Monday, February 22, 2010

The man behind Turkey's strategic depth

The man behind Turkey's strategic depth

ISTANBUL - As current Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu describes it, Turkey was a "wing state" of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) during the Cold War, at the edge, protecting the core. The only NATO country, besides Norway, to border the Soviet Union, Turkey was the first place the Truman Doctrine of containing communism was put into practice. This Western allegiance and its military character suited Turkish state elites and so, for 44 years, in exchange for money and arms, Turkey guarded itself and the southeast corner of Europe from the red threat.

Then as the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, and Samuel Huntington, Francis Fukuyama and Robert Kaplan were writing their post-Cold War versions of the thoughts of "the father of containment", American advisor, diplomat and political scientist George Kennan, another scholar of international relations, Davutoglu, began to make his own map of the new geopolitical landscape.

From his post as a professor of international relations, Davutoglu argued that Turkey, now freed from the East-West political geography of the Cold War and embedded in the new geography of globalization, should no longer be thought of as an appendage of the West, but rather as a country at the center. He elaborated this idea in his 2001 book Strategic Depth and the title has since become a shorthand description of Davutoglu's "doctrine". The basic idea is that Turkey, a central, pivotal country, must use its unique geography and history to its foreign policy advantage.

Born in 1959 in the central Anatolian city of Konya, Davutoglu was educated in Istanbul and received his doctorate in political science from Bogazici University. In the early 1990s he taught in Malaysia then returned to Beykent and Marmara universities in Istanbul.

Davutoglu's ideas convinced the leadership of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and when it came to power in 2002 Davutoglu was appointed chief foreign policy adviser to Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In May 2009 he was appointed foreign minister.

Davutoglu did not stand for election and is not a member of parliament, and for eight years he has had the enviable position of being a politically unaccountable politician with the job of turning his personal theory into his country's policy.

If Turkey's strategic advantage is, as Davutoglu says, in its geography and history, then this advantage is certainly deep. Located in both Asia and Europe, Turkey borders the Balkans, the Caucuses and the Middle East. Across the water from its Black Sea, Aegean and Mediterranean coasts, Turkey has 25 coastal neighbors. All traffic into and out of the Black Sea goes through the Turkish Straits. The Tigris and Euphrates rivers begin in Anatolia, and thus Turkey controls the freshwater of Syria and Iraq. At least 12 million Kurds live in Turkey and more than 5 million Kurds live over its border in northern Iraq. Turkic languages and cultures cover the ground between southeastern Europe and northwestern China. And Istanbul, once seat of the caliphate and the Ottoman Empire, ruled Jerusalem, Sarajevo, Mecca, Cairo, Belgrade, Damascus and Baghdad for generations.

Davutoglu has pushed Turkey to use this "strategic depth" to become a key global player and take stakes in the world's, especially the West's, most high-profile issue areas.

With the largest NATO army besides America's, Turkey wants to ensure stability in northern Iraq once the Americans are gone. Turkey is the centerpiece country of the Nabucco natural gas pipeline project, intended to free Europe from reliance on Russian gas. Turkey has sought a reputation for mediating tough disputes: in Bosnia; between Israel and Syria; and between its two friends, Iran and America. (One Turkish writer joked that Turkey should ask Turkey to help improve the currently strained relations between itself and Israel.)

Turkish troops are in Afghanistan training the Afghan National Army. Turkey is in the middle of its two-year term on the United Nations Security Council and is a proud member of the Group of 20. Turkey, with Spain, helped establish the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN-supported forum for improving relations between the Muslim world and the West.

Seeking "zero problems with neighbors", Turkey and Syria have lifted visa requirements and Turkey hopes to get a similar deal with Russia this year. Also, Turkey has signed, but not yet ratified, a peace deal with Armenia. Turkey wants to be a full member of the European Union by 2014. If Turkey succeeds, the EU will border Iran, possess huge military resources and see a six-fold increase in its Muslim population. If Turkey fails, it will be difficult for the EU to convince the world that Islamophobia is not a European value.

