‘Turkey’s foreign policy revolutionized, no change on the horizon’

‘Turkey’s foreign policy revolutionized, no change on the horizon’

William ARMSTRONG - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr ANKARA
‘Turkey’s foreign policy revolutionized, no change on the horizon’

AA Photo

Turkey’s foreign policy has undergone a fundamental shift since the ruling Justice and Development (AKP) came to power in 2002. Out have gone the quietest policies mostly pursued by governments since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923; in has come an attempt to engage with the Middle East and establish a new regional order. The pivot came with the Arab upheavals that broke out in late 2010, after which Ankara largely abandoned its realpolitik-based engagement with many of the region’s autocratic regimes, embracing change through the Muslim Brotherhood.

‘Turkey’s foreign policy revolutionized, no change on the horizon’

Aaron Stein, author of 'Turkey's
New Foreign Policy: Davutoğlu,
the AKP and the Pursuit of
Regional Order."

These shifts are explored in Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) scholar Aaron Stein’s new book “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy: Davutoğlu, the AKP and the Pursuit of Regional Order,” reviewed here.

The Hürriyet Daily News spoke to Stein about his book, and the future of Turkey’s foreign policy now that the Arab upheavals have either morphed into sectarian turmoil or been quelled by the regional status quo.

Could you start by briefly outlining the shift from Turkey's traditional republican foreign policy to the AKP’s new understanding?

The biggest change that I can see is just the conception of themselves, as Turkey, and how this fits into the global order. It’s no longer the idea that Turkey benefits from a robust Western presence in the Middle East, or in Central Asia, or in Europe, but rather that Turkey is almost in competition with the West in pursuing the new regional order that it wants. That new regional order is premised on the understanding of Ahmet Davutoğlu and other people in the AKP that many of the problems in the Middle East stem from a crisis of legitimacy.

That crisis is basically a reflection of the creation of faux nation states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the reliance of these faux nation states on secular strongmen pursuing a model of governance that is incongruent with the region’s history. So the way to get back to a peaceful Middle East is to move away from these imported ideologies and to go back to historically what was the source of political legitimacy in these countries, which was these two concepts of Tawhid and Tanzih, and which Davutoğlu has referred to at other times just as Dar al-Islam [the Abode of Islam].

Could you elaborate on these concepts of Tawhid and Tanzih?

Davutoğlu thinks that historically, political legitimacy - in the Ottoman Empire and also in the Muslim world in general - came from the concept of Tawhid, meaning the “oneness of God,” and Tanzih, meaning that there is no questioning of God and there is no greater being than God. It was from these constructs that the leader then governed down, so he was able to basically put together a cosmopolitan, multicultural sense of what the Ottoman Empire was. It was only after the import of nationalism that you had the clash of identities across different cultural, ethnic, religious groups. Those clashes weren’t there beforehand, or if they were they weren’t nearly as bad as they became with the import of the European model of secularism, political nationalism, and ethnic identity.

So he’s advocating a return to that concept. Some people have called this pan-Islamism, and he does say “pan-Islamism” in some of his writings, but it’s a very unique idea of what pan-Islamism means, what Tawhid and Tanzih mean, and how it can actually make society better, rather than “Islamize” it. In a way, Behlül Özkan’s argument and the term “pan-Islamism” is a kind of hot-button issue that makes it sound like something bad, but what it actually means is something positive that will help overcome ethnic identity issues, conflicts and clashes, and lead to a more peaceful society. You can see reflections of this in the way they handle the Kurdish issue and things like that.

There’s an idealization of a kind of unity that existed once upon a time but has been ruined over the past 100 years.

Right, so you can get back to that by using Tawhid and Tanzih as your means of political legitimacy. This concept, he says, is reflective of the people’s will, so it’s not anti-democratic. What is anti-democratic are these autocratic leaders who rule with an iron fist and with an ideology that is incongruent with the region’s history. In his mind, being more conservative and being more democratic aren’t at odds with one another.

So he sees different versions of “tutelage” in the region.

Where I think the argument runs into problems is that it’s nearly 100 percent based on the Turkish experience. He’s arguing about Turkey and he expands upon it and applies it to the Middle East. That’s where he runs into problems because each society is a little different. You can see that his criticism is basically criticism of the republican government in Turkey and where it has failed. You can see reflections of this both in domestic policy and how they execute foreign policy.

