Prefatory Note: over a year ago I published a short profile of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, in the Turkish daily newspaper, The New Zaman. After the May 31, 2010 flortilla incident involving an Israeli attack on the Freedom Flotilla led by the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, Mr. Davutoglu demanded an apology from Israel as the basis for the restoration of normal relations. Along with other Turkish leaders, Davutoglu questioned the Israeli narrative and criticized Israel for its brutal tactics that defied international law and morality. A few months ago in collabouration with Brazil, Turkey attempted to work out an arrangement with Iran that was designed to provide it with the enriched uranium required for its energy and research programs, while removing most of Iran’s low enriched uranium from which nuclear weapons could be fabricated. This diplomatic initiative caused a great deal of criticism of Turkey’s foreign policy independence, and Turkey was instructed ‘to stay in its own lane,’ which was an impolite way that Washington used to instruct Turkey to mind its own business, and one wonders what exactly is Turkey business if it not avoiding a war in the Middle East and addressing issues causing friction between its most important neighbor and other states. The ultra-imperial outlook that makes relations with Iran a matter within the foreign policy domain of the United States, but not of Turkey, is quite revealing, and reinforces the contentions in WikiLeaks disclosures that Davutoglu worries the United States because he supposedly has a grandiose conception of the Turkish role in the Middle East, a view that is certainly shared by Israel. In my view, Turkey especially, but the region and the world is extremely fortunate that Davutoglu has tried to pursue such a creative and constructive diplomatic course during his brief tenure to date as foreign minister that discovers and then takes advantage of the potential for peace and reconciliation, as well as exhibits a consistent respect for international law and a commitment to global justice, and does so on the basis of an exceptionally deep and ecumenical historical, cultural, and strategic understanding of world politics. Davutoglu surely seeks to realize the full Turkish potential for exerting a positive influence against this background, but with sensitivity to the limits of the possible and the diversity of orientations and outlooks that must be accommodated to resolve the menace of violent conflict. In my view Davutoglu’s approach is a model of the sort of statecraft that responds brilliantly to the urgencies of the twenty-first century. It is my fervent belief that the world and the United States would be much better off if such a realistic visionary was guiding its foreign policy!
As my short article acknowledges, I write as a friend as well as an engaged citizen pilgrim and observer of world order. Given the flow of recent events I felt it might be helpful to make my appreciation of Davutoglu’s approach and achievements available to a wider audience. Despite the importance of subsequent developments, I stand by the profile as originally presented.
The Turkish Foreign Minister: Ahmet Davutoglu
It has been my privilege to know Ahmet Davutoglu since he was a young professor teaching in Malaysia in the early 1990s. At that time I was immediately struck by his keen understanding of the importance of culture and civilization to the proper conduct of international relations. Mr. Davutoglu was definitely not just one more realist foreign policy analyst with a good grounding in the mainstream tradition of Western political thought covering the conceptual ground that connects Machiavelli to Kissinger. This tradition was preoccupied with the management of power, and there is no doubt that Davutoglu had a sophisticated understanding about how to cope with power and conflict in world politics. Yet what made him more intriguing and distinguished him from many other intelligent interpreters of the changing global scene, was his recognition of the significance of non-Western thought as forming an essential basis for the shaping of historically relevant policy to enable government to meet the challenges of the contemporary world.
Davutoglu returned to Turkey a few years later, and began teaching university courses. More impressively he founded a voluntary program of advanced studies for doctoral students in the social sciences and humanities from all over the country. He led this effort by way of a foundation on arts, culture, and science that started in a modest building, but from its outset established an exciting and innovative learning community that combined an intrinsic love of knowledge and ideas with a search for practical wisdom that would be enable Turkey to fulfill its potential as a national, regional, and global actor. Davutoglu led this educational effort, emphasizing in the teaching program the importance of history and culture, and what is sometimes called macro-history or the comparative study of civilizations, examining the broad sweep of the rise and fall of civilizations through time and across space. In this illuminating spirit of inquiry the role of Turkey was interpreted within a wider cultural and historical context of past, present, and future. Such an approach acted as a corrective to a narrowly conceived nationalism that never looked back further than the ideas and guidance of the founder of the modern Turkish state, Kemal Ataturk.
