Tag Archives: Turkish

Further Reflections on Istanbul as Global Capital

7 Nov

 

My proposal that we consider the possibility of treating Istanbul as the world capital attracted a broad range of responses. I tried to make clear in my revised text that Istanbul could not hope to have this kind of recognition until Turkey had addressed some serious issues, especially the Kurdish grievances that have induced a massive hunger strike in Turkish jails (with over 600 prisoners now taking part, and more threatening to do so), as well as serious concerns about the human rights implications of the imprisonment of many students and journalists. Several other kinds of objections were also raised. For instance, Istanbul is inappropriate as a choice because it is situated at the interface of colliding tectonic plates that makes it vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Others respondents contended that if recreational appeal is part of Istanbul’s charm, then why not Las Vegas. It supposedly has a better claim than Istanbul as ‘it has something for everybody.’ My initial very tentative proposal of Istanbul was based on its extraordinary combination of qualifying features, especially its strategic inter-civilization geography, its capacity to be of the West and at the same apart from the West, and its cultural/religious/historical resources that seem unmatched in cumulative effect elsewhere, and give the city a cosmopolitan identity that recalls its days of multi-ethnic Ottoman imperial glory. Additionally, more than elsewhere, the Turkish political leadership has been alive to providing Istanbul with a world class infrastructure as it wishes to take advantage of its unique character.

 

Other objections to the proposal were more substantial, yet unconvincing to me. For instance, some pointed out that Turkey as a country of 80 million Muslims and Istanbul as a city estimated to have 15 million Muslims is not capable of representing the world, and that somehow a great European city would serve the peoples of world less controversially. There is of course an inherent problem arising because any urban space will partake of a particular religious, national, and ethnic identity, but if such a qualification were to be uniformly applied it would mean that there was no city on the planet that could ever serve as the world capital. The idea of having a capital city is a strictly soft power proposal, creating a symbolic meeting place for diverse cultures, religions, and political systems, and is offered as a building block for a global imaginary that befits the imperatives of moral and spiritual globalization. It is my opinion that the Turkish government over the course of the last decade has done better than any other country in relation to cities within its borders in creating at atmosphere of cosmopolitan hospitality and stature for the city of Istanbul.

 

A quite different objection is associated with Turkish membership in NATO and what that entails in relation to non-defensive military operations such as in Afghanistan ever since 2001, the regime-changing 2011 intervention in Libya, and the interference with the Syrian internal struggle over the course of the last two years. Such Turkish undertakings do seem to cast a shadow over any present undertaking to propose Istanbul as a global capital, and should probably be treated as a serious obstacle. If Turkey seeks to make Istanbul play its potential global role then it would need to rethink its geopolitical ties. Perhaps, there exists a decisive contradiction between such a Western oriented geopolitics and the kind of world identity that a global capital should aspire to achieve. Turkey has been up to now pursuing an equi-distance diplomacy, balancing its Western ties against its post-Cold War independence, as well as promoting a new geopolitics of soft power without relinquishing the residual role of the old geopolitics of hard power. The Arab upheavals since 2011 have seemed to make the transition to a soft power matrix more elusive for Turkey, and thus weaken arguments for Istanbul’s ascension to a status that overlooks its reality of being embedded in Turkish national sovereignty.

 

In summary, Istanbul is marvelously qualified from many perspectives to serve as the capital of the world, but cities cannot avoid being identified with the country in which they are physically located. The Turkish government in the last decade has done many things to enhance the role of Istanbul, but its own persisting problems are part of Istanbul’s reality, and to the extent these difficulties are not overcome it is hard to imagine any proposal of Istanbul as global capital getting very far in world public opinion. In effect, there is a Gordian Knot at the core of world order that ties the fate of the city to that of the nation, and most of the citizenry of particular countries would not have it any other way. To this extent, the modest

proposal of Istanbul as global capital, while tantalizing, does not seem capable of realization without the deterritorialization of the relationship between global cities and sovereign states, and if this ever happens, it will not be anytime soon.

 

This commentary on Istanbul arises from my own romance with the city during the past twenty years, entranced by its beauty, vitality, exotic features, the warmth and tenderness of its people, and the transcendent vision of the Turkishpolitical destiny set forth by its principal leaders. This kind of love affair has persisted despite the horrors of Istanbul’s traffic and the unpleasantness of its unhealthy air.