I’d like to talk about the end of the Cold War, and how suddenly there seemed to be a new opening up of opportunities for Turkey in the region. How does Davutoğlu’s conception of foreign policy differ from Turgut Özal’s in the 1980s?

Davutoğlu has panned Özal for his prescription that what he was doing was “neo-Ottomanism,” because he thought the term was too shallow - a political slogan that didn’t have much meaning. So right off the bat he tried to differentiate himself from what Özal was doing. But their understanding primarily comes from the same place: Turkey needs to expand in the Middle East and Central Asia to benefit both economically and politically.

Özal was a conservative guy, and Davutoğlu is also a conservative guy, but the difference is really a byproduct of when they governed. In the 1980s, the Cold War was still going on, and the concern in Turkey remained tightening ties with the United States, NATO, and Europe. But Davutoğlu came about from the mid-1990s up to the present, when the tide has turned completely.

The difference is not only that, but they view their relationship with the U.S., the West and NATO as being different. Özal was happy to prove his worth to the U.S., and the example of that is the decision-making leading up to the 1991 Gulf War and Turkey’s decision to participate the way that it did. Davutoğlu, on the other hand, views the relationship with the U.S. as important, but he sees that up until very recently Turkey was relegated to the periphery of decision-making, so it wasn’t making decisions independently and therefore was not a self-confident nation. So he talks all the time about trying to change Turkey’s psychology, and moving from the periphery of global decision-making into the center.

There are two angles to this. The first angle is where the term “rhythmic diplomacy” comes in: Turkey needs to be more active on international stages - the U.N. Security Council, the G-20, marching for Charlie Hebdo, you name it. The second is domestic: There needs to be more democracy because Davutoğlu says that the republicans, the previous agents of tutelage - that’s not exactly what he says, but I’m using their language - adopted this psychology and were happy to be on the periphery, rather than in the center. So Turkey needs to become more democratic, and more emblematic of its own people, and when it does that it will be able to make decisions based upon its own interests rather than those of the West.

But to be clear, things were moving in this direction whether the AKP came to power or not. Non-AKP scholars were writing the Özal-type thing in the 1990s - “we need to get over this Cold War mindset, we need to expand.” The difference really is the marriage of the ideology of Davutoğlu and how aggressively they’ve pursued it.

How influential do you think Davutoğlu himself has been? Would similar policies have been applied without him, or do you think he’s made his mark in a very particular way?

It’s hard to say. I think it’s a chicken and egg argument. I’d just say that he has put a very distinct mark on Turkish foreign policy. He’s the architect of it. Erdoğan’s speeches are reflective of the general themes that Davutoğlu talks about, albeit turned up and put on steroids for the domestic audience. These themes are reflected across the spectrum - whether it be İbrahim Kalın’s writings, or Yasin Aktay - any of these guys who write about foreign policy generally reflect what Davutoğlu says.

So I think he has played an extremely oversized role in crafting Turkish foreign policy since 2002. Until 2009, there were limitations to how aggressively they could pursue that. I think there was a real pivot point with the AKP’s survival of the party closure case in 2007. A second pivot point came with the Arab Spring, but in retrospect there were already signs. We should have seen it coming, I also missed it. In particular, their support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq and their relationship with Hamas were canaries in the coal mine of what we’re seeing now, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Let’s talk about the shift from the AKP’s more pragmatic regional policy before the Arab upheavals, to its open embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood afterward. Why did it not embrace the Arab Spring as soon as the protests started?

Like most countries, they were caught off guard. They didn’t quite know how to react to Tunisia, nobody did, and they were even a little bit behind the United States in being forceful about the way Ben Ali handled the protests. That was even despite the expected resurgence of the Brotherhood after any major political changes in the country. The same thing happened in Libya. In fact the Libya policy is rather convoluted, to the point where Erdoğan was chastising international intervention one day and then suddenly made a 180 degree turn, subsequently involving Turkey in a very nasty proxy war. The major exception to the rule was Egypt, which was the only country where from the beginning Turkey unequivocally called for regime change from the beginning. I think eight days after the major protests started, Erdoğan more or less called on Mubarak to step down.

