The ascent of Turkey’s Ahmet Davutoglu

Turkey’s new prime minister was the key figure behind the transformation of Turkish foreign policy.

Ahmet Davutoglu replaced Recep Tayyip Erdogan as Turkey's prime minister[AP]

So far most commentary on Ahmet Davutoglu’s selection as Turkey’s new prime minister has been focused on what his relationship will be with the country’s new president, Recep Teyyip Erdogan. Opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) tend to portray Davutoglu as certain to play second fiddle to Erdogan who is both fiercely resented and feared, and regarded by his enemies as a  “Turkish Putin”. I believe that Davutoglu’s record in foreign policy gives assurances that he will be a strong and effective prime minister.

Starting out in 2003 as chief advisor to the foreign minister, and later to the prime minister, Davutoglu’s role as a highly influential and respected expert was quickly recognised. Long before Davutoglu became foreign minister in 2009, he was widely respected in Turkey as the creative force behind its energetic and effective foreign policy, which was causing a stir in the region and around the world.

Foreign policy priorities 

Davutoglu’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 act more independently in the Middle East and beyond without disrupting its primary security ties with the United States and NATO.

Secondly, Davutoglu from almost the beginning of his role in government became Ankara’s chief emissary seeking to clear the path to Turkish membership in the European Union, helping devise the “Copenhagen Criteria” that turned out to be more useful as a roadmap for desired domestic reform than to achieve their stated purpose of paving the way to EU membership. Satisfying the EU requirements gave Prime Minister Erdogan the justification he needed for impressively strengthening the civilian control of government.

Erdogan names Davutoglu as new Turkey PM

Thirdly, these moves to civilianise 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 democratising Turkey, even if this momentous development has never been acknowledged in Brussels, and not even often in Turkey.

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 centres 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 illustrated Davutoglu’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 above all seeking engagement rather than confrontation.

More famously, and controversially, Davutoglu saw the opportunities for Turkish outreach in the Arab world, and beyond. The AKP effectively expanded trade, investment, and cultural exchanges throughout the region, an approach labelled “zero problems with neighbours” by Davutoglu. ZPN seemed 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.

The Arab Spring arrives

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 more democratic patterns of governance. Davutoglu as much as any statesman welcomed these Arab anti-authoritarian upheavals as benevolent happenings, especially the extraordinary events in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 that overthrew two long serving authoritarian and corrupt leaders as a result of largely nonviolent mass mobilisations.

This optimism did not last long. Developments in Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen made it clear that there was not going to take place a series of smooth and quick transitions throughout the region. Turkey would have to choose sides as between the authoritarian old order seeking to hold onto or restore its power and its populist challengers.

Counting the Cost – Turkey: An economy at a crossroads

Syria posed this challenge in its severest form. The Assad regime in Damascus had earlier been the poster child of ZPN, and now was committing one atrocity after another against its own people. Turkey abruptly switched sides, losing trust in Assad, and aligning itself with rebel forces. Both pro and anti-Assad postures proved controversial in Turkey. Critics accused the government of playing sectarian politics by supporting an insurgency that was increasingly dominated by Sunni militants associated with the Syrian version of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Davutoglu skilfully and reasonably reformulated his ZPN by asserting 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”, or ZPP.

The mass mobilisation 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 Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to power in July 2013.

Principled pragmatism

The touchstone of Davutoglu’s approach to foreign policy is the effort to blend principle and pragmatism in relation to shifting policy contexts, doing what is right ethically while at the same time exploring every opportunity to promote Turkish national interests. These include enhancing Turkey’s international reputation as a responsible and strategic player. This blend of goals was well-illustrated by the seemingly frantic Davutoglu diplomacy in many settings, including the Balkans, Crimea, Armenia, Myanmar, Africa, and Latin America, wherever possible seeking to resolve regional conflicts while lending support to humanitarian goals.

The most impressive example of such an approach was undoubtedly the major initiative starting in mid-2011 to help crisis-ridden Somalia when the rest of the world abandoned the country as a “failed state”. From this bold humanitarian gesture of solidarity came a major opening to Africa for Turkey. This produced an immediate rise in Turkish prestige that brought with it major opportunities throughout the continent.

Davutoglu’s mistakes

Despite an extraordinary record of achievements, the Davutoglu foreign policy experience also has its share of blemishes, even taking into account the difficulties that all governments faced in adapting to the abrupt sequence of unexpected changes in the Middle East during the last several years. Perhaps because his plate was so full with an array of diverse undertakings, Davutoglu didn’t sufficiently focus on the daunting complexities of the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

The most serious of these blunders concerned Syria, not the underlying impulses, but the lack of nuance. Ankara acted as if the Assad regime would quickly collapse if pushed even slightly by the uprising. Turkey seemed continuously surprised by Assad’s resilience and by the internal, regional, and international support Syria was receiving. Turkish policy seemed mistaken, embroiling Turkey in an unwinnable foreign civil war, and tarnishing its image as a prudent and calming diplomatic influence throughout the region.

A similar line of criticism applies to Davutoglu’s overall response to the Arab Spring and its aftermath. It was consistent with the principled side of the foreign policy approach he was pioneering to welcome the events of 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt. It was premature to consider these developments as irreversible, and to presuppose their continuous deepening and regional spread. It soon became evident that Davutoglu did not appreciate the political will or capabilities of counter-revolutionary forces in the region, and did not seem to take account of the impact of an anti-democratic preoccupation that pervaded the dynastic politics of the well-endowed monarchies in the region.

All in all, Ahmet Davutoglu has had a remarkable run as a foreign minister, and as Turkey’s new prime minister, is almost certain to embellish further his many notable contributions to the success of post-Kemalist Turkey. His thoughtfulness about policymaking combined with his personal integrity and decency while operating at the highest levels of professional competence make him a rarity among politicians. Turkey is poised to play a crucial role as a force for peace and justice in the roiled waters of the Middle East, in surrounding regions and sub-regions, and even in the world.  

Richard Falk is Albert g Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Fellow, Orfalea Center of global Studies. He is also former UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.

Editor’s note: A version of this article was previously published on Al Jazeera Turk.