 

 

Paradoxes of Turkish Pride

10 Sep

 

I have been struck by the strange firmament of Turkish pride. In one respect, the nationalist and patriotic fervor of Turkish holidays confirms the enduring success of Kemal Ataturk’s great nation-building project after World War I. Huge Turkish flags are more prominently displayed than in any country I know, and Turkey has earned  dubious notoriety for its criminal code provision that punishes insults to Turkishness, potentially including even imprisonment. Such a law has been used in a manner that encroaches upon freedom of expression, targeting even such cultural icons as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafik, and undoubtedly intimidating thousands of others who hesitate to make any assertion that might be interpreted as offensive by the Turkish custodians of national pride. Even many of those who reject the idea of criminalizing anti-Turkish comments were still angered by Pamuk’s interview in which he acknowledged the 1915 genocide against the Armenian community, first because it was contained in an interview conducted in Switzerland and, secondly, because he added the annoying aside “and only I will say this.” Instead of examining the substance of his indictment, the focus was on Pamuk’s supposed anti-Turkishness. Shafik faced a similar storm of criticism when she published the Bastard of Istanbul, which also in a fictionalized context essentially accepts the Armenian narrative of the tragic events that occurred almost a hundred years ago. Neither Pamuk nor Shaifk were convicted, but prosecution was bad enough. My point here is to take note of the extreme sensitivity that Turkey continues to feel whenever critical commentary is regarded as a taint on national pride and collective memory.

 

At the same time, as with most countries, but perhaps with an added intensity, Turkey celebrates its athletic exploits. Recently it welcomed home its medal winning woman runners with great fanfare after the London Olympics as if they had made epic contributions to the wellbeing of the country, and it seems they had. And on that day sometime in the near future when Turkish football ascends the heights of a World Cup final, national fervor will certainly become hysterical. This is to be welcomed as an expression of national joy over the most loved sporting event in the world.

 

And yet, on different planes of discourse there is a strange national reluctance among Turks to enjoy certain achievements of their citizens, even a widespread tendency to belittle them. Over the years in the course of countless conversations about the Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk I have encountered such a tendency among Turkish intellectuals intent on downgrading his stature as a world class literary master: “he knows how to appeal to foreigners,” “he is very good at promoting his work overseas,” “he benefits from his translators,” “he is derivative,” “there are many better Turkish writers,” “his fame rests on a heavily funded PR campaign,” “his use of the Turkish language is undistinguished.” Less intellectually minded Turkish detractors, and there are many, complain that Pamuk is personally unreliable and selfish, that he is a womanizer, that his books are unreadable, or at best, that his imagination only works when he is fictionalizing historical themes or contents himself with being “the biographer of the city of Isranbul.” What he should not do, according to his Turkish critics, is attempt to interpret the contemporary Turkish reality as he did so persuasively in Snow.

 

I would not suggest that all of these criticisms are unfounded, but what I would say is that their tenor exhibits an unaccustomed Turkish lack of generosity and balance. As an admirer of Pamuk, along with many friends with stronger literary credentials than mine outside of Turkey, I can report that Pamuk’s best books, and there are several candidates, have a vivid resonance for readers that rests on deserved literary acclaim, and cannot be explained away as a triumph of self-promotion. Pamuk has a great gift for breathing life and its mysteries into a variety of persons, places, situations, and uses the metaphor of ‘the detective’ or ‘the traveler’ with great skill in constructing his captivating plots. Why don’t Turks take great pride in Pamuk’s recognition by the Nobel Prize Committee? Would many Turks diminish a sporting team victory by examining the allegedly compromised private lives of its star athletes?

 

This brings me to a more controversial set of considerations bearing on Turkish foreign policy, which I view as an extraordinary series of successes, coupled with some disappointments, and several understandable missteps. Such an assessment is far from the perceptions common among Turkish critics of the AKP leadership, and deprives Turkish society as a whole of the satisfaction of being justly proud of what their government has achieved at a time that has been exceedingly difficult for almost every other country in the world. Turkey emerged from the shadowland of its role as junior alliance member of NATO during the Cold War era and non-presence in the Arab world to become the most admired country in the region, especially during 2011 in the aftermath of the early successes of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On the basis of my visits to the region over the course of the past two years, this admiration rested on three principal sources: deep respect for the diplomatic skill, dedication to conflict resolution, and the great energy and intelligence of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu; the adoption of an equi-distance diplomacy that allowed Turkey to be critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle without alienating the United States and Europe; and most important of all, establishing a flourishing economy that was supported by the more deprived segments of Turkish society, while creating a political leadership that was sensitive to Islamic values without abandoning the core principles of secular government, that is, the emergence of a so-called ‘Turkish Model’ that is contrasted throughout the region with the negativity associated with the ‘Iran Model.’

 

I would have thought and hoped that however critical a Turkish citizen would be of some domestic policies of the AKP there would be uniform applause for this formidable array of foreign policy achievements. Much critical attention in the Turkish media has been directed at ‘zero problems with neighbors,” especially in light of the debacle in Syria and the upsurge of violence in relation to the Kurdish minority, and it is true that the doctrine from the outset undoubtedly expressed more a hope than a guideline. At the time it was enunciated, there was no Arab Spring, no Mavi Marmara, no uprising against Qaddafi or Assad, but these unanticipated circumstances required, and produced, a major restatement. Davutoglu made clear that the real commitment of zero problems was in relation to the people and not necessarily to the government, and more specifically, the regimes in Tripoli and Damascus lost their legitimacy when they committed Crimes Against Humanity in relation to their own citizens.

