Turkey’s diplomatic rise

As the global leadership of the US recedes, Turkey is positioning itself as a key regional player.

ahmet davutoglu
Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu (left) has pursued a ‘zero conflict with neighbours’ policy [GALLO/GETTY] 

It is against the background of a retreat in global leadership by the US and the ambivalence of other global powers, such as emerging economies from the BRICS group, that Turkey has emerged from its accustomed shadow-land of subordination to the United States.

It 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 Justice and Development Party (AKP), 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, 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.

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.

Enter Ahmet Davutoglu

The principal architect of Turkish foreign policy throughout this exploratory period was Ahmet Davutoglu, first as chief advisor to both the prime minister and the foreign minister, and for the past two years as foreign minister himself.

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, and was not beholden to any special interests. Someone who seemingly harboured 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 maneuvres.

Davutoglu also realised that the Middle East – due to its oil reserves, the dangers of further nuclear proliferation, the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian 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 neighbours” and a “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 criticised 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 the fact that if war breaks out, Turkey’s political and economic interests will be greatly harmed.

Turkey breaks old taboos

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 existed a shared fear of Soviet expansion that needed US military capabilities as deterrence and containment.

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 recognised even by the mainstream magazine Foreign Policy, that 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 of the 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 remains the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Davutoglu made a determined effort to engage Israel constructively in several respects. Davutoglu offered Turkey’s services as a 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.

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 it out in the cold, 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. 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 neighbours.

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’s previously closest allies, the 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 has 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 democratising leadership with Islamic leanings with respect for 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 globalisation.

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.

Internal issues

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 normality 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-US military intrusions as the ongoing intervention in Libya suggests. 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 past decade casts a bright glow in a darkening sky. Turkey more than any other country is providing the world with a set of blueprints that depicts the contours of what benign global leadership could become.

As argued here, such leadership is urgently needed to cope with the destructive sides of a heightened globalisation and with the unmet challenges of a series of environmental, ethical, and political threats to wellbeing of the peoples of the region and the world.

Richard Falk is Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).

He is currently serving his fourth year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.