From such a perspective, the interpretation of the place of Turkey in this world historical situation of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century was of preeminent importance. It was Davutoglu’s particular insight that Turkey to move creatively forward into the future needed to recapture an understanding of and a pride in the achievements of its pre-republican past, and especially the extraordinary capacity of the Ottoman Empire to encompass diverse peoples while exhibiting respect for distinct cultures and religions. I found this way of thinking congenial. It represented a refreshing enlargement upon the non-historical forms of strategic thought that seems so prominent at the time in Turkey, and was almost entirely derivative from the way world politics was conceived in the United States. Davutoglu as a scholar was striving for an approach that came directly to terms with Turkey’s hopes and aspirations for the future, turning to philosophy, culture, and history for this deepening of his understanding. In this same spirit, it was his consistent desire to expose students and the intelligent public in Turkey to similar styles of global thinking from other parts of the world. His foundation organized several conferences in the last decade that brought to Turkey leading thinkers from all over the world. Such events exhibited Davutoglu’s commitment to the establishment of a cross-cultural community of scholars dedicated to a universalizing vision of a peaceful and just world.
In his notable scholarly publications these features of Davutoglu’s thought gained attention for his ideas. His book on ‘strategic depth’ as the foundation of a constructive approach to security is one of the outstanding formulations of the way sovereign states should pursue their interests with respect to their region and the world. Although the book is now about ten years old, and is not available in English, it has gone through many printings, and is being translated into a variety of foreign languages. It is one of the most significant contributions to the literature of international relations, and although imprinted with the geopolitics of the cold war and its globalization sequel, it retains great relevance to the relations of Turkey to an evolving world order. Davutoglu has expressed frustration that his public duties have prevented him from either revising Stratejik Derinlik or following it up with a second book on ‘cultural depth’ that would have given his published work a more accurate reflection of his original approach to international relations in our time.
Against such a background it may not seem surprising that Davutoglu has had such a major impact on Turkish foreign policy, initially as chief advisor to the top AK Party leadership, and since May of 2008, as Foreign Minister. Usually there is not a very good fit between influential professors and successful government service. What has made Davutoglu an exception, is his unusual combination of social and diplomatic skills and an absence of political ambition. Staying aloof from party politics, yet aligned with the AK Party policy outlook, has managed to give him a unique place on the Turkish scene, which is at once independent and yet exceedingly influential with political leaders, with the public, and in foreign capitals.
Even before becoming Foreign Minister it was widely appreciated in the media and in the diplomatic community that Davutoglu was the architect of Turkish foreign policy ever since the AK Party was elected in 2002. His initial main portfolio involved a focus on achieving Turkish membership in the European Union. It was always Davutoglu’s view that such membership was not only beneficial to Turkey, including establishing a stronger foundation for genuine democracy at home, but also that it was presenting Europe with a unique opportunity to become a dynamic force in a post-colonial world, enjoying multi-civilizational legitimacy in a world order where the West could no longer play an effective role unless it could claim an identity and recruit the participation of the rising peoples of the East. Although Davutoglu’s hopes for greater European receptivity to Turkey have undoubtedly been disappointed by the unanctipated surge of Islamophobia in several European countries, as well as the unfortunate admission of Cyprus to EU membership in 2004, he continues to believe that the goal of Turkish membership is attainable and desirable. This Turkish quest for EU membership continues, with ups and downs, and has had its own benefits, providing all along strong support for domestic moves to strengthen democracy and human rights in Turkey.