 

Similarly, Turkey sought to mediate the conflict between Israel and Syria centered on the Golan Heights, lending great energy to the endeavor, but once Israel attacked Gaza at the end of 2008, it was clearly not possible to proceed further toward a resolution of the conflict. Turkey tried a number of other bold initiatives that ended in disappointment, but seemed as though they should have succeeded ithe values of peace and justice were genuinely shared and not just proclaimed. One was the effort to bring Hamas in from the cold, be accepted as a normal political actor, and shift the Isreal/Palestine conflict from sites of violent struggle to diplomatic arenas. After all, in 2006 Hamas had been encouraged by the West to compete in Gaza elections, but they were not supposed to win, and as a result an unlawful blockade has been imposed since 2007 on the people of Gaza and the Israeli insistence upon treating Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ has blocked a political solution. Similarly, in 2010 a brave attempt by Ankara, in collaboration with Brazil, was made to dampen the pre-war flames that surrounded Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, but the United States and Israel were intent on confronting Iran by way of coercive diplomacy in the form of escalating sanctions and unlawful threats of a military attack. The disappointment here reflected the impact of mainstream geopolitics on relations with Iran, but it only highlighted the constructive nature of the Turkish effort to produce a shift in tactics and vision in the direction of soft power diplomacy.

 

The discourse in Turkey takes no account of the radically changed regional circumstances or the boldness of peacemaking experiments that deserved to succeed. Instead, the failures are dwelled upon to establish that Davutoglu is out of touch, that he does not comprehend the true nature of world politics or the conditions prevailing in the Middle East. Mainly, such conversations shift to a barrage of criticisms directed at the AKP and Erdogan: “they have lost touch,” “they have become too powerful,” “the government imprisons its opposition and silences its critics,” “Erdogan is planning to run an authoritarian state,” “the government is bending to the will of Washington,” “despite its promises it has failed to solve the Kurdish problem.” To varying degrees these criticisms are justified, although exaggerated, given the overall reality of state/society relations in Turkey.

 

My surprise is the unwillingness of many Turkish friends to separate these appropriate concerns from an appreciation of the extraordinary rise in Turkish stature as a political actor, not only regionally, but globally. Turkey is now an important middle power at the United Nations. It provides a diplomatic venue for many international events that used to be held in Europe. Its courageous Somalia initiative has given Turkey a post-colonial identity in Africa that no other non-African government has been able to achieve.  It is my belief that Turkey more than any other country in the 21st century has increased its relevance to the conduct of regional and global politics, and this is something that all Turks can be proud of in a world of 195 or so sovereign states!

 

Waving the national flag is fine, yet finer still, is taking justifiable pride in what has been accomplished by those who act on behalf of one’s country.

Ten Years of AKP Leadership in Turkey

25 Aug

Nothing better epitomizes the great political changes in Turkey over the course of the last decade than a seemingly minor media item reporting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan attended a private iftar dinner (the ritual meal breaking the Ramadan fast each evening) by the invitation of the current Turkish Chief of Staff, General Necdet Özel, at his official residence. It was only a few years earlier that the military leadership came hair trigger close to pulling off a coup to get rid of the AKP leadership. Of course, such a military intrusion on Turkish political life would have been nothing new. Turkey experienced a series of coups during its republican life that started in 1923.

The most recent example of interference by the military with the elected leadership in Turkey took place in 1997 when Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan sheepishly left office under pressure amounting to an ultamatum, outlawed his political party, and accepted a withdrawal from political activity for a period of five years in what amounted to a bloodless coup prompted by his alleged Islamic agenda. Unlike the prior coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 when the military seized power for a period of time, the 1997 bloodless coup was followed by allowing politicians to form a new civilian government. Really, looking back on the period shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002 the big surprise is that a coup did not occur. We still await informed commentary that explains why. For the present, those that value the civilianization of governance can take comfort in the receding prospect of a future military takeover of Turkish political life, and this iftar social occasion is a strong symbolic expression of a far healthier civil-military relationship than existed in the past.

Improving Turkish Civil Military Relations

Somewhat less dramatic, but not less relevant as a sign of this dramatic turn, is the remembrance that shortly after the AKP initially gained control of the government in 2002, it was much publicized that the wives of the elected leaders were not welcome because they wore headscarves at the major social gathering of top military officers at its annual Victory Day Military Ball held at the end of summer in Ankara with much fanfare. A similar issue arose a few years later when ardent Kemalists insisted that Abdullah Gul should not be allowed to serve as Turkey’s president because his wife’s headscarf supposedly signaled to the world that he did not represent the Turkish secular community in the European manner associated with the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk.