Though in the thick of major Western concerns - Iraq, Afghanistan, Israeli-Arab peace, energy, Islam, EU - the central goal of all this policy is business: increase trade, attract foreign investment and provide for Turkey's economy. In AKP foreign policy speeches one regularly hears about Turkey's "young and dynamic population" who will need jobs, and whose careers and businesses will have to grow.

Since Turkey was founded in 1923, its foreign policy has been dominated by a concern for keeping the country whole. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, modern Turkey's founder, watched for two generations the great powers conspiring to pick apart the dying Ottoman Empire. Just look at the terms of the Treaty of Sevres (1920) to understand the Turkish fear of foreign plots. Turks from all walks of life still often agree that foreign powers are trying to break up the country; and almost every Turk today has been taught that, "Turkey is surrounded on three sides by the sea, and on four sides by the enemy."

But Turkey has been liberalizing its economy since the 1980s, and in the past decade Turks have succeeded in opening the national interest to more than national security. The AKP is both demilitarizing Turkish politics and privatizing billions of dollars of state assets. Under Davutoglu and the AKP, the new axiom may well be, "Turkey is surrounded on three sides by the sea, and on four sides by markets."

Some call Davutoglu's foreign policy "neo-Ottomanism". And to listen to one AKP member of parliament speak of his "pride" at seeing the Ottoman walls that enclose the old city of Jerusalem, and of the Bascarsi in Sarajevo, it is clear Ottoman nostalgia warms the foreign policy imaginations of at least some in the Turkish government.

Davutoglu has himself said, "... whenever there is a crisis in the Balkans, the victims of those crises, like Bosnians, Albanians and Turks of Bulgaria, they look to Istanbul. We are paying the bill of our history." Still, Davutoglu rejects the label "neo-Ottoman" as an attempt by his opponents to tarnish his foreign policy with connotations of colonialism. His recent decision to renovate all Turkish embassies in a "Turkish style" - which most likely means "Ottoman" - may not help his case.

A specific threat to Davutoglu's credibility is the faltering peace deal with Armenia. Last October in Zurich, in front of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Davutoglu and his Armenian counterpart Edouard Nalbandian signed two sets of groundbreaking protocols that were supposed to lead to full diplomatic relations and an open border.

The whole rapprochement is currently on hold, largely because Azerbaijan is resisting the deal over Armenia's control of Nagorno-Karabakh inside Azerbaijan. The spokesman of the Turkish parliament foreign affairs committee simply said they "didn't know Azerbaijan was going to react that way".

Also, despite Davutoglu calling it a "main fixture" of the country's foreign policy, Turkey's bid to join the EU has stalled. Frustrated with perceived European insincerity, a minority in the AKP is arguing Turkey no longer needs the EU. Interestingly, one reason given is that EU membership would curtail Turkey's foreign policy independence. Davutoglu will have to manage this debate, as well as a more general debate over priorities as the Foreign Ministry realizes its resources may not match its ambitions.

Critics also say Davutoglu and the AKP have "Islamified" Turkish foreign policy. Religion is part of the worldview of the AKP and affects the way it governs. But the accusation of "Islamification" is clearly designed to play on prejudices and scare Western and secular observers. Many liberals and progressives in Turkey dismiss - or willfully ignore - the accusation as a point of principle. These two poles of fear mongering and dismissal have kept much helpful debate from reaching foreign ears.

Ironically, given the accusations of "Islamification", there's no clear moral basis to Davutoglu's foreign policy. This may not be missed by those who like their foreign policy analysis on ice. But treating all parties with "mutual respect" and on a principle of "equality", as Davutoglu advocates, risks being blind to real differences between, for example, Greece and Iran, or Israel and Sudan. This is, at least partially, why many find it easy to wonder whether Turkey is "leaving" the West.

Again, this may not be a problem for those who think George W Bush discredited the whole notion of distinguishing dictators from democrats. The AKP stresses that engagement with its neighbors is not a luxury, and claim they do communicate misgivings privately. But the question remains: will the masses of Turkish voters who keep the AKP in power eventually demand to hear in which terms - ones nobler than economic self-interest - their government describes its goals abroad, and on what grounds it considers a friend to be a friend? After all, "democracy" and "democratization" are the AKP's domestic policy mantras, and the AKP has been very happy to point out America's and the EU's various double standards.