Daringly, in the aftermath of the Hamas electoral victory in Gaza at the start of 2006, Turkey at the urging of Davutoglu explored the possibilities of treating Hamas as a political actor rather than leaving them out in the cold being branded as ‘terrorist.’ Although these initiatives were widely endorsed throughout the world as constructive, Israel was not ready to move in either of these directions, and so neither was the United States (despite having previously urged Hamas to compete in the Gaza elections, and thereby shift their resistance to Israeli occupation from a violent track to a political one), but who could say it was not worth the effort to try. If it had succeeded, the most acute Palestinian misery in Gaza would almost certainly have been lessened, and some kind of wider reconciliation between the two peoples might not seem as remote as it now appears to be. Davutoglu’s attempts with regard to Syria and Hamas, had they succeeded, would have unquestionably been beneficial for the region, and were well worth the attempt.
Less controversial and not as salient, but equally impressive as a departure from the earlier Turkish norm for diplomatic engagement, have been Davutoglu’s initiatives in the Balkans and Caucasus, seeking to overcome hostile relations in these troubled regions. Perhaps, his most notable success in these settings was to host an amicable meeting between Bosnia and Serbia, two states formed from the carcass of the former Yugoslavia that had treated each other as enemies ever since the struggles of the 1990s, when Serbia promoted secession of the Serb minority and supported systematic ethnic cleansing of genocidal proportions in Bosnia. Not only was the meeting a surprising success, but also an agreement was reached to have annual gatherings in the spirit of confidence-building between these previously hostile neighbors.
This diplomatic outreach has produced mainly benefits for Turkey. I believe it has contributed to a growing sense of Turkish self-esteem that reaches backwards in time to the Ottoman glory days and forward to establish Turkey as a major regional presence with significant global standing and respect. This status was reflected in Turkey’s election to the Security Council for the first time. Turkish hard-core secularists have given this diplomacy a mixed reception, registering complaints about alienating Turkey previously closest allies, United States and Israel, without achieving offsetting gains. Secularists have also objected to what they view as an overly friendly relationship forged with Iran, which is regarded as an anti-secular theocracy. But over time, Turkey’s rising regional stature and domestic economic success has diluted such opposition.
The personal achievements of Davutoglu’s diplomacy have been reinforced by the wider impacts on the region of Turkey’s domestic stability and pragmatic adaptation to the world economic recession. Turkey has become a trusted diplomatic partner throughout the region. In this period of upheaval in the Arab world, Turkey offers a model worth learning from, if not emulating, while of course affirming the autonomy and distinctiveness of each national experience. Turkey is especially admired for the way it has blended a democratizing leadership with Islamic leanings with respect for the societal pluralism and secular principles. In this regard, Turkey offers a positive example of accommodating Muslim values and national and cultural traditions that contrast with negative models of repression, rigidity, and abject submission to neoliberal globalization. Turkey has avoided the fate that has befallen Iran as a consequence of its outright subordination of politics to religious authoritarianism, as well as overcoming the anti-religious suppression of fundamentalist secular regimes.
In the end, the future for Turkey remains uncertain. There are still unresolved problems that could create internal conflict and crisis, including the issue of Kurdish rights and the unresolved conflict over the future of Cyprus, as well as the struggle between the regime and its domestic enemies that has led to disturbing large-scale roundups of opponents charged with political crimes and to the harassment of critical journalists. Relations with Israel remain tense in the stalemated efforts to restore normalcy between the two countries in the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara incident of 31 May 2010, when a Turkish ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza was attacked in international waters and nine of the political activists and humanitarian workers on board were killed by Israeli commandos. Perhaps most threatening of all to this Turkish vision of a politically friendly and economically prosperous region is a continuing fear that the encounter with Iran might yet lead to a most destructive war. Finally, the spillover from the Arab tumult could produce a variety of negative effects due to Euro-American military intrusions as the ongoing intervention in Libya suggests, and while this situation presented Turkey with opportunities to serve as a peacemaker, its main effect so far has been to generate dangerous geopolitical tensions within and beyond the region.
All in all, Turkey has emerged from the first decade of the 21st century as a pivotal country in world affairs, often spoken of in the exalted terms as deserving to be now regarded as a junior BRIC, and operating regionally and globally in a manner that is exemplary in many respects. Turkey cannot alone overcome the continuing global leadership deficit, but its diplomacy during the last decade casts a bright glow on a darkening sky. Turkey, more than any other country in this period, is providing the world with a set of blueprints that depicts the contours of what benign global leadership could become in this period. As argued here such leadership is urgently needed to cope with the destructive sides of a heightened globalization and with the unmet challenges of a series of environmental, ethical, and political threats to the present and future well-being of the peoples of the region and the world.