Recent court testimony by the former Turkish Chief of Staff, Hilmi Özkök,  confirms what many had long suspected, that there existed plans in 2003-2004 supported by many high ranking military officers to overrule the will of the Turkish electorate by removing the AKP from its position of governmental leadership and impose martial law. Such grim recollections of just a few years ago should help us appreciate the significance of this recent iftar dinner between the Erdogans and Özels as a strong expression of accommodation between military institutions and the political leaders in Turkey. Such an event helps us understand just how much things have changed, and for the better, with respect to civil-military relations.

We can interpret this event in at least two ways. First, indicating a more relaxed attitude on the part of the military toward Turkish women who wear a headscarf in conformity to Islamic tradition.  Although this sign of nomalization is a definite move in the right direction, Turkey has a long way to go before it eliminates the many forms of discrimination against headscarf women that continue to restrict their life and work options in unacceptable ways from the perspective of religious freedom and human rights. Secondly, and crucially, these developments show that the armed forces seems finally to have reconciled itself to the popularity and competence of AKP leadership. This is significant as it conveys the willingness to accept a reduced role for the military in a revamped Turkish constitutional system, as well as exhibiting a trust in the sincerity of AKP pledges of adherence to secular principles that include respect for the autonomy of the military. This latter achievement is quite remarkable, a tribute to the skill with which the Erdogan in particular has handled the civilianization of the Turkish governing process, and for which he is given surprisingly little credit by the international media, and almost none by the Turkish media. Such an outcome was almost inconceivable ten years ago, but today it is taken so for granted as to be hardly worthy of notice.

In 2000 Eric Rouleau, Le Monde’s influential lead writer on the Middle East and France’s former distinguished ambassador to Turkey (1988-1992), writing in Foreign Affairs, emphasized the extent to which “this system [of republican Turkey], which places the military at the very heart of political life” poses by far the biggest obstacle to Turkish entry into the European Union. Indeed, Rouleau and other Turkish experts believed that the Turkish deep state consisting of its security apparatus, including the intelligence organizations, was far too imbued with Kemalist ideology to sit idly by while the secular elites that ran the country since the founding of the republic were displaced by the conservative societal forces that provided the core support to the AKP. And not only were the Kemalist elites displaced, but their capacity to pull the strings of power from behind closed doors was ended by a series of bureaucratic reforms that have made the National Security Council in Ankara a part of the civilian structure of government, and not a hidden

and unaccountable and ultimate source of policymaking.

Continuing Political Polarization Within Turkey

At the same time, despite these accomplishments of the AKP, the displaced ‘secularists’ are no happier with Erdogan leadership than they were a decade ago. (It needs to be understood, although the available language makes it difficult to express an important attribute of Turkish politics: the AKP orientation and policy guidance has itself also been avowedly and consistently secularist in character, although the leaders are privately devout Muslims who steadfastly maintain their religious practices of prayer and fasting, as well as foregoing alcohol, but their political stance on these issues is not very different than that of their opponents. Indeed, quite unexpectedly, Erdogan in visiting Cairo after the 2011 Tahrir uprising urged the Egyptians to opt for secularism rather than Islamism.) Those that identify with the opposition to the AKP, and that includes most of the TV and print media, can never find a positive word to say about the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP, although the line of attack has drastically shifted its ground. A decade ago the fiercest attack focused on fears and allegations that the AKP was a stalking horse for anti-secularism. The AKP was accused of having ‘a secret agenda’ centered on an Islamic takeover of the governing process, with grim imaginings of ‘a second Iran’ administered strictly in accordance with sharia. The current unwavering critical line of attack, in contrast, is obsessed with the unsubstantiated belief that Erdogan dreams of being the new sultan of Turkey, dragging the country back toward the dark ages of authoritarian rule. It is odd that the same opposition that would have welcomed a coup against the elected leadership a decade ago now seems so preoccupied with a fear that the far milder AKP is incubating an anti-democratic project designed to weaken Turkish constitutional democracy and end the civil rights of the citizenry.

There are certainly some valid complaints associated with Erdogan’s tendencies to express his strong, and sometimes insensitive, personal opinions on socially controversial topics ranging from abortion to the advocacy of three children families. He needlessly made an offhand remark recently that seemed an insult directed at Alevi religious practices. As well, there are journalists, students, political activists, non-AKP mayors in fairly large numbers being held in Turkish prisons without being charged with crimes and for activities that should be treated as normal in a healthy democracy. It is difficult to evaluate this disturbing trend, partly because there are strong rumors that the AKP is not in firm control of parts of the bureaucracy including the police, and thus these repressive developments are not entirely of its making, although this line of explanation is possibly expressive of the political situation it does not relieve the AKP from ultimate responsibility.

And there are also many allegations that Erdogan is laying the groundwork to become president in a revised constitutional framework that would give the position much greater powers than it now possesses to the distress of opposition forces, which merges with the allegation that he is a closet authoritarian leader. In my judgment, on the basis of available evidence, Erdogan is opinionated and uninhibited in expressing controversial views on the spur of the moment, but not seeking to enthrone himself as head of a newly authoritarian Turkey.

