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 Davutoglu 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 Davutoglu.
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.
The touchstone of Davutoğlu’s approach to foreign policy is the effort to blend principle and pragmatism in relation to shifting policy contects, doing what is right ethically while at the same time exploring every opportunity to promote Turkish national interests, including enhancing its international reputation as a responsible and strategic player. This blend of goals was well-illustrated by the seemingly frantic Davutoğlu diplomacy in many settings, including the Balkans, Crimea, Armenia, Myanmar, and Latin America, seeking wherever possible to resolve regional conflicts while lending support to humanitarian goals, and in the process establishing Turkey’s claims to be both a constructive international actor and a valuable partner for trade and investment.
The most impressive example of such an approach was undoubtedly the major initiative starting in mid-2011 to help out a crisis-ridden Somalia when the rest of the world abandoned the country as a ‘failed state.’ Erdoğan and his wife, together with Davutoğlu, visited Mogadishu at time when it was viewed as dangerously insecure and then put together a serious financial aid package to highlight the continuing Turkish commitment. From this bold and imaginative gesture of solidarity came a major opening to Africa for Turkey, which produced an immediate rise in Turkish prestige that brought with it major opportunities throughout the continent.
In reflecting on the Erdoğan/Davutoğlu approach to foreign policy, this Somalia initiative helps explain, as well, how and why Turkey after an absence of 50 years was elected to term membership for 2009-2010 in the UN Security Council with strong African backing. Turkey is again investing an enormous effort to being elected to the Security Council for a 2015-2016 term. It also explains why Istanbul has become a favorite site for major international meetings, often displacing the earlier tendency to choose Western European cities for such gatherings. Both of these involvements at the global level are expressive of Turkey’s ambition to be a global political actor, as well as a strong state and regional influence.
Despite an extraordinary record of achievements, the Davutoğlu 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, Davutoğlu didn’t sufficiently focus on the daunting complexities of the aftermath of the Arab Spring, leading him to make on behalf of Turkey several costly miscalculations.
Undoubtedly the most serious of these blunders concerned Syria, not the underlying impulses, but the lack of nuance. In my view, Turkey’s mistakes can be understood in two phases: first, the excessive enthusiasm attached to the initial effort to dissolve the tensions that had dominated Turkish-Syrian relations for many years, affirming the Assad regime well beyond what was necessary for the normalization of relations thereby creating unrealistic expectations; and secondly, not only repudiating the government in Damascus that had been so recently befriended, but giving all measure of aid and comfort to an ill-defined insurgency without any seeming appreciation of the internal balance of forces in Syria. Ankara acted as if the Assad regime would soon collapse if pushed even slightly by the uprising. Turkey seemed continuously surprised by the resilience of the Assad regime and by the internal, regional, and international support it was receiving. Turkish policy was wrong for several reasons, and embroiled Turkey in a prolonged civil conflict with no end in sight, as well as damaged its image as a prudent and calming diplomatic influence throughout the region.
A similar line of criticism can be applied to Davutoğlu’s overall response to the Arab Spring and its aftermath. While 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 as transformative, it was premature to pronounce these developments as irreversible, and to anticipate their continuous deepening and regional spread. It soon became evident that Davutoğlu did not adequately 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.
The role of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, for instance, in using their petroleum wealth and political leverage to promote a military takeover and bloody crackdown of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt altered the political balance in several countries, and took an unquestionable precedence over even the sectarian impulses of these political actors in their opposition to Shiite Iran. Shocking in this regard is the tacit strategic compact of these Arab governments with Israel that even went so far as to endorse the 50 day criminal onslaught directed at Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza that commenced on July 8th.
More difficult to analyze, but at least somewhat questionable, was the degree to which Turkey, despite trying to pursue its own distinctive brand of diplomacy in this Davutoğlu era also seemed to be going along with some dubious policies of the United States. In this regard, I would mention a limited collaboration with the failed military interventions in Afghanistan, Libya, and of course, Syria. It is also debatable as to whether Turkey should have consented to NATO’s deployment of defensive missile systems on its territory, which Moscow understandably viewed as provocative. What seems called for in the future is greater selectivity in maintaining Turkey’s strong alignments with the United States and NATO.
All in all, Ahmet Davutoğlu has had a remarkable run as 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 combined with the highest levels of professional competence make him a rarity among politicians. I have long been impressed by Davutoğlu’s clear understanding of how Turkey’s effectiveness internationally is an outcome of the confidence generated by domestic success.
This requires achieving political stability, economic development, protecting human rights and the environment, as well as creating and the further strengthening of the procedures and substance of an inclusive democracy that is fair and beneficial for all citizens regardless of their ethnic and religious identities. With such leaders committed to this progressive worldview, Turkey can look forward to a bright future. 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.
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