I would say that there were two shifts: There’s the start of the Arab Spring, and there’s where they figure out their Arab Spring policy, which was September 2011. Since then there has been a successful effort by the government to portray its Arab Spring policy as firmly standing on the side of democracy, whereby up until that point it was very much based on realpolitik, except in Egypt. I think the shift happened because the dynamics that we saw in Iraq that pushed them to support the Brotherhood in 2005, and in Palestine that pushed them to support Hamas in 2006, really began to assert themselves. Turkey began to feel that it could “own the Arab Spring,” and took steps toward shaping the region’s future in the image of what Davutoğlu talked about - Tawhid and Tanzih, blurred borders, expanding Turkey’s role - and saw that vision coming through the Muslim Brotherhood. This was for two reasons: One, the AKP has links to the Brotherhood going back quite a number of years. Two, I think there’s a sense within the AKP that the Brotherhood is actually the democratic choice of the people in the region.

That policy basically continues up until this day. The Arab Spring was the major turning point of Turkey going from being invested in the autocratic regional status quo - to the point where Davutoğlu called it “ostpolitik,” probably because he speaks German - and then towards becoming a revisionist power trying to shape the region’s politics through its support of the Brotherhood.

In recent months Qatar seems to have been going cool on the Muslim Brotherhood. If this continues, where does it put Turkey?

Turkey has been, since September 2011 and even before that, considered safe territory for the Brotherhood. There’s not much of that in the Middle East. The difference between Qatar and Turkey, even though Qatar has far more wealth than Turkey, is that Qatar is a tiny little Gulf state with a couple of hundred thousand citizens, which can essentially be pushed around by the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], particularly Saudi Arabia.

Turkey, on the other hand, is a country of 75 million, and is much more resistant. Even though this has really damaged its position in the region, Turkey has been able to resist giving into the anti-Brotherhood backlash wave for multiple reasons. One, Ankara believes that the Brotherhood is the democratic choice of the region; in Libya that’s not true but in Egypt arguably it is. Two, it believes that the Brotherhood is more representative of the historical sense of political legitimacy in the region. Three, it has close ties to the Brotherhood, which it saw as a vehicle to advance its interests in the region.

They have shown no signs of changing this policy. In fact, they think they’re standing on the right side of history, that history will eventually vindicate their position, and that they are investing in soft power with the region’s people, not with the region’s governments. They think that eventually, when the conditions in which the Arab Spring took place return, Turkey will stand to benefit. They think of themselves as playing the long game, whereas the Saudis, the Jordanians, perhaps the U.S. and the Europeans, are playing the short game in supporting what they call autocracy over democracy.

This isn’t true, mind you. They consistently simplify U.S. and European policy vis a vis the Arab Spring to such an extent that one has to question whether or not they were actually paying attention. But at least that’s their mindset. They really think that they’re set up to win the Middle East hearts and minds in the future, so it would actually be bad for their foreign policy to switch mid-stream now.

If Davutoğlu struggles in the upcoming parliamentary elections and is dropped by Erdoğan, what effect will that have on Turkey’s foreign policy?

There has been a subtle shift. The AKP’s foreign policy is not popular in the country. The Syrian policy isn’t popular. They have tried to focus solely on their admirable efforts at taking care of refugees, but their policy in general in Syria has been - I don’t want to say a disaster because no country had a hope of navigating Syria - but it has been as close to a disaster as you can get. Davutoğlu is shouldering a lot of the blame for that. In my reading of it, Erdoğan isn’t paying all that much attention; domestically he’s only talking about the fight against the parallel state. 

The problem is that the hole is dug so deep for them, and their support for the Brotherhood remains palpable. If you look around the Middle East today, all of the major players - we’re talking Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, even Iraq despite the recent warming of ties - have governments that are deeply at odds with the Turkish state. So it’s very difficult to envisage a scenario whereby they come back from this quickly and overcome this isolation.

That being said, the AKP made foreign policy a domestic issue because it benefited them politically. I also think it could make foreign policy go away if it benefits them politically. So even if they dump Davutoğlu it would for domestic political reasons, and I don’t see any major shift coming in their foreign policy, outside of some of the moderation we’ve seen in recent months. I don’t see any major changes coming, other than rhetorically.