3.7.2011. The man who wants to give Turkey global centre-stage
Erdogan and Davutoglu share a grand vision: a renascent Turkey, expanding to fill a bygone Ottoman imperial space
By James Traub, The New York Times http://www.deccanherald.com/content/131541/man-wants-give-turkey-global.html
Erdogan and Davutoglu share a grand vision: a renascent Turkey, expanding to fill a bygone Ottoman imperial space
In the fall of 2009, relations between Serbia and Bosnia — never easy since the savage civil war of the 1990s — were slipping toward outright hostility. Western mediation efforts had failed.Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign minister of Turkey, offered to step in. It was a complicated role for Turkey, not least because Bosnia is, like Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country and Serbia is an Orthodox Christian nation with which Turkey had long been at odds. But Davutoglu had shaped Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy according to a principle he called ‘zero problems toward neighbours’. Neither Serbia nor Bosnia actually shares a border with Turkey. Davutoglu, however, defined his neighbourhood expansively, as the vast space of former Ottoman dominion. He helped negotiate names of acceptable diplomats and the language of a Serbian apology for the atrocities in Srebrenica. Bosnia agreed, finally, to name an ambassador to Serbia. To seal the deal, as Davutoglu tells the tale, he met late one night at the Sarajevo airport with the Bosnian leader Haris Silajdzic. The Bosnian smoked furiously. Davutoglu, a pious Muslim, doesn’t smoke — but he made an exception: “I smoked; he smoked.” Silajdzic accepted the Serbian apology. Crisis averted. Davutoglu calls this diplomatic style “smoking like a Bosnian.”
Davutoglu (pronounced dah-woot-OH-loo) has many stories like this, involving Iraq, Syria, Israel, Lebanon and Kyrgyzstan — and most of them appear to be true. He is an extraordinary figure: brilliant, indefatigable, self-aggrandising, always the hero of his own narratives. In the recent batch of State Department cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, one scholar was quoted as anointing the foreign minister ‘Turkey’s Kissinger’, while in 2004 a secondhand source was quoted as calling him ‘exceptionally dangerous’. But his abilities, and his worldview, matter because of the country whose diplomacy he drives: an Islamic democracy, a developing nation with a booming economy, a member of NATO with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a canny, forward-thinking populist who has drastically altered Turkish politics. Erdogan and Davutoglu share a grand vision: a renascent Turkey, expanding to fill a bygone Ottoman imperial space.
In a world that the US no longer dominates as it once did, President Barack Obama has sought to forge strong relations with rising powers like India and Brazil. Turkey, however, is the one rising power that is located in the danger zone of West Asia; it’s no coincidence that Obama chose to include Turkey in his first overseas trip and spoke glowingly of the ‘model partnership’ between the two countries. This fits perfectly with Turkey’s ambition to be a global as well as a regional player.
And yet, despite all the mutual interests, and all of Davutoglu’s energy and innovation, something has gone very wrong over the last year. The Turks, led by Davutoglu, have embarked on diplomatic ventures with Israel and Iran, America’s foremost ally and its greatest adversary in the region, that have left officials and political leaders in Washington fuming. Obama administration officials are no longer sure whose side Turkey is on.
Davutoglu views the idea of ‘taking sides’ as a Cold War relic. “We are not turning our face to East or West,” he said. But it is almost impossible to have zero problems with neighbours if you live in Turkey’s neighbourhood.
Davutoglu, who is 51, hails from Konya, on the Anatolian plateau; though his English is excellent, he often drops definite articles, a sign that he came to the language relatively late. He has a slight mustache from under which a gentle and bemused smile usually pokes out. He is religiously observant; his wife, a doctor, wears a head scarf. Yet he has become surprisingly popular even among Turkey’s secular elite. Turkey is not just another country, after all, but the heir of empires, classical as well as Ottoman, and the first secular republic in the Islamic world. Both in his intellectual work, which argues for the extraordinary status Turkey enjoys by virtue of its history and geographical position, and in his role as foreign minister, Davutoglu is seen as a champion of Turkish greatness.
He was an academic before he was a diplomat. His book ‘Strategic Depth’, published in Turkish in 2001, is regarded as the seminal application of international-relations theory to Turkey, though it is also a work of civilisational history and philosophy. The book was read as a call for Turkey to seize its destiny.
And in many ways, Turkey has. It is one of the great success stories of the world’s emerging powers. Shrugging off the effects of the global recession, the Turkish economy last year grew by more than 8 per cent, and Turkey has become the world’s 17th-largest economy. Turkey is the ‘soft power’ giant of West Asia, exporting pop culture and serious ideas and attracting visitors, including one and a half million Iranians a year, to gape at the Turkish miracle.
Davutoglu has climbed aboard the Turkish rocket. Turkey’s success raises his status; his achievements do the same for his country. Davutoglu has maintained close relations with both Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul — one of the few senior figures to do so. He has filled the upper ranks of the foreign-affairs ministry with worldly, pragmatic, thoughtful diplomats who share his nationalist vision. They have done an extraordinarily deft job of balancing Turkey’s regional and global ambitions, of advancing its interests without setting off alarm bells in other capitals.
