ISTANBUL -- This week, Turkey assumed the presidency of the United Nation's Security Council, and while that may just be a passing story in most countries, here it is a big deal.
"This is very important and a big responsibility for our country," said Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu--and he should know. Davutoglu has been the chief architect of Turkey's neo-imperial foreign policy that envisions a far greater role for this pro-western Islamic country than as an aspiring second-tier member of the European club.
No one was surprised last month when Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan appointed his longtime political adviser Davutoglu as the Foreign Minister. The soft-talking professor--who was also an adviser to President Abdullah Gul--has largely been responsible for reshaping Turkey's foreign policy over the past six years, moving it away from its isolationist roots and toward a role as a self-declared regional power broker in the Middle East.
Turks love the spotlight that has come from efforts to mediate between Israelis and Syrians, act as peacekeepers in Lebanon and host high-profile world dignitaries. They got a kick out of seeing their globetrotting leader Erdogan in a face-off with Israeli President Shimon Peres in Davos.
The official television station TRT has recently started to refer to Turkey as a "global power." These days, the book du jour in Turkish power circles is Stratfor/CIA founder George CIA Friedman's The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. It predicts...../desires....in the traditional disinformation specialty of Stratfor....and Friedman's CIA scheming...... the rise of a hegemonic Turkish empire in the former lands of the Ottoman Empire.....sensing a genuine rapprochement in the caucuses anathema to CIA's likings.....
All that talk may be premature, but not for Davutoglu.
Meeting the Turkish foreign minister, you would never guess that you are talking to one of the most powerful figures in the Middle East. Davutoglu is a short, even-tempered man in his fifties who talks, in fact nearly mumbles, with a relaxing half-smile that gives you the momentary hope that the world's most vicious problems are actually not that difficult to solve. He is more avuncular than imposing, more monotonous than charismatic.
From Damascus to Tel Aviv, regional leaders have been talking to him as the best private channel to the decision-makers in Ankara--making him the most influential consigliore in the history of the modern republic. His book Strategic Depth is a must-read for diplomats coming to Turkey. He has been at the heart of every critical diplomatic initiative over the last few years--from lobbying to attain U.N. Security Council membership for Turkey to conducting secret Israeli-Syrian mediation efforts.
It's not power for power's sake. There is a whole political theory behind the Davutoglu Doctrine. In a nutshell, instead of defining Turkey as the eastern flank of the Transatlantic Alliance, Davutoglu sees it as a pivotal country ("merkez ülke"), the centerpoint of concentric power circles. The governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, does not see the European Union as an end goal, and does not regard Turkey's western orientation as its sole strategic axis. Instead, they talk of multiple axes of alliances to solidify Turkey's leadership in the Muslim world.
But not everyone is happy about the New Turkey. To his critics, Davutoglu is responsible for the neo-Ottomanist revisionism in foreign policy that values Muslim solidarity over the secular nation's long-standing alliance with the West. He was partly blamed in media for Turkey's refusal to open a northern front for U.S. troops in the Iraq war, as well as Ankara's controversial invitation to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in 2006.
Davutoglu defended both decisions by pointing out that Turkey, in each case, made more gains than losses. Ankara currently differs from the European and American positions on numerous issues, including relations with Russia, the role of Hamas in Israeli-Palestinian issues and Darfur, where the AKP government openly supports the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court.
But even his critics agree, AKP reign has somehow elevated Turkey's stature as a democratic Muslim country and an independent actor in the Middle East. Among his fans, including leading members of the Islamist-oriented governing party, he has somewhat of a cult following, "Before AKP, no one in the mainstream media had heard of his name, but in our circles he was a legend. We used to think of him as the next Ozal," says a conservative journalist with close ties to the government.
Born in Konya, Turkey's conservative heartland, Davutoglu is a pious man who has spent a good chunk of his academic career teaching in Malaysia--somewhat unusual among Turkish academics, who gravitate toward European and American colleges for academic research. South Asia's brand of Islamic politics, marked with the growth of religion within a democratic framework, impacted his thinking on state and society. He has been very active in the Balkans with efforts to help Muslims in the Bosnian war. His particular view of Turkey as seen from the outside has led to the development of an unconventional understanding of its place in the world stage.
Davutoglu's vision somewhat differs from traditional Turkish foreign policy. Weary of troubling imperial baggage and decades of wars, the modern Turkish republic, founded in 1923, has predominantly been isolationist--aimed at anchoring Turkey to the "civilized" West and untangling it from the "backward" lands to the East. The AKP challenges this view and sees an active role in the Middle East as an asset for Turkey's relations with the West.
Under AKP, Turkey has been delving into areas that its traditional westward-looking foreign policy establishment considered off-limits, acting as a power-broker in far off disputes from Afghanistan to Palestine. In doing so, it certainly has become more enmeshed in the Muslim world, sometimes even positioning itself as the spokesman for the Islamic world, as reflected in Erdogan's outburst in Davos against Peres, or Turkey's reluctance to accept Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen as the head of NATO, due to his stance during the Danish cartoon crisis.
When Davutoglu coined the term "Neighborhood Rapprochement Policy" back in 2003, the idea of Turkey becoming friends with its arch enemies--like Syria, a rogue state that hosted Kurdish guerilla leader Abdullah Ocalan for many years, Iran, whose efforts to export Islamic revolution threatened Turkey's secular foundations, or Armenia, with its unyielding diaspora lobbying against Turkey--seemed pointless, at best.
Today, Turkey is best of friends with historical enemies Greece, Syria and Iran, on course to normalize its relations with Armenia and even talking to the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq. Journalists who used to scoff at Davutoglu's theories nowadays generously throw around his terminology, like "zero conflict with neighbors," "flexible focal point" and, of course, Turkey as a "global power."
Conservatives who tend to credit Davutoglu with raising Turkey's influence through a non-aligned foreign policy were encouraged by President Barack Obama's visit here in April. Speaking to lawmakers in Ankara, Obama said, "Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide--this is where they come together." He sounded almost like Davutoglu himself.
One major problem with Davutoglu's policies has always been the question of what would happen domestically if Turkey traded its place in the West in return for a greater regional role. While Turks enjoy their high-profile role in the Middle East, there are pitfalls. Typically the farther a nation moves from the West and its mechanisms, the more likely it is to see a rise in illiberal tendencies.
Russia, for example, is a very important country, but its independent status is precisely what makes it impossible for the U.S. to pressure Vladimir Putin or Dmitry Medvedev for accountability when it comes to corruption, a free press or democratic norms.
What if Turkey were no longer a candidate for E.U. membership. Would human rights be as closely monitored? Media freedoms and minority rights still protected? Women's rights guaranteed?
No one knows the answer. But Turks seem to like the ride.