A special report on Turkey
Oct 21st 2010
TURKISH foreign policy used to be simple. Ever since Ataturk dragged the country into the modern world by driving out the sultan, adopting the Latin alphabet and abolishing the Muslim caliphate, the country has leant westwards. Since the second world war that has meant joining NATO (in 1952), backing the West against the Soviet Union and aspiring to join the European project. Like America, Turkey was also consistently pro-Israel.
It largely ignored the rest of its region, which includes most of the countries that were once part of the Ottoman empire. In his book “The New Turkish Republic”, Graham Fuller, a former CIA analyst and academic, recalls telling a Turkish friend that he was a Middle East expert, only to be asked, “so why are you in Turkey?” In similar vein, Turkish diplomats would tell their Western friends that “we live in a bad neighbourhood” and that “the Turk’s only friend is another Turk.”
Over the past few years all this has changed. Rather than feeling sorry for itself over its rough surroundings and lack of friends, Turkey has a new policy of “zero problems with the neighbours”. It is no longer carping at Armenia over its allegations of genocide in 1915 or reproaching the Arab world for its British-supported “stab in the back” in 1917-18. Instead it is cultivating new friendships in the region, offering trade, aid and visa-free travel. And far from backing Israel militarily and diplomatically, Turkey has become a leading critic.
The man largely responsible for engineering this dramatic shift is Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister since 2009. Before that he was an international-relations adviser to Mr Erdogan. In 2001, before the AK government came to power, Mr Davutoglu published a book, “Strategic Depth”, that set out a new policy of engagement with the region. He rejects accusations that he is “neo-Ottoman”, yet his doctrine certainly involves rebuilding ties round the former Ottoman empire.
Mr Davutoglu is an engaging, bookish character with a formidable knowledge of history. He thinks that Turkey made a mistake by ignoring its backyard for so long, and he is convinced that its new strategy of asserting its interests, both in the region and in the world, makes his country more, not less, attractive to the West. Nothing infuriates him more than articles in Western publications suggesting that Turkey has tilted east, or even claiming that “we have lost Turkey.” “Who is we?” he asks. After all, Turkey maintains NATO’s biggest army after America’s; it is committed in Afghanistan and other trouble spots; and it is negotiating to join the EU. As Mr Davutoglu puts it, “Turkey is not an issue; it is an actor.” His country now matters more than ever to Europe and the West, he claims.
Certainly Mr Davutoglu’s new policy in the region is paying dividends. In Iraq, for instance, Turkey has strong commercial and diplomatic interests. At one time the Kurdish region of northern Iraq was a big headache, but now Turkey is playing a lead role in stabilising the place—and winning co-operation from both the region and Baghdad against the PKK. Its relations with Syria, for many years a problem country for the West, are flourishing as never before. It has even sought to forge closer diplomatic ties with the still more problematic Islamic republic of Iran, much to America’s annoyance.
Turkey is also active again in its old stamping-ground in the Balkans, especially in Bosnia and Kosovo. Greek-Turkish relations, which improved markedly even before the AK party came to power in 2002, remain broadly harmonious, although Cyprus is still a point of friction. The country is also paying more attention to Africa; it has opened or is planning to open 12 new embassies there.
The Turks have even made a partial attempt at reconciliation with Armenia, a process begun when President Abdullah Gul visited Yerevan in late 2008 to attend a football match. After the visit the two sides signed bilateral protocols to normalise relations and reopen the land border, closed during Armenia’s war with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s. But thanks mainly to Mr Erdogan’s insistence on linking the protocols to progress on the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, the protocols have yet to be ratified.
Turkey has also made the most of being an energy corridor between east and west. As a substantial energy importer with a fast-growing commercial relationship with Russia, it has a direct interest in the matter. But a decade of confrontation over oil and, especially, gas between Russia and the West has taught all sides to value Turkey as a buffer. Oil and gas pipelines already snake across Turkey from Azerbaijan via Georgia. And the Turks have signed up to the ambitious Nabucco gas-pipeline project, intended to bypass Russia—though plenty of Russians ask where the gas for Nabucco will come from. Energy diplomacy often comes to naught, but it will be hard to ignore Turkey in any future deals.
Mr Babacan, the deputy prime minister, says it is right for Turkey to have a sense of global responsibility. He and Mr Davutoglu also like to tell their European counterparts that, by playing a more active role in its region, including in the Balkans, Turkey is demonstrating how valuable it would be as a member of the EU.
