From zero problems to leading the change

From zero problems to leading the change

ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
From zero problems to leading the change

A man walks in the Tabab neighborhood near Damascus, which was hit by attacks.

Turkey’s relationship with Syria has gone through a dramatic transformation over the last two years. While it was pursuing limitless cooperation with Syria, it is now actively supporting the political and military opposition forces fighting for the fall of the Baath regime. Seeking to make sense of this transformation, analysts raise the provocative question of whether Ankara’s ambitious ‘zero problems with neighbors policy’ has failed.

For several years, Turkey worked to forge friendly relations and spearhead a zone of peace in its neighborhood. To that end, it has undertaken revolutionary initiatives that included attempts towards resolving bilateral disputes, the establishment of high level strategic cooperation councils, removal of visa requirements and plans for establishing free trade zones. Corresponding roughly to the onset of the Arab Spring, however, Turkey has found itself in a turbulent regional environment, which has increasingly pitted it against its neighbors. For critics, Ankara’s ambitious foreign policy has vanished, if not its moment for regional leadership.

What is overlooked is how Turkey’s regional policy is still influenced by the same doctrine, which suggests continuity in Turkish leaders’ approach to the Middle East. The analyses that herald the death of Turkey’s regional policy wrongly assumed that Ankara has still pursued a ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy in recent years. In fact, even in its heyday, ‘zero problems’ was hardly a policy, strategy or doctrine. It was only one among several principles that have collectively made up Ankara’s regional policy.

There was definitely a doctrine as the centerpiece of Turkey’s regional policies, but it was the ‘central-power’ policy. The central country refers to an actor that is geographically and geo-culturally located at the intersection of different regional systems. Formulating this idea while an academic, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu argued that Turkey’s unique position gives it a special central-country role, and as such, Turkey cannot define itself in a defensive manner. As a result, Davutoğlu expects Turkey to play a proactive role in shaping its neighborhood, for Turkey’s security and prosperity at home necessitates the establishment of peaceful and stable orders in the immediate regions that surround it. In 2004, Davutoğlu, as he progressively took charge of the formulation of Turkish foreign policy, listed five principles forming the core of Ankara’s ‘central power’ strategy: the balance between freedom and security; zero problems relationship with neighbors; multi-dimensional foreign policy; a new diplomatic style; and rhythmic diplomacy as the components of Ankara’s new foreign policy.


Today, the challenge is of a different character: the nature of the relationship between the regimes and societies has been at the core of the maintenance of regional order, as these events have immediate repercussions for other regional actors including Turkey. As the disrupted domestic order in transition countries poses threats to the region at large, Turkey’s proactive policy aims at reestablishing domestic order on the basis of democratic principles.

Such a transformation is only normal given the changing nature of the threats to the regional order. In coming years, the main litmus test for Turkey will be its ability to assist the formation of functioning state apparatus in the countries undergoing transition that can meet the economic and political demands of their people and establish domestic order. In this endeavor, there still remain major limitations on Turkey’s ability to manage the new regional transformation in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the uprisings.