This persisting polarization in Turkey extends to other domains of policy, perhaps most justifiably in relation to the unresolved Kurdish issues, which have violently resurfaced after some relatively quiet years. It is reasonable to fault the AKP for promising to resolve the conflict when it was reelected, and then failing to offer the full range of inducements likely to make such a positive outcome happen. It is difficult to interpret accurately the renewal of PKK violence, and the degree to which it is viewed by many segments of Turkish elite opinion as removing all hope of a negotiated solution to this conflict that has long been such a drain on Turkey’s energies, resources, and reputation. The ferocity of this latest stage of this 30 year struggle is not easily explained. To some degree it is a spillover of growing regional tensions with the countries surrounding Turkey, and particularly with the Kurdish movements in these countries, especially Iraq and Syria. There is also the strong possibility that elements of the Kurdish resistance see the fluidity of the regional situation as a second window of opportunity to achieve national self-determination. The first window having been slammed shut in the early republican years by the strong nation-building ideology associated with Kemalist governance of the country.

Also serious is some deserved criticism of Turkey’s Syrian policy that charges the government with an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other. First, an ill-advised embrace of Assad’s dictatorial regime a few years ago followed by a supposedly premature and questionable alignment with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces without knowing their true character. Ahmet Davutoglu’s positive initiatives in Damascus were early on hailed as the centerpiece of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ an approach that his harshest critics now find totally discredited given the deterioration of relations, not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. Again such criticism seems greatly overstated by an opposition that seizes on any failure of governing policy without considering either its positive sides or offering more sensible alternatives. Whatever the leadership in Ankara during the last two years, the changing and unanticipated regional circumstances would require the foreign policy establishment to push hard on a reset button. Mr. Davutoglu has done his best all along to offer a rationale for the changed tone and substance of Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to Syria, which I find generally convincing, although the coordination of policy toward Syria with Washington seems questionable.

In the larger picture, there were few advance warnings that the Arab Spring would erupt, and produce the uprisings throughout the region that have taken place in the last 20 months. Prior to this tumult the Arab world seemed ultra-stable, with authoritarian regimes having been in place for several decades, and little indication that domestic challenges would emerge in the near future. In these conditions, it seemed sensible to have positive relations with neighbors and throughout the Arab world based on a mixture of practical and principled considerations. There were attractive economic opportunities to expand Turkish trade, investment, and cultural influence; as well, it was reasonable to suppose that Turkish efforts at conflict mediation could open political space for modest moves toward democracy and the protection of human rights might be an appropriate context within which to practice ‘constructive engagement.’

Foreign Policy Achievements

It should also be pointed out that from the outset of his public service the Turkish Foreign Minister has been tireless in his efforts to resolve conflicts within an expanding zone of activity and influence. There were constructive and well organized attempts to mediate the long festering conflict between Israel and Syria with respect to the Golan Heights, encouragement of a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia that did achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia; he made a notable effort to bringing conflicting powers in the Caucasus together; bravest of all, was the sensible effort to bring Hamas into the political arena so as to give some chance to a negotiated end to the Israel/Palestine conflict; and boldest of all, in concert with Brazil, was a temporarily successful effort in 2010 to persuade Iran to enter an agreement to store outside its borders enriched uranium that could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. These were all laudable objectives, and creative uses of the diplomacy of soft power, and to the extent successful, extremely helpful in reducing regional tensions, and raising hopes for peace. Even when unsuccessful, such attempts bold and responsible efforts to find ways to improve the political atmosphere, and to find better diplomatic options than permanent antagonism, or worse, threats or uses force to resolve conflicts and enhance security.

These various initiatives helped Turkey become a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture. Turkey continued its role in NATO, persisted with its attempts to satisfy the many demands of the EU accession process, and even participated militarily, in my view unwisely, in the failed NATO War in Afghanistan.  Fairly considered, the Davutoglu approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it faltered, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia, as well as reaching into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, making Turkey for the first time in its history a truly global political presence. His statesmanship was widely heralded throughout the world, and quickly made him one of the most admired foreign policy architects in the world. In 2010 he was ranked 7th in the listing of the 100 most influential persons in the world in all fields (including business, culture, politics) that is compiled periodically by Foreign Policy, an leading journal of opinion in the United States. Turkey had raised its diplomatic stature throughout the world without resorting to the usual realist tactics of beefing up its military capabilities or throwing its weight around. It s increasing global reach has included opening many embassies in countries where it had been previously unrepresented. This raised stature was acknowledged in many quarters, especially throughout the Middle East where Erdogan was hailed as the world’s most popular leader, but also at the UN where Turkey played an expanding role, and was overwhelmingly elected to term membership on the Security Council.

It should also be appreciated that Turkey has displayed a principled commitment to international law and morality on key regional issues, especially in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Syrian mediation efforts were abandoned only after Israel’s all out attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, which also led to Erdogan’s famous rebuke of the Israeli President at the Davos World Economic Forum. This refusal to ignore Israel’s defiance of international law undoubtedly contributed to the later confrontation following Israel’s commando attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla of peace ships in international waters on May 31, 2010 that were carrying humanitarian assistance to the unlawfully blockaded civilian population of Gaza. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals in the incident, which caused a partial rupture of relations between the two countries that has not yet been overcome, although Turkey has adopted a most moderate position given the unprovoked and unlawful assault on its ship and passengers, seeking only an apology and compensation for the families.

There were other special Turkish international initiatives, none more spectacular than the major effort to engage with Somalia at a time when the rest of the world turned its back on an African country being written off as the worst example of ‘a failed state.’ Not only did Turkey offer material assistance in relation to reconstructing the infrastructure of governance. It also more impressively ventured where angels feared to tread: organizing a high profile courageous visit by the Turkish prime minister with his wife and other notables to Mogadishu at a time when the security situation in the Somalia capital was known to be extremely dangerous for any visitors. Such a show of solidarity to a struggling African nation was unprecedented in Turkish diplomacy, and has been followed up by Ankara with a continuing and successful engagement with a range of projects to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in this troubled country. In a similar spirit of outreach, Turkey hosted a UN summit on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in May 2011, and formally accepted leadership responsibility within the UN to organize assistance to this group of states, considered the most impoverished in the world.

More recently, Mr. Davutoglu together with Ms. Erdogan visited the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine that had been brutally attacked in June by the local Buddhist majority community claiming that the resident Muslims were unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should leave the country. Bangladesh officially denied such allegations, insisting that the Rohingya people had been living in Myanmar for centuries. This high level Turkish mission delivered medical aid, displayed empathy that could only be interpreted as a genuine humanitarian gesture far removed from any calculations of national advantage, and above all, conveyed a sense of how important it was for Turkey to do what it can to protect this vulnerable minority in a distant country. Mr. Davutoglu made clear universalist motivations underlay his official visit by also meeting with local Buddhists in a nearby town to express his hope that the two communities could in the future live in peace and mutual respect. This trip to Myanmar is one more example of how Turkey combines a traditional pursuit of national advantage in world affairs with an exemplary citizenship in the wider world community. It is this kind of blend of enlightened nationalism and ethical globalism that gives some hope that challenges to the world community can be addressed in a peaceful and equitable manner.

Surely, Turkey as is the case with any democracy, would benefit from a responsible opposition that calls attention to failings and offers its own alternative policy initiatives, while being ready to give those in authority credit for constructive undertakings and achievements of the government. Unfortunately, the polarized and demoralized opposition in Turkey is strident in its criticism, bereft of the political imagination required to put forward its own policies, and lacking in the sort of balance that is required if its criticisms are to be respected as constructive contributions to the democratic process. It is especially suspect for the most secularized segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when it was these very social forces that a few years earlier was virtually pleading with the army to step in, and hand power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable.  Instead of taking justifiable pride in the great Turkish accomplishments of the last decade, the unrestrained hostility of anti-AKP political forces is generating a sterile debate that makes it almost impossible to solve the problems facing the country or to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to such a vibrant country. It needs to be appreciated that Turkey viewed from outside by most informed observers, especially in the region, remains a shining success story, both economically and politically. Nothing could bring more hope and pride to the region than for the Turkish ascent to be achieved elsewhere, of course, allowing for national variations of culture, history, and resource endowments, but sharing the commitment to build an inclusive democracy in which the military stays in the barracks and the diplomats take pride in resolving and preventing conflicts.

Turkey’s Foreign Policy: Zero Problems with Neighbors Revisited

8 Feb


            Pundits in Europe and North America in recent months have delighted in citing with a literary smirk ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ which has been the centerpiece of Ahmet Davutoglu’s foreign policy agenda since he became Foreign Minister on May 1, 2009. Mr. Davutoglu had previously served as Chief Advisor to both the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister ever since the AKP came to power in 2002, and was known in those years as the ‘architect’ behind the scenes. Critics of the zero problems approach point to the heightened Turkish tensions with Syria and Iraq, the persisting inability of Ankara to overcome the hostile fallout from Mavi Marmara incident with Israel, and even the revived salience of the long unresolved dispute with the Armenian diaspora sparked by a new French law that makes the denial of genocide associated with the 1915 massacres a crime and has led to a dramatic worsening of Turkish-French relations.

