From strategic depth to strategic surface

From strategic depth to strategic surface

One way to read the recent tension between Turkey and Syria is to see it as the end of a Turkish foreign policy paradigm known as “strategic depth.” The theoretical foundations of strategic depth were introduced by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in his famous 2001 book, before he took office. The main idea of Strategic Depth was, similar to Russia’s policy of maintaining a sphere of influence in former Soviet Union countries, creating a sphere of influence in former Ottoman Empire territories. The natural question is why this policy worked for Russia but not for Turkey. What has happened such that Davutoğlu, who was once hailed as the most successful foreign minister in modern Turkish history, is now being criticized by the opposition as the most “adventurous” foreign minister?

Countries can influence the behaviors of other states through three mechanisms: coercion, persuasion and acculturation. With coercion, states influence the behavior of other states by escalating the benefits of conformity or the costs of nonconformity. Persuasion requires argument and deliberation in an effort to change the minds of others. Once persuaded, other states internalize new norms and rules of appropriate behavior and redefine their interests and identities accordingly. Acculturation is the general process of adopting the beliefs and behavioral patterns of the surrounding culture. This mechanism induces behavioral changes through the pressure to assimilate.

Russia, because of it possesses obvious military superiority and will not hesitate to use it, has coercive power over its sphere of influence. When its military power is combined with the fact that most of the former Soviet countries are economically dependent on Russia, Moscow is pretty confident about its ability to keep these countries in its back yard. The former Soviet countries were also acculturated or assimilated enough that they have had no option but to accept Russia as their big brother. If language is one of the main indicators of assimilation, the percentage of Russian-speakers in those countries can be taken as a proof.

Davutoğlu, as a wise man and a professor of international relations, is well aware of the fact that Turkey does not have the coercive power to force its will on other countries in the region. These countries are not economically dependent on Turkey, and Turkey would not take military action to influence them, like Russia did in Georgia in 2008. As for acculturation, due to the Ottoman policy of tolerance, these countries were not assimilated to Turkish culture as much as Soviet countries were assimilated to Russian culture. Again, the percentage of Turkish language knowledge in those countries can be used to measure this.

So Davutoğlu had only one option for creating a Turkish sphere of influence: persuasion. And Davutoğlu tried to achieve this through his trademark “zero problems with neighbors” rhetoric. Under this policy Turkey on the one hand tried to solve its own decades-long problems with its neighbors, and on the other hand tried to remedy the problems its neighbors had with one another through mediation and other diplomatic means. The hope was if Turkey acted as a big brother in the region this would persuade other countries in the neighborhood that Turkey was in fact their big brother. But Turkey overestimated its diplomatic capacities, and underestimated the power-based realities of its region.

Now that Turkey has returned to the surface of strategic reality, after losing a decade venturing into deep strategic waters, the question is what the new direction of Turkish foreign policy should be. As the saying goes, “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” and the recent crisis has proven that Turkey’s real friends and allies are located to its West. The United States, NATO and the European Union countries immediately, unanimously, unconditionally and officially announced their support for their long-term ally Turkey. It is therefore time for Turkey to reconcile its relations with the West and move its foreign policy priorities in that direction. Rather than being a submarine in the strategic depths of the East, Turkey has more to gain as a cruiser on the strategic surface of the West.

*Onur Şen is a Fulbright scholar in the political science department at Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia.