So far most commentary on Ahmet Davutoğlu’s selection as Turkey’s new Prime Minister has been focused on what will be his relationship with the country’s new president, Recip Teyyip Erdoğan. Especially opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) tend to portray Davutoğlu as certain to play second fiddle to Erdoğan who is both fiercely resented and feared, and regarded as a ‘Turkish Putin.’ The fact that Erdoğan seems to have handpicked Davutoğlu to succeed him at party leader and prime minister and acted deliberately to sideline the popular prior president, Abdullah Gul, adds to the concern about what to expect from a government led by Davutoğlu. I believe that such speculation is profoundly wrong, that Davutoğlu is an admirable person of strong beliefs and an adherent of a political vision that has evolved over the years on the basis of study and experience. In my view, Davutoğlu will turn out to be a historically significant Turkish leader by virtue of his thoughtful style of governance and through the assertion of his own priorities and programs. Few countries can claim leadership of the quality provided and record achieved by Erdoğan, Davutoğlu, and Gul over the last twelve years.
For Davutoğlu to reach the peak of political power is the latest stage in his remarkable ascent within governing circles in Ankara. Coming to government after a deep immersion in the scholarly life of a university professor is unusual enough, but to rise to such a level of prominence and influence without casting aside his academic demeanor is unprecedented, not only in Turkey but anywhere.
Searching for recent comparisons, I can think only of Henry Kissinger, and he never rose above the level of Secretary of State, although he did serve as architect of American foreign policy during Richard Nixon’s presidency, a period of undoubted global leadership. Unlike Davutoglu, Kissinger treated the moral and legal dimensions of foreign policy as instruments of propaganda rather than as matters of principle. Kissinger as a scholar never achieved the distinction nor the national impact that resulted from Davutoğlu’s Strategic Depth, which incidentally, was planned to be the first of three monumental studies, the other two being devoted to historical depth and cultural depth. One of the costs of entering government has been the deferral of this project, which if completed, is almost certain to be a work of exceptional significance.
Starting out in 2003 as Chief Advisor to the Foreign Minister, and later to the Prime Minister, Davutolğu’s role as a highly influential and respected expert was quickly recognized. Long before Davutoğlu became Foreign Minister in 2009, he was widely respected in Turkey as the architect of its energetic and effective foreign policy, which was causing a stir in the region and around the world.
Davutoğlu’s contributions were particularly notable in three domains of foreign policy. First, he understood and clearly articulated the importance for Turkey to adapt to the new regional setting created by the end of the Cold War, appreciating that it was now possible and desirable for Turkey to be an independent actor in the Middle East and beyond without awaiting clearance from Washington.
Secondly, Davutoğlu from almost the beginning of his role in government became Ankara’s chief emissary in trying to clear the path to Turkish membership in the European Union, working out the important ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ that turned out to be also useful as a roadmap for desired domestic reform. This functioned as an important mandate that was linked to a domestic program of reform, which included protecting human rights and featured the containment of the deep state in Turkey during the early years of AKP leadership when relations with the armed forces were tense, and rumors of an impending coup were in the air. Satisfying the EU requirements gave Erdoğan the justification he needed for impressively strengthening the civilian control of government in Turkey. Because of its private sector interests, the Turkish military turned out to be as eager for EU membership as was the AKP, and even the harsh Kemalist opposition went along with this part of the AKP program.
Thirdly, these moves to civilianize the Turkish government removed altogether the earlier role played by the Turkish armed forces as custodian of the republic through the medium of coups against elected political leaders. In retrospect, substantially removing the armed forces from the political life was a great step forward in democratizing Turkey even if this momentous development was not acknowledged in Brussels, and elsewhere in Europe. For quite independently Islamophobic reasons, Europe was becoming adamantly opposed to accepting Turkey as a member of the EU, no matter how successful the Turkish government might be in satisfying the standards laid down for accession. It might also be noted that the secular opposition in Turkey also has never credited Erdoğan with this achievement, which might turn out to have be his greatest contribution to Turkey’s political development as a vibrant constitutional democracy. While praising this central achievement, it needs to be noted that the overall record of the AKP on human rights is mixed, with particularly regrettable encroachments on political freedoms via the imprisonment of journalists, pro-Kurdish activists, and others.