As Foreign Minister, Davutoglu has exhibited the qualities of energy, intelligence, political savvy, moral concern, self-confidence (without arrogance), and historically grounded vision that one encounters in his scholarship and lectures. It is hard to think of a world figure that has had a more positive impact in a shorter time. Davutoglu’s signature approach of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ has been consistently successful in establishing better Turkish relations throughout the region, and challenging a country such as Egypt for regional leadership, even among Arab governments. Less noticed, but as important, is Davutoglu’s tireless search for non-violent approaches to conflict management based on identifying and maximizing the common ground between adversaries. Such a diplomacy of reconciliation brings an urgently needed stabilizing influence to the inflamed politics of the Middle East, but also brings Turkey respect, stature, and expanding economic and diplomatic opportunities in the region and world. Perhaps, most notable in this regard, are the growing economic links, especially in relation to energy, with both Russia and Iran, countries that have often in the past been at odds with Turkey.
It is particularly notable that Turkey embarked on these controversial initiatives without harming its strategically central relationship with the United States. Quite the contrary. Turkey is more than ever treated by Washington as an important ally, as exhibited by President Obama’s early visit, but to a far greater extent than in the past, Turkey is now also respected as an independent actor with its own agenda and priorities that may diverge from that of the United States in particular instances. In was an expression of this new mutuality that led Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan, to say during his recent presence in Istanbul, that it was up to Turkey to decide whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan. This seems like the natural thing to do in the relations among sovereign states, but it contrasted with the heavy handed approach of the Bush years where American officials, most prominently Paul Wolfowitz, lectured Turkey in public on their responsibilities to do whatever the White House desired. Of course, this changed atmosphere generally reflects a more multilateralist foreign policy in the United States, but it is also a recognition that Turkey is now an independent force in world affairs, not just an appendage of NATO or the West, which was the case during the Cold War and in the 1990s. Davutoglu deserves major credit for conceptualizing this change in the perception and treatment of Turkey, as well as through its expression in practical, day to day foreign policy decisions.
It is important to appreciate that Davutoglu took career risks while serving as chief foreign policy advisor that showed a willingness to put principle ahead of personal ambition. Davutoglu tried very hard to find and enlarge the common ground and dormant mutual interests in the most intractable, sensitive, and dangerous regional conflict, that of Israel/Palestine and Israel/Arab World. He did his best to broker Israel/Syria negotiations, encouraging an agreement that would end Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and some kind of diplomatic normalcy between the two countries. And more controversially, but not less constructively, Davutoglu tried hard to soften Hamas’ posture as an uncompromising and violent element in the Palestinian struggle, and at the same time, to encourage Israel to treat Hamas as a political actor, not a terrorist organization, after Hamas gained political power through the 2006 elections in Gaza, and declared its intention to establish, at first unilaterally, a ceasefire. Israel, as well as the United States and the EU, refused to drop the terrorist label, and instead put a deadly squeeze on the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza. A devastating humanitarian ordeal has resulted in Gaza from this refusal to respect the outcome of the elections, and is continuing with no end in sight. In retrospect, so much suffering might have been avoided if Davutoglu’s approach had succeeded. As well, the outlook for peace between the two peoples would have been far brighter than it is today. In this sense, Davutoglu’s foreign policy disappointments during the past several years are as deserving of our admiration as are his successes.
There is no doubt in my mind that Turkey is extremely fortunate to have Ahmet Davutoglu as its foreign minister, and it is a tribute to the elected leadership in Ankara that so much responsibility has been entrusted to someone without party affiliations, of independent character, and of scholarly temperament. Much has been made of Davutoglu’s emphasis on ‘strategic depth,’ but I believe he will be in the end most remembered for his ‘moral depth.’ By moral depth I mean a dedicated concern for seeking peaceful resolution of conflict through mediation and compromise, based on mutual respect for legal rights and a commitment to justice. Although it is far too early in his tenure to make any final appraisal with confidence, it is not too soon to think fusing strategic depth with moral depth will turn out to be a memorable dimension of Davutoglu’s legacy. If so it is likely to underpin an eventual judgment that Ahmet Davutoglu should be regarded as Turkey’s finest foreign minister of the republican era.
[published September 2, 2009, The New Zaman, Turkish daily newspaper]