Turkish FM Davutoglu and the global thinkers club

Tuesday, December 28, 2010 
Foreign Policy magazine has named Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu one of the "top 100 global thinkers" of 2010, whatever that's supposed to mean.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu

Davutoglu finished #7 on Foreign Policy's list, which would have made him eligible to play in the Bowl Championship Series of global thinkers if only Turkey played in a BCS-eligible conference.
Here's what FP has to say about Davutoglu:
Ahmet Davutoglu rose to prominence in Turkish academic circles as an advocate for what he called "strategic depth": Turkey, he argued, should use its geographic position and identity as a secular Muslim democracy to build bridges between Europe, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. Over the last seven years, Davutoglu has brought his theories out of the classroom and onto the international stage -- with some impressive results.
Davutoglu's diplomats have worked to reconcile Iraq's fractious political groups and plan a pipeline that will link the oil fields of the Caucasus and the Arab world with Europe. His ambitious "zero problems with neighbors" policy has attempted to boost Turkey's relations with everyone in the region simultaneously, a task much easier set than accomplished.
Ankara's new independence has raised some eyebrows. After an Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla left nine Turks dead this summer, Davutoglu said the attack was "like 9/11 for Turkey." Turkey's warm relationship with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also raised fears that the country is drifting away from the West at a time when its long-held aspiration to join the European Union appears hopelessly stalled.
Still, the foreign minister seems undaunted. "The world expects great things from Turkey," he wrote in an essay for Foreign Policy. Under his watch, Turkey has assumed an international role not matched since a sultan sat in Istanbul's Topkapi Palace.
What I like about this is that Foreign Policy shies away from the usual nonsense describing Turkey's foreign policy in recent years in terms of "neo-Ottomanism," or a "turn to the east." 

As I've discussed elsewhere, the AKP's approach to foreign policy  hardly constitutes a "turn to the east." For decades during the Cold War, Turkey did not have much of a foreign policy of its own. Relations with neighbors like Greece, Bulgaria, Russia and Syria were mediated through the context of the Cold War, but many of the issues that concerned Turkey's relations with its neighbors had nothing to do with Cold War ideology or superpower relations. 

In the 1990s there were a number of important shifts that took place in Turkey's approach to southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and Eurasia, but for a number of reasons (owing mainly to political instability in Turkey in the late 1990s and the emergence of a series of weak coalition governments during this period) relatively few sustained policy developments took place during this time. Under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, which has been in power since 2002, the Turkish government has sought to lessen tensions with neighbors in an unmediated context--that is, without letting the United States set the agenda for Turkish relations with neighboring countries. Most notably, relations with Greece and Russia have improved dramatically, while over the past decade the Turkish government has also cultivated warmer ties with Armenia, Iran and Syria.

Obviously, the one country in the region with which Turkey has had more difficult relations in recent years has been Israel. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan has been critical of Israel's policies in Gaza, and the Israeli Defense Force's apparently execution-style murder of Turkish activists (one of whom was a US citizen) aboard the Mavi Marmara last summer provoked a real crisis in Turkish-Israel relation (note to Israeli government: while the Obama administration will sit by idly when you shoot an American citizen in the back of the head at point-blank range, this sort of behavior tends to anger people in other countries, especially your neighbors).

Improving relations with Iran and Syria? Criticizing Israel? OMG, the Turks are becoming sultans again!

This sort of characterization, or caricature, tells us more about the people who are talking about "neo-Ottomanism" than about Turkish policymaking. More than anything, chatter about "neo-Ottomanism" and Turkey's supposed turn towards the "east" strikes me as an effort to disparage a foreign policy that is no longer as clearly pro-American as it was during the Cold War, or nearly as pro-Israel as it was in the 1990s.
Improving relations with neighbors is complicated, especially in the neighborhood inhabited by Turkey--regions which have traditionally been dominated by external powers whose presence has often contributed to the conflicts still existing among neighbors in SE Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. These divisions among neighbors will continue to cause problems, but I think the Turkish Foreign Ministry under the AKP has in many instances done an admirable job of trying to lessen conflicts by working with neighboring counties. This course has nothing to do with "neo-Ottomanism," but rather derives from what strikes me as a healthy and pragmatic approach to dealing with regional and domestic issues.
Here is an interview Foreign Policy conducted recently with Davutoglu.

What do you think?


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