From the outset of his time in government, Davutoğlu was also extremely active in doing everything possible to resolve the Israel/Palestinian/Syrian conflicts, and led a comprehensive Turkish effort to bring peace to the region. Davutoğlu’s attempt to have Hamas treated as a normal and legitimate political player after its 2006 electoral victory in Gaza would have saved much grief in the Middle East had it been accepted in Washington and Tel Aviv. After these conflict-resolving initiatives collapsed, Turkey has almost alone in the region played a principled and constructive role by challenging the Israeli blockade of Gaza and seeking to end the collective punishment and humanitarian ordeal of the Palestinian population. This role was resented in the centers of Western power and even in most Arab capitals, but it has endeared Turkey and its leaders to the peoples of the region and beyond. It also gave expression to Davutoğlu’s insistence that a successful Turkish foreign policy should be as principled as possible while at the same time being creatively opportunistic, promoting national interests and values, and in all possible situations seeking engagement rather than confrontation.
More famously, and controversially, Davutoğlu saw the opportunities for Turkish outreach in the Arab world, and beyond. Unlike the failed efforts in the 1990s to incorporate the newly independent Central Asian republics in a Turkish sphere of influence, the AKP effectively approached the expansion of trade, investment, and cultural exchanges throughout the region, an approach given the now notorious doctrinal label by Davutoğlu of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ after he became Foreign Minister in 2009. At first ZPN seemed like a brilliant diplomatic stroke, a dramatic effort to rest Turkey’s ambitions on the dynamics of ‘soft power geopolitics,’ that is, providing benefits, attracting others, and not depending for influence on military prowess or coercive diplomacy. Given what appeared to be the frozen authoritarian political realities in the region, constructive engagement with mutual benefits seemed superior to postures of hostility, tension, and non-involvement that had for so long been characteristic of Turkish foreign policy, and descriptive of the sterile political atmosphere throughout the Middle East.
Then in early 2011 came the Arab Spring that surprised everyone, including Turkey. It created excitement and turbulence throughout the region, but also the promise of far greater democratic and more patterns of governance. Davutoğlu as much as any statesman in the world welcomed these Arab anti-authoritarian upheavals as benevolent happenings, pointing especially to the extraordinary events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 that overthrew two long serving authoritarian and corrupt leaders by relying on largely nonviolent mass mobilization. Davutoğlu was especially impressed by Arab youth as a revolutionary force that he believed was well attuned to the changing tides of history.
This optimism did not last long. Events in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen made it clear that there was not going to take place the smooth and quick transitions that deceptively seemed to be taking place in Egypt and Tunisia. It was soon clear that it would become necessary for Turkey to choose sides as between the authoritarian elites seeking to hold onto or restore their power and the earlier Ankara approach of accommodating the governing authorities of Arab states without passing judgment on how these governments treated their own citizenry.
Syria posed the most severe challenge in this respect. The Assad regime in Damascus had earlier been the poster child of ZPN, and now dramatized the non-viability of such a posture as the Damascus regime became responsible for committing one atrocity after another against its own people. Turkey abruptly switched sides, losing trust in Assad, and aligning itself with rebel forces. Both the pro and anti-Assad postures proved controversial in Turkey. The main secular opposition party, CHP, accusing Erdoğan of playing sectarian politics by supporting in Syria an insurgency that was increasingly dominated by Sunni militants associated with a Syrian version of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Davutoğlu skillfully and reasonably reformulated his ZPN by saying that when a government shoots its own citizens in large numbers, Turkey will side with the people, not the governmental leadership, which lost its legitimacy through its actions. From now on the doctrine associated with his outlook could be more accurately understood as ‘zero problems with people,’ of ZPP. The same logic guided Turkey in its eventual support of the NATO intervention in Libya as the Qaddafi regime seemed poised to engage in genocidal onslaught against the entrapped population of Benghazi to quell a popular uprising. The mass mobilization against the elected Morsi government in Egypt illustrated another kind of difficulty, leading Turkey to stand out in the region, joined only by Qatar, in its refusal to give its blessings to the military coup that brought General Sisi come to power in July 2013.