 

            Troubles to be sure, but should these be interpreted as ‘failures,’ and more precisely as ‘Turkish failures’? Perhaps, Davutoglu was insufficiently cautious, or alternatively too optimistic, when he articulated the zero problems diplomacy, but was it not at the time an accurate way of signaling a new dawn for Turkey’s approach to neighbors, especially its Arab neighbors, and actually, to the world as a whole. And Davutoglu implemented his lofty vision with a dizzying series of initiatives that opened long locked doors. He also made it clear that the neighborhood was not to be understood in a narrow geographical sense, but rather in as broad a sense as disclosed by cultural and historical affinities and mutual strategic interests. Davutoglu was eager not only to banish lingering bad memories associated with centuries of Ottoman rule over much of the Arab world, as well as to renew connections with countries that shared Turkic and Muslim identities.

 

            It should be recalled that Turkish foreign policy began charting this new course years before Davutoglu became Foreign Minister, and thus was a shift in worldview that was shared with Recip Tayyip Erdogan and Abudllah Gul, the two dominant political leaders during the past decade.  Indeed, both men deserve some of the credit, and a share of the responsibility, for steering the Turkish ship of state into such mainly uncharted waters of diplomatic initiative.

 

            In an important sense, the turning point came in 2003 when the Turkish government, after sending some mixed signals to Washington, finally refused to allow the United States to use its territory to stage an invasion of Iraq. At the time the anti-AKP domestic opposition challenged this unprecedented act of geopolitical insubordination by Ankara as the biggest mistake in the whole of Turkish republican history. In retrospect, this opting out of the invasion of Iraq constituted a transformational moment for Turkey that demonstrated to its neighbors and the world, and even to itself, that Turkey could and would think and act for itself when it comes to foreign policy, that the hierarchical alliances of the Cold War period were over, and that Washington should no longer take Ankara’s collaboration for granted. And yet this move did not mean, as some critics in both Turkey and the United States wrongly claimed, a turn toward Islam and away from the West or its continuing involvement in Western security arrangements. Even during the Iraq War Turkey allowed the Incirlik Air Base to be used by American combat aircraft, including for bombing missions. As recently shown, Turkey still values its NATO ties even to the extent of allowing radar stations to be deployed on its territory that is linked to a missile defense system that seems mainly intended to protect Europe, Israel, and the Gulf from Iran in the immediate future and possibly Russia in the long-term.

 

            By now it is almost forgotten that it was Turkey that encouraged peace talks between Syria and Israel to resolve their conflict that seemed to be headed for success until their abrupt breakdown, a development attributed at the time to the Israeli attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, but in retrospect better understood as the unwillingness of Israel to give up its 1967 conquest and subsequent occupation of the Golan Heights. Turkey also sought to be a peacemaker further afield in the Balkans and Caucasus, doing the seemingly impossible, bringing Bosnia and Serbia together in a manner that moved these two antagonistic governments on a path leading to normalization and at least a cold peace. Even more ambitiously, in collaboration with Brazil, Turkey used its new stature as an independent regional player in May 2010 to persuade Tehran to accept an arrangement for the storage of a large portion of Iran’s enriched uranium in Turkey, thereby demonstrating the plausibility of a peaceful alternative to the United States/Israel posture of sanctions and warmongering.

 

            To be sure, the earlier sensible effort to have friendly relations with Syria has now badly backfired, but not until the regime in Damascus started the massive shooting of its citizens and refused to meet the demands of its people for far reaching reforms.  Arguably, the same reversal of outlook in Ankara occurred in relation to Libya after Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opposition, leading eventually to extending some Turkish humanitarian support for the UN-backed NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 that shaped the outcome of an ongoing internal struggle for control of the Libyan political future. Also, there is no doubt that the refusal of the European Union to shift its one-sided stance on Cyprus that is punitive toward Turkey has had some serious consequences. It has soured relations with Greece, producing a temporary deterioration that has taken place despite the Turkish show of reasonableness and exhibiting a spirit of compromise in relation to Cyprus. And, together with the recent Islamophobic surge in Europe, this perceived unfairness to Turkey with respect to Cyprus has reinforced the weakening of an earlier Turkish commitment to qualify for membership in the EU. 

 

            Even with Israel, despite the strong sympathies of the Turkish public with the struggle of the Palestinians, the AKP leadership has done its best to restore normalcy to the relationship between the two countries. After all, the May 31, 2010 attack by Israel’s navy in international waters on the Mavi Marmara carrying humanitarian activists and assistance to Gaza and challenging the Israeli blockade was not only a flagrant breach of international law but resulted in the death of nine Turkish passengers. Turkey has demanded an official apology and compensation for the families of the victims, a reasonable set of expectations that was apparently on the verge of acceptance by Tel Aviv, but collapsed at the last hour when challenged by the internal political opposition to Netanyahu led by the super-hawk foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann, now under government investigation for fraud.

