Strategic Breadth and Depth: An Online Symposium on Turkish Foreign Policy

Reflecting on Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s exclusive interview with The Cairo Review of Global Affairsfive leading analysts discuss whether Ankara’s regional approach is meeting the challenges of a Middle East in transformation.

Steven A. Cook: Vintage Davutoğlu

Michael Wahid Hanna: An Ambitious Foreign Policy Vision

Leila Hilal: Turkey and the Syria Imbroglio

Marc Lynch: A Muddled, Reactive Approach to the Arab Revolutions

Kadir Ustun: Revolutions and the Question of Legitimacy

Vintage Davutoğlu

By Steven A. Cook

The Cairo Review’s wide-ranging interview with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is fascinating on a variety of levels. It is also vintage Davutoğlu. For those unfamiliar with the Turkish foreign minister, throughout his career—beginning with his PhD dissertation— Davutoğlu has sought to place Turkey in historical context and by doing so demonstrate his country’s enduring importance.Davutoğlu rejects the term “neo-Ottoman” for good political reasons given Kemalist suspicion of Turkey’s Ottoman legacies and the regional colonial baggage associated with the House of Othman. Still, it is clear that the Ottoman period—or at least the Justice and Development Party’s interpretation of it—provides, in part, the intellectual basis for Turkish foreign policy, despite his nod to Ataturk with the reference to “peace at home, peace in the world.” Indeed, Davutoğlu’s reading of Turkey’s past and his ambitions for its future are clear when he says:

“Turkey has… managed to de-securitize its foreign policy understanding, which allows us to see our neighborhood through the prism of opportunities rather than a perception of threat. As a result, we have come a long way in improving our relations with neighbors and opening up new areas of cooperation. We have also presented an example for others to seek more freedom, which have otherwise been constrained by security considerations, and offered a reliable partner for those willing to proceed in this direction.”

Some of this should, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. Prior to, and in the early months of the uprisings in Libya and Syria, the Turks were not as “forward leaning” on Qaddafi and Assad as they had been in calling on Hosni Mubarak to bow to the demands of his people. Still, the Turks have been quite successful in, as Davutoğlu says, de-securitizing their foreign policy and providing leadership in a region that was moribund. And they are doing the same in a much-changed and dynamic Arab world. Yet lest anyone believe—based on Turkey’s activism in the Middle East—that Turkey can or wants to be a model for the Arab world, Davutoğlu dismisses the concept, recognizing that “each and every country has its own unique characteristics shaped by its own unique historical and sociopolitical background.” Turkey is clearly in the Middle East to stay, which is a positive development, but by the foreign minister’s own admission all the talk about models should come to a merciful end.

Steven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of “The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square,” which is excerpted in the Winter 2012 issue of the Cairo Review.

An Ambitious Foreign Policy Vision

By Michael Wahid Hanna

Following a tumultuous and challenging year of change in the Arab world, Ahmet Davutoğlu, the erudite foreign minister of Turkey, retains an ambitious vision as to Turkey’s role in that regional transformation and its critical place in the global order. Much of that vision derives from the country’s unique geopolitical position.

Davutoğlu notes, “Turkey, a candidate for accession to the EU, is a European, Mediterranean, Balkan, Caucasian, and Middle Eastern country all at the same time.” Yet, to play a central role in the changes underway in the Arab world, Turkey will need to further integrate its foreign policy with existing regional mechanisms, which have undertaken major, and heretofore inconceivable, initiatives in recent months.

Davutoğlu himself is aware of this necessity: “Strategic depth also rests on creating a sense of regional ownership based on shared interests and common ideals. This can be achieved only through a more effective regional cooperation and active engagement with all regional systems in our neighborhood. This, in turn, necessitates enforcing existing regional integration structures, and forging new ones as necessary.”

Fears of neo-Ottomanism are largely the product of sensationalism, and the lack of formal Turkish involvement in the Arab League represents a gap in both Turkish and regional diplomacy. As such, the current juncture would be an appropriate time for Turkey to be granted observer status at the Arab League, a request that has been rebuffed in the past.