Davutoglu began his career as foreign-policy adviser at a moment when Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union had become a national obsession. For Davutoglu, Erdogan and Gul, being in the EU offered Turkey crucial economic benefits but, more important, confirmation of its belonging in the club of the West. The Erdogan government pursued difficult economic and political reforms to advance its candidacy, then fumed as less-qualified but predominantly Christian countries like Cyprus — represented by the government of Greek Cyprus, an avowed foe of Ankara — zoomed past to full membership. Major European countries, above all France and Germany, seem determined to block Turkey’s accession to the EU. This past June, Defence Secretary Robert Gates even suggested that “if there is anything to the notion that Turkey is, if you will, moving eastward,” it was the result of having been “pushed by some in Europe refusing to give Turkey the sort of organic link to the West that Turkey sought.”
The Turks received the European rebuff as a deep insult. And it is true, as Gates suggested, that in the aftermath, Turkey sought to raise its status in the immediate neighbourhood. One of Davutoglu’s greatest diplomatic achievements was the creation of a visa-free zone linking Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, thus reconstituting part of the old Ottoman space. The four countries have agreed to move toward free trade, as well as free passage, among themselves. As part of the zero-problems policy, Turkey moved to resolve longstanding tensions with Cyprus and Armenia and, more successfully, with Greece and Syria. Turkey’s decades of suppression of Kurdish demands for autonomy put it at odds with the new government of Iraqi Kurdistan, which sheltered Kurdish resistance fighters. But the Erdogan government reached out to Kurdistan, America’s strongest ally in the region. Relations with the Bush administration had been rocky since 2003, when Turkey’s parliament voted against permitting US forces to enter Iraq through southeastern Turkey. But by now the US was eager to use Turkey as a force for regional stability. The rapprochement with Kurdistan thus smoothed relations with Washington and made Turkey a major player in Iraqi affairs. Turkish firms gained a dominant position not only in Kurdistan but also, increasingly, throughout Iraq. And Iraqi Kurdish leaders had cracked down on the rebels. It was a diplomatic trifecta.
But Davutoglu’s vision extended far beyond securing the neighbourhood for Turkish commerce. One of his pet theories is that the US needs Turkey as a sensitive instrument in remote places. “The US,” he says, in his declamatory way, “is the only global power in the history of humanity which emerged far away from the mainland of humanity,” which Davutoglu calls Afro-Eurasia. The US has the advantage of security and the disadvantage of ‘discontinuity’, in regard to geography as well as history, because America has no deep historic relationship to West Asia or Asia. In Davutoglu’s terms, the US has no strategic depth; Turkey has much. It has used its web of relations, especially in the Sunni world, to advance American interests in Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where Turkey recently agreed to renew its NATO mandate as the commander of the troop contingent in Kabul.
Turkey’s interests in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and for that matter in Israel, coincided with those of the US and the West. But its run of luck ended in Iran. In September 2009, the Iranians, under pressure from the West to show that they were not seeking to build a nuclear weapon, offered to send 1,200 kilograms of uranium abroad in exchange for an equal amount to be enriched sufficiently for civilian use. Iran didn’t trust any western country to hold its uranium; but it might trust Turkey. Davutoglu sprang into action, flying back and forth to Tehran to work out the details — over which the Iranians, typically, bickered and stalled.
The cables recently disclosed by WikiLeaks vividly illustrate the tensions this produced with Washington. In a meeting with the assistant secretary of state Philip Gordon in Ankara in November 2009, Davutoglu advanced his theory of Turkish exceptionalism: “Only Turkey,” he said, “can speak bluntly and critically to the Iranians.” Davutoglu was confident that Iran was ready to strike a deal — with Turkey’s help. An obviously skeptical Gordon ‘pressed’ him on his “assessment of the consequences if Iran gets a nuclear weapon.” In what the cable’s author described as ‘a spirited reply’, Davutoglu insisted that Turkey was well aware of the risk. Gordon “pushed back that Ankara should give a stern public message” to Iran; Davutoglu replied that they were doing so in private and “emphasised that Turkey’s foreign policy is giving ‘a sense of justice’ and ‘a sense of vision’ to the region.”
The Turks had announced their diplomatic coup at precisely the moment the Obama
administration finally induced Russia and China to vote for tough sanctions on Iran in the UN Security Council. Davutoglu says he never took a step without informing the Americans, but American officials said that the terms of the deal took them by surprise.
The Turks mostly hid their hurt feelings. But in early June, the rift with the US played out in public when Turkey and Brazil voted against the sanctions resolution. Turkish officials say the last thing they wanted was to defy the US on a matter of American national security, but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said he would consider the ‘swap deal’ terminated unless Turkey and Brazil voted against the resolution. They were, they insist, voting for continued diplomacy, not for Iran or against the US and the West.
Maybe Turkey was simply protecting its regional interests, which now include not only preserving good relations with Iran but also enhancing its credibility in West Asia — even at the expense of its standing in the West. Maybe, for all Davutoglu’s protestations, Ankara doesn’t view the world the way Washington does or London does. In a meeting earlier this year at the Council on Foreign Relations, Henri Barkey observed that when you talk to Erdogan or Davutoglu about Iran, “the response is almost as if you pressed a button: the problem is not Iran; the problem is Israel; Israel has weapons; Iran doesn’t have weapons.” Or maybe the problem is that you can’t have zero problems with everybody.
For all his profound knowledge of the history of civilisations, Davutoglu misread the depth of feeling in the US about both Israel and Iran, or perhaps overestimated Turkey’s importance. This is the danger of postimperial grandiosity