Globalist Analysis

Divining Davutoglu: Turkey's Foreign Policy Under New Leadership

How is Turkey’s foreign minister steering the country towards new frontiers in international relations?

Takeaways


  • Turkey seeks to be surrounded by regions that are stable. This desire for stability reflects the primacy of economic interests.
  • Turkey's relations with Europe date back to the 11th century, and relations with the EU are just the latest episode of a long-standing engagement.
  • Davutoglu's policy preferences in relation to the Middle East and his conceptualization of foreign policy earned him the label of a neo-Ottomanist.
  • For those who prefer to malign AKP's foreign policy rather than to critically analyze it, this amounts to the Islamization of Turkish foreign policy.
  • Many pundits wondered whether or not under Davutoglu's stewardship, Turkish foreign policy would drift further away from the West.

One of the most important choices that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, made when he presented the country with a substantive cabinet reshuffle in May 2009 was the appointment of Erdogan's long-time advisor Ahmet Davutoglu as foreign minister.

Davutoglu has a high profile in the world of diplomacy as the architect of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP’s) foreign policy. As the influential foreign affairs advisor to Erdogan, he put his imprint on AKP's foreign policy. He has also worked closely with Abdullah Gül, Turkey's president, and Ali Babacan, Turkey's former foreign minister.

This appointment is especially remarkable because Davutoglu is not a member of parliament — and extra-parliamentary appointments are rare in Turkey in normal times. In making this move, Erdogan's obvious goal is to put Davutoglu in a position whereby the latter will have to bear political responsibility for the policies he devises and implements.

Upon this appointment, many pundits raised concerns about the future of Turkish foreign policy. They wondered whether or not under Davutoglu's stewardship, Turkish foreign policy would drift further away from the West, particularly from the goal of attaining EU membership.

As the author of the magisterial book Strategic Depth, a highly regarded work on Turkish foreign policy written from a geostrategic, cultural and historical perspective, Davutoglu's policy preferences in relation to the Middle East and his conceptualization of foreign policy earned him the label of a neo-Ottomanist.

Such labeling suggests a non-Western (and for some, anti-Western) orientation for Turkey that favors engagement with the Middle East presumably on the sole basis of a shared religious identity. For those who prefer to malign AKP's foreign policy rather than to critically analyze it, this amounts to the Islamization of Turkish foreign policy — and the inevitable "loss" of Turkey to the West.

However, Turkey's policies in its surrounding regions ought to be seen in the context of the country's overall interests and understood in terms of its goals. A close look at these goals shows that they are complementary, if not identical, with those of Turkey's allies, particularly the United States.

Turkey seeks to be surrounded by regions that are stable. Beyond the obvious reason of not wanting to face violent conflicts on its borders, this desire for stability reflects the primacy of economic interests in the making of Turkish foreign policy.

Turkey regards the neighboring countries as potential trade partners, and any deepening of economic interdependence is seen both as beneficial for Turkish businesses as well as enhancing political stability.

To this end, the preference in foreign policy choices is for engagement with all plausible actors.

When Davutoglu was appointed, the most serious question raised about him concerned relations with the European Union. EU relations are not solely a foreign policy matter for Turkey and reflect the inclinations and intentions of the government in general, not just the foreign minister.

However, Davutoglu's earlier, dismissive assessment of the EU accession process, relegating this to just technical developments in negotiations, led to speculations about the future of EU relations under his stewardship.

Davutoglu responded to the doubts and criticisms with a broad statement to EU ambassadors on Europe Day on May 9, 2009, in which he presented his most comprehensive understanding of Turkey-EU relations to date.

He argued that Turkey's relations with Europe date back to the 11th century — and that relations with the EU are just the latest episode of a long-standing engagement. The Ottoman Empire reacted swiftly to epoch-changing developments in Europe (including the Treaty of Westphalia, the Vienna Conference and World War I) and engaged in transformative political and social reforms. Similarly, Republican Turkey is responding to the epochal changes of the post-Cold War era.

As such, when it comes to Turkey-EU relations, the goal of integration remains the mainstay of Turkish foreign policy. In his view, Europe's vision and Turkey's vision were complementary, and the synergy that would come out of these relations would place Europe in an influential position in world affairs. Such a role for Europe, he added, was something that the world needed.

Currently, the most important ticking bomb in EU-Turkey relations is the Cyprus issue. Although negotiations between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot presidents on the island continue unabated, few analysts believe that a final agreement could be reached before November when the European Commission will review Turkey's record concerning the application of the customs union to Cyprus.

Turkey is unwilling to move forward on its legal commitment to open its ports and airports to Greek Cypriot vessels because the European Union failed to honor its promises to Turkish Cypriots on easing the embargoes that they have been subjected to.

Davutoglu intimated that Turkey would favor a comprehensive, all-party conference. Unless everyone is mobilized for a comprehensive plan (such as the Annan Plan that Turkish Cypriots accepted but Greek Cypriots rejected), a solution to the problem would be impossible to reach.

The mood in Turkey is such that no government, no matter how committed it is to EU accession, will move on Cyprus unless it gets something in return. Given the rising economic and strategic importance of the Mediterranean coast for Turkey's long-term interests, the fair and balanced resolution of the Cyprus issue is imperative, and non-resolution has the potential to jeopardize the stability of the Eastern Mediterranean.

We have yet to see whether Davutoglu's commitment to revitalizing the EU accession process will get full support from the Turkish cabinet. More importantly, we have yet to see whether the Swedish Presidency will be able to stop the steady deterioration in EU-Turkey relations.

This will, of course, depend on its ability to get certain members of the European Union to stop demonizing Turkey on all occasions as an excuse for the inadequacy of their own nations to tackle their own internal problems.

Editor's Note: This feature is adapted from an article originally published by the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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About Soli Ozel

Soli Özel is a professor of International Relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul and a columnist at Habertürk daily newspaper.

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