Before the Arab Spring

The relevance of this detour is to underscore the likely inadequacy of a foreign policy that is either cast adrift from the traditions of a society or that insists on embodying those traditions in a rigid form that is not flexible and normative (respectful of law and morality) enough to address effectively the complexities of the modern world. What Davutoglu possesses as a result of his extraordinary combination of religious devotion and cosmopolitan education is a sophisticated capacity to navigate the waters of global society without getting drawn into power games at home and abroad that are by their nature cut off from principle. In this respect, Davutoglu will never receive or wish for Kissinger’s compliment of being an unconditional ally. A principled ally must always retain the option to act independently, even in opposition, as the occasion requires. In fact, Davutoglu has been chastised by Big Brother and his think tank minions for taking Turkey out of ‘its lane’ or chided for designing a foreign policy that was premised on the durability of the established order in the Middle East that existed in the region prior to Tahrir Square.  In this respect, Davutoglu was evidently taken as much by surprise as the rest of us by the awakenings throughout the Arab world of this year, not only by their abruptness but also by their originality.

Davutoglu has also been criticized for allowing the relationship with Israel to move from friendship to hostility. If this deterioration is looked upon objectively it becomes clear that Israel was not willing to accommodate the new Turkey that was not just another poodle in the White House kennel. What Turkey did under Davutoglu’s influence, including while he was advising rather than devising Turkish foreign policy included trying to have Hamas after its electoral victory in 2006 treated as a political actor rather than as an ostracized ‘terrorist’ organization, criticized the attacks of Gaza at the end of 2008, and allowed a Turkish NGO to have a prominent role in the Freedom Flotilla that was so crudely attacked by Israeli naval forces on May 31, 2010. This latter attack that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens represented a shockingly provocative set of moves by Israel that included executing several of the Turkish humanitarian activists. In response, Turkey sought an apology and some compensation for the families of these victims, but Israel has been unwilling to do either. If Israel were to be capable of pursuing its interests, no more than in the manner of prudent realists, it would seize the olive branch that Turkey has been dangling before its eyes.

To be on occasion controversial in geopolitical circles is almost inevitable whenever a non-Western government seeks to forge its own path, to make its formal political independence into a foundation for the exercise of existential sovereignty. If a Turkish foreign minister were never being criticized in either the West or East he would not be doing his job for Turkey or the world, and should be regarded as inconsequential.

Without entering into a detailed examination of Turkish foreign policy in the Davutoglu years, it is essential to draw a line distinguishing a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in relation to the Arab Spring. Before, it was obviously economically beneficial and politically stabilizing to pursue engagement with all countries in the Middle East. Such engagement was premised also on the importance attached to mutual respect for sovereignty, and ultimately, for self-determination, and presupposed what almost all informed observers believed, that the regimes in power were there to stay for the foreseeable future. In this period of ‘zero problems of neighbors’ Turkey raised its foreign policy profile in a positive manner that probably also reflected the heightened difficulties and frustration for Turkey that seemed to negate their strenuous efforts to gain entry to the European Union. The result of these policies seemed to promise over time a mutually beneficial regionalism that also sought to minimize disruptive conflicts. In this regard Turkey made itself available to negotiate peace between Israel and Syria, encouraged peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, attempted to calm the buildup of war threats directed at Iran, and experimented with peace building initiatives to the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Each attempt seemed worthwhile even in retrospect, was done with tact, and produced an inevitable mixture of successes and failures, although overall the economic gains in trade and investment and the diplomatic gains in conflict resolution remain valuable.

After the Arab Spring

Then in January 2011 came the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the effective challenge to the Mubarak autocracy in Egypt. These were remarkable uprisings with still indeterminate revolutionary possibilities, but also containing grave counterrevolutionary risks. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt began happening elsewhere to varying degrees with very different responses: the fires of populist discontent burned brightly in Yemen, Bahrain, and then Syria, Libya, and to a lesser extent in Morocco and Jordan. Turkish reactions were measured, and Ankara initially used its diplomatic leverage to encourage compromises shaped to avoid bloodshed, especially in Libya and Syria, but as it became clear that the regimes would not accommodate democratic demands, Turkey shifted sides, openly aligning its interests and hopes with the popular struggles. More specifically, this even led to Turkish support for the UN mandated NATO intervention in Libya and increasingly confrontational relations with Syria. As Davutoglu explained when a government shoots and kills its own unarmed citizens so as to retain power, then Turkey will side with such an opposition. In effect, at such a point Turkey’s respect for self-determination shifts its locus from the government to the people.

In my judgment, these Turkish realignments were entirely appropriate so long as they did not crossed the line of military intervention. In this regard, I would endorse the Turkish response to Syria while criticizing its support for NATO’s regime-changing military intervention in Libya. These ‘hard choices’ involve difficult decisions of policy in settings of extreme uncertainty as to the effects of deciding to intervene or not to intervene. Put differently, non-intervention can be a form of intervention in some settings, and there is no escaping from a responsibility to act. I would not agree with Davutoglu’s approach in every instance of Turkish foreign policy in the confusing and differentiated national unfoldings after the Arab Spring, but I would strongly affirm the consistency of his principled approach based on this dramatic recalibration of foreign policy tactics and goals in response to the regional turmoil that upset the earlier diplomatic calculus highlighting the benefits of stability and interaction.

In the end, the brilliance of Davutoglu’s statecraft arises from his insistence on this blending of knowledge with principle. The global scene would be more humane and less violent if the Davutoglu approach to foreign policy became more widespread.