 

            What this brief overview argues is that Turkey has consistently tried to avert recourse to intervention and war in the Middle East and to promote diplomatic approaches that rely to the extent possible on soft power. It has, to be sure, experienced several geopolitical rebuffs, as in relation to its efforts to end the confrontation with Iran, impressively refusing to stay in line behind the bellicose leadership of the United States and Israel. Davutoglu has correctly affirmed Turkey’s resolve to act on the principled basis of its values and convictions, as well as strategic calculations of its interests, in the post-Cold War politics of the region, and not blindly follow directives from Washington. Iran is a striking case where the Turkish approach, although seemingly incapable of stemming the drift toward war being mounted by the West, is both wiser and more likely to achieve the goal of reassuring the world that Tehran means what it says when it insists that it does not intend to acquire nuclear weapons. As in every other foreign policy setting, Davutoglu is exhibiting his belief that in the 21st century persuasion works better than coercion when it comes to achieving political goals without even considering the costs of death, devastation, and displacement.

 

            In sum, the zero problems with neighbors as a touchstone to Turkish foreign policy in the Middle East and the world needs to be understood as an aspiration and strong preference rather than as an invariable and inflexible guide to practice. There are too many contradictions embedded in the political realities of the contemporary world to be slavishly tied to a rigid foreign policy doctrine that is incapable of taking account of context and shifting perceptions and interests. For instance, in Syria and Libya the Turkish government was forced to choose between siding with a regime slaughtering its own people and backing a disorganized opposition in its heroic if clouded efforts to democratize and humanize the governing process.  Of course, there are suspicions that Turkey’s support for the anti-Assad insurgency also reflects a disguised preference for a Sunni opposition that is anchored, if at all, in the Muslim Brotherhood as compared to the secular authoritianism of the Damascus regime. As well, there are speculations that in the ongoing regional struggle for ascendancy Turkey would rather in the end side with Saudi Arabia and Egypt, reinforced by the United States, than Iran and a newly engaged Russia.

 

Zero problems needs to be understood as a preferred framework for addressing the relations between countries, not just governments, and in situations of strife choices must be made. Arguably Turkey went too far when it backed NATO in Libya and the UN Security Council with respect to Syria or not far enough when it failed to show support for the Green Revolution in Iran after the stolen elections of June 2009. These are difficult interpretative choices upon which reasonable persons of good faith can disagree. Whatever the policies pursued in specific situations,  they do not necessarily invalidate the principled positions articulated by Davutoglu since he became Foreign Minister. Davutoglu has repeatedly affirmed these principles as being as important for him as are realist calculations in shaping foreign policy in complex situations. Possibly, if the Green Revolution had shown more persistence and promise or the Iranian regime had engaged in more widespread killing of its people Turkey would have made a ‘Syrian choice.’

 

            Davutoglu on more than one occasion has expressed enthusiastic support for the upheavals grouped together under the banner of ‘the Arab Spring.’ He calls these upheavals great historical transformations that are irreversible, and expressions of a thirst by young people in their respective countries for lives of dignity and democratic freedoms. There is nothing that Turkey has done to thwart these high ideals.

 

            In this respect, I think it is possible to reach an assessment of Turkish foreign policy as of early 2012. It has charted a course of action based to the extent feasible on soft power diplomacy, taking numerous initiatives to resolve its conflicts with neighbors but also to offer its good offices to mediate and unfreeze conflicts between states to which it is not a party. Its credibility has become so great that Istanbul has replaced European capitals as the preferred venue for conflict resolution whether in relation to Afghanistan or even Iran, and despite its much publicized diplomatic differences with Washington. It is notable that despite Western annoyance with Ankara regarding Iran or resulting from the simmering dispute with Israel, the U.S. Government seems to favor Istanbul as the most propitious site for any prospective negotiations with Iran concerning its nuclear program.

 

            At the same time, as the policy reversals with respect to Syria and Libya illustrate, it is not always possible to avoid taking sides in response to internal struggles, although Turkey has delayed doing so to give governments in power the opportunity to establish internal peace. In a globalizing world boundaries are not absolute, and sovereignty must give way if severe violations of human rights are being committed by the regime. Even in such extreme circumstances armed intervention should always be a last resort, and one only undertaken in extreme instances on behalf of known opposition forces and in a manner that has a reasonable prospect of cumulative benefits at acceptable costs for the targeted society. Such conditions almost never exist, and so intervention under present world conditions is rarely if ever, in my judgment, justified, although bloodshed, oppression, and crimes against humanity may generate strong public and governmental support for interventionary diplomacy.

 

            We can only hope that Turkey stays the Dautoglu course, pursuing every opening that enables positive mutual relations among countries and using its diplomatic stature to encourage peaceful conflict resolution wherever possible. Rather than viewing ‘zero problems’ as a failure, it should be a time to reaffirm the creativity of Turkish foreign policy in the course of the last decade that has shown the world the benefits of soft power diplomacy, and a pattern that other governments might learn from while adapting to their own realities. This diplomacy, as supplemented by Turkey’s economic success and political stability, helps us appreciate the deserved popularity of and respect for the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, throughout the region and the world.

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