this Davutoglu phenomenon is the innovative diplomatic orientation that is daring and extraordinarily attuned to the times. So far, it has taken full advantage of opportunities for expanding Turkish influence and beneficial economic relations. Davutoglu also appreciates the importance of skilled institutional support for Turkish foreign policy, and exhibits an administrative resolve to build an energetic and competent Turkish Foreign Ministry that understands the role of soft power in the pursuit of peace and justice in the region and the world.
In some respects, Davutoglu’s arrival on the scene was timed perfectly for the enactment of such a vision. The Cold War alliance rigidities no longer made sense in the altered conditions of the new century. This freed countries in the Middle East from the constraints of bipolarity, thereby clearing space for diplomatic maneuvers. Davutoglu also realized that the Middle East due to its oil reserves, the dangers of further nuclear proliferation, the persistence of the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the challenge to Western interests by a resurgent Islam was becoming the new strategic fulcrum of struggle with respect to the unfolding of world history. In this role, the region was superseding Europe that had been the scene of both world wars in the 20th century and remained the prime strategic site of struggle throughout the Cold War. There was also the widespread appreciation that festering regional tensions posed dangers for Turkey and others, and harmed with prospects for trade, investment, and stability. Davutoglu’s style and approach seemed designed to work wonders in such a regional setting. First of all, Davutoglu made clear that his goal was not victory, but accommodation and reconciliation based on respect and mutual benefit, expressed vividly by the phrases ‘zero conflict with neighbors’ and ‘zero-problems foreign policy.’ This approach was dramatically put into practice in relation to Syria, replacing border and policy tensions during prior decades with open borders, an outcome that could not have been anticipated before it happened. Of course, the brutal repression of the Syrian uprising in recent weeks has posed unanticipated and awkward difficulties for Turkey, showing that turbulence of regional politics can nullify seemingly successful conflict-resolving initiatives.
Similarly with Iran, rather than hide behind a wall of fear and hostility, Turkey has refused to be dragged into the confrontational approach insisted upon by Washington and Tel Aviv, seeking along with Brazil to find a pathway to mutual acceptance on the hot button issue of Iran’s contested nuclear program. In reaction, there was much annoyance voiced by those governments that wanted to lend credibility to the military option. Turkey was harshly criticized for moving out of ‘its lane’ by an arrogant foreign policy commentator in the United States. The imperial pretension here is embarrassingly manifest: Turkey’s lane is supposed to be subservience to the hegemonic role of the United States (and Israel) even in the region where it is located, and even taking into account that if war breaks out Turkey’s political and economic interests will be greatly harmed. While avoiding an abrasive response to a steady stream of criticism from Washington, Turkey has made it clear that it will continue to act as an independent state pursuing its goals on the basis of its values and interests, and is no longer prepared to defer automatically to the United States in the manner that had been the practice during the Cold War. To be a geopolitical poodle seemed somewhat more justifiable in that context as there did exist a shared fear of Soviet expansion that needed American military capabilities to deter and contain.
Of course, this litany of praise does not mean that everything Davutoglu tried has succeeded, or that there are not still unmet challenges. To attempt as much as he has in such a short time is remarkable, and has been recognized even by the mainstream magazine Foreign Policy, which listed Davutoglu as seventh on the list of the 100 top world thinkers in all fields, placing him immediately behind Celso Amorim, Brazil’s much admired foreign minister. It was appropriate that these two individuals should be rated as the two most highly rated statesmen in the world, and far ahead of such geopolitical heavyweights as those making foreign policy on behalf United States and China. I am not enamored of such evaluations overall, but the acknowledgement of Davutoglu’s and Amorim’s achievements as compared to the foreign ministers representing every other country seems to me to be deserved, and is a revealing acceptance of the dramatic Turkish (and Brazilian) rise to prominence on the global stage of diplomacy.
If we consider the unmet challenges, probably the foremost one remains the Israel/Palestine conflict. Davutoglu made a determined effort to engage Israel constructively in several respects. Davutoglu offered Turkey’s services as a truly credible broker to help negotiate a sustainable peace between Syria and Israel, including Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights. There was progress for a while, even some hope of an agreement for a brief period, but the process was a casualty of Israel’s aggressive attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, and some bitterness between the two countries ensued as a result of Erdogan’s dramatic condemnation of Israel’s conduct at the World Economic Forum. It was also never clear that Israel was prepared to withdraw from the Golan Heights, removing its settlements and settlers, as well as the economic infrastructure that has evolved over the more than forty years of occupation.