Turkey has become a central player in attempting to marshal regional initiatives to cope with and manage the current instability. It has also expanded its economic ties to the region. Granting Turkey observer status would reflect the role it currently plays in many regional issues and crises and would establish a permanent and more orderly mechanism for dialogue and consultation on regional matters of mutual concern.

While such an incremental step will not prove transformational for regional diplomacy, it would represent a further step for policy coordination.

For such a measure to be successful, however, would require Turkey to adopt a more broad-ranging and engaged foreign policy in the Arab world that would not fall prey to sectarian agendas. With Saudi Arabia playing the key leadership role in the region, the prospect of sectarian polarization and proxy conflict are heightened. With its Islamist pedigree, Turkey’s current leadership must now look beyond those groups with which it has natural affinities, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni political class in Iraq, and engage with those communities fearful of a regional Sunni political project. Turkey is uniquely positioned to play such a role and in eschewing a narrow Sunni-focused foreign policy. Turkey can be constructive in preempting crisis and fostering stability.

Michael Wahid Hanna is a fellow and program officer at The Century Foundation, where he focuses on international security, human rights, post-conflict justice, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Turkey and the Syria Imbroglio

By Leila Hilal

Turkey has taken a consistently strong position against President Bashar Al-Assad’s brutally violent crackdown on the Syrian people. Within weeks of the start of the Syrian uprising, Turkey publicly indicated that it would not stand by Assad should he resist demands for reform. As Al-Assad continued to respond to protesters with shocking repression, Turkey’s rebuke of the regime intensified. Today Turkey, despite beneficial ties between the two countries, is not shy in calling for Al-Assad’s departure. While many Syrians hoped that Turkey would match rhetoric with protective action, Ankara is not likely to intervene militarily.

There are several reasons why. Amongst them the Kurds—an issue glossed over by Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoğlu. Turkey is concerned about the potential for a proxy spillover as Al-Assad could leverage PKK elements within Syria in response to intervention. Perhaps more threatening is how a post-Assad Syria will resolve the long-standing disenfranchisement of its Kurdish population, as Turkey’s parliament engages constitutional negotiations including on the status and treatment of 14 million Kurds in the country.

In his March 7 interview coming on the heels of the horrific siege and slaughter in Homs and expanding regime operations, Davutoğlu upheld the Arab League road map which calls for the hand-over of power to the Syrian vice president a la Yemen’s recent executive transition. While this plan has enjoyed relative international support, its emphasis on quick presidential and parliamentary elections, albeit under a national unity government, could suppress a process of citizen engagement regarding the Kurds’ future political role in Syria—or any of the other broad themes of identity, nationalism, regionalism, minority protection mechanisms and constitutionalism provoked by the Arab Spring.

Davutoğlu articulated a principled foreign policy on the Arab uprisings, endorsing universal values and freedoms as the foundation of reforms and stability. If Turkey is to play a regional leadership role on these grounds it may have to first address the skeletons in its closet.

Leila Hilal is co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force and edits the Middle East Channel at

A Muddled, Reactive Approach to the Arab Revolutions

By Marc Lynch

The Cairo Review‘s conversation with Ahmet Davutoğlu hints at how much has changed for his country over the last year. Turkey entered the Arab Spring better positioned than any other major power to take advantage of the region’s changes. But it has in fact struggled to take advantage of those assets, and has struggled to maintain the soft power and diplomatic leverage which Davutoğlu and Prime Minister Erdoğan had built over the previous decade. Turkish diplomacy has accomplished many things, but “no problems with neighbors” is not one of them.

For decades, Turkey was at best a marginal force in regional politics, with its military-dominated government oriented towards Europe and allied with Israel. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu reoriented Turkish foreign policy towards the Arab world by appealing directly and effectively to public opinion on issues such as Gaza. At the same time, it shrewdly positioned itself as a crucial mediator, with strong and open relations both to Western allies and to the “resistance bloc” of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. It helped Turkey’s cause that virtually no Arab governments were willing or able to take such bold stances. Little wonder that by 2010, it had become commonplace to see Turkey as an emerging power in the Arab world, and Erdoğan as one of its most popular personalities.