Yet Mr Davutoglu and Mr Babacan are being somewhat disingenuous. Certainly Turkey’s influence in its region allows it to lay claim to being an interesting and potentially useful partner. But as it has also found, the Middle East is such a complex place that its policy of zero problems with the neighbours cannot be sustained all of the time. Nor is it easy to maintain a friendly dialogue both with the West and with the West’s enemies.
Iran is a prime example. Since it is a neighbour, a big oil and gas producer and an increasingly significant trade partner, the Turks have strong reasons to seek better relations with it. That is one reason why, along with the Brazilians, the Turks tried their own freelance nuclear diplomacy with Iran earlier this year. It is also why they are naturally averse to tougher trade sanctions against Iran, let alone any suggestion of war.
Yet Iranian nuclear diplomacy is both delicate and fiendishly complicated. The Turkish-Brazilian plan, when it emerged, seemed softer on Iran than any put forward by Western negotiators. When, soon afterwards, a resolution to tighten sanctions came before the UN Security Council in June, Turkey decided to vote against it to keep its dialogue with Iran going (though Mr Davutoglu claims to have used his diplomatic influence to persuade Lebanon to abstain and Bosnia to vote in favour). Not surprisingly, the Americans were furious.
Israel is an even better illustration of the problems inherent in Turkey’s new foreign policy. In May a Turkish-led civilian flotilla led by the Mavi Marmara attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Gaza has been an especially sore point in Turkey ever since Israel’s invasion in January 2009—not least because the Turks were deep into shuttle diplomacy to open peace talks between Syria and Israel just when the attack on Gaza began. Shortly afterwards Mr Erdogan walked off a platform he was sharing with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, shouting that Israel certainly knew how to kill people.
When the Israeli army intercepted the Turkish flotilla in international waters, its soldiers were surprised to be physically attacked on the Mavi Marmara. They retaliated by opening fire, killing eight Turkish citizens and one man who held joint Turkish and American citizenship. The Turks were outraged. Mr Davutoglu says this is the first time in the history of Ataturk’s republic that unarmed civilians have been killed by the armed forces of another country. Mr Erdogan and Mr Davutoglu demanded a UN-led inquiry and an Israeli apology. In September the UN human-rights council duly criticised Israel, but the Israelis rejected its findings and have refused to apologise. Mr Davutoglu insists that relations with Israel can never be the same again.
Yet this will come at a cost. The Israelis are not popular with many people these days, but they still have friends in Washington, DC. By making Gaza a centrepiece of its foreign policy and even more by openly sympathising with Hamas, which runs Gaza, Turkey has gained new friends in the Arab world but alienated allies in the West. Indeed, it was the Mavi Marmara incident and the Turkish response to it that led to an outpouring of comments that the West was losing Turkey. There could be more serious consequences. For instance, America’s Congress is now more likely to adopt a resolution condemning the Armenian genocide of 1915 which is put forward every year but which the Turks have so far managed to prevent going through.
The mercurial Mr Erdogan does not make it any easier for Turkey to conduct a coherent foreign policy, as demonstrated by the Davos incident and by his torpedoing of the Armenian deal. In 2004-05 he twice came close to jeopardising Turkey’s chances of opening membership negotiations with the EU. Semih Idiz, a journalist with Milliyet newspaper, jokes of Turkish foreign policy: “Davutoglu makes, Erdogan breaks and Gul picks up the pieces.”
Turkish public opinion adds another layer of complication. Ordinary Turks now have a strikingly low opinion of America. In 2000, according to the Pew Global Attitudes Project, some 52% of Turks thought well of America, a smaller share than in Germany and Britain but about the same as in Spain. The Iraq war changed this, especially after the Turkish parliament voted in March 2003 not to let the Americans move troops across Turkey for a possible second front. By 2007, thanks mainly to the war, less than 10% of Turks had a favourable opinion of America. That figure has ticked up since Barack Obama became president, but it is still lower than in the rest of Europe. A recent survey by the German Marshall Fund found that approval ratings for Mr Obama too have fallen sharply, from 50% in 2009 to 28% this year.
In Europe, Turkey’s new foreign policy has often gone down no better than in America. Mr Davutoglu and his colleagues argue that Turkey’s diplomatic ventures in its region and elsewhere, like its crucial role in energy and its military prowess, underline how useful Turkey could be as a member of the EU. But that is not how opponents of Turkish membership see it.
Those opponents were cheered both by Turkey’s bungling in Iran and by the Mavi Marmara incident. In their view, these events prove that Turkey is too ready to wander off the West’s reservation and pander to Islamist extremists—and not at all ready for solidarity with the EU’s common foreign policy. The EU, they argue, cannot accommodate an aspiring global player with interests so different from Europe’s, especially one so big. That argument has grown more resonant as Turkey’s membership negotiations have stalled.