At first glance, the Arab uprisings should have been a force multiplier for Turkish diplomacy. As the protests that began in Tunisia spread across virtually the entire Arab world, the public opinion which the Turkish government had so carefully cultivated now mattered more. The Turkish model of democracy, free market economics, and mild Islamism seemed tailor made to guide the Arab transformations. The AKP’s relationships with and example to moderate Arab Islamist movements could only help it as such movements swept election after election. Erdoğan’s good relationship with President Obama and Turkey’s stability increased its appeal as a Western ally, even as the value of Turkish ties to “resistance” actors increased.

But it hasn’t quite worked out that way. For one, Turkey has struggled to deliver on its own promises. Its muddled, reactive approach to the Arab revolutions, apparent in Davutoğlu’s comments, disappointed many fans of Erdoğan’s pre-2011 rhetoric. It has particularly struggled with the escalating civil war in Syria. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu’s carefully cultivated relations with Bashar Al-Assad proved to be of little use in influencing his strategic choices. Turkey proved unable to muster sufficient economic pressure to back up its appeals for an end to the violence, and has—in my view wisely— refrained from military intervention.

Turkey has also lost its unique place as a dynamic source of change in the region. Tunisia, Libya and Egypt all have new leaderships and turbulent politics. The Gulf states have become far more active diplomatically, as Qatar and Saudi Arabia have led a revitalized Gulf Cooperation Council in an attempt to shape the emerging regional politics in their favor. Arab activists tend to look inward, to their own efforts and to other Arab arenas, rather than out to non-Arab models such as Turkey. The days when Turkish soap operas dominated Arab hearts and minds, and when Erdoğan seemed the only political leader willing to stand up for Arab causes, have faded.

This doesn’t mean that Davutoğlu and Erdoğan’s efforts have failed, however. Davutoğlu’s comments about Turkish hopes of reshaping the region around more democratic governments and more cooperative relations offer a useful long-term strategic vision. Turkish good offices will continue to be useful in diplomacy with Iran and Syria, and Turkish businesses will be major investors and partners in the opening Arab markets. Indeed, one of their greatest accomplishments may ultimately prove to be the normalization of Turkey in the Middle East, turning it from a distant and disliked outsider into a regular, unexceptional player in a new kind of regional politics.

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies. He edits the Middle East Channel at

Revolutions and the Question of Legitimacy

By Kadir Ustun

One after another, the fall of authoritarian regimes throughout the Arab world has already prompted a body of political science literature. What was so fundamental and common to these regimes that triggered a wave of revolutions? Foreign Minister Davutoğlu identifies the common thread as a “legitimacy gap” between those who govern and the governed.

It was no accident that “dignity” was the slogan that resonated most with the people in the streets who have reclaimed their freedom from regimes perceived as illegitimate and unrepresentative. The deep sense of frustration that had accumulated over decades was powerful enough to draw masses to the streets, where they risked their lives for a better future.

There is no doubt that social, economic, and political problems all fueled the Arab revolutions. However, these issues exist everywhere around the world to varying degrees, and such factors in themselves do not necessarily lead to the kind of regional earthquake we’ve seen in the past year. In this case, what made it different was that all segments of society, regardless of their political affiliations, posed the same lethal question concerning each regime’s legitimacy.

Authoritarian Arab regimes have tried to curtail and downplay the significance of this gap through ideological means (such as Baathism and Arab nationalism) and strategic arrangements (for example, Egypt’s “cold peace” with Israel). These arrangements had endured for generations but were ultimately unsustainable. In an age of unprecedented globalization, the governed could no longer be shut out of the political process by the elites.

Drawing up a new social contract remains the biggest challenge for the new administrations in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, as the Arab Spring was just the beginning of a region-wide shift toward representative and accountable political systems. Having engaged with its own questions of legitimacy only recently, Turkey is well suited to contribute to and be a part of this historic moment.

Kadir Ustun is research director of the SETA Foundation in Washington, DC.

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