Erdogan’s New Doctrine: How the Turks Finally Got it Right

Commentary by Tamer Mallat 12 September 2011

Source: NationalTurk.com

Since the AKP’s arrival to power in 2002 under the aegis of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish foreign policy could be best described as being schizophrenic. For a country situated at the crossroads of history’s ever-changing geopolitical fault lines, such a characterization is far from extraordinary. The Ottoman Empire, from its birth, its various metamorphoses, and its eventual demise, never once ceased to bear witness to the constant evolution of its neighbors on every front of its borders. Once the primary catalyst of change, the Sublime Porte, in the last few centuries of its life, quickly became a victim to external pressures and political seismic shifts. Today, the Turks appear to have finally gotten their act together in terms of developing a coherent and effective foreign policy. This though was the result of a long process marked by years of trial and error.

The circumstances under which the advent of a modern Turkey occurred, differed little from those of its colossal predecessor’s downfall. In effect, the modern Turkish state was the result of its founder, Atatürk’s, attempt to salvage the little that was left from the crumbling empire. For close to 80 years, Turkey slumbered regionally. Its existence was limited to internal and esoteric political performances, with seldom-international appearances.

AK-Party’s election in 2002 marked a new era in Turkish foreign policy and interests. After years of haphazard diplomacy, Turkey’s new rulers seemed adamant on the idea of hopping on board a constructive project that would free the country from close to a century of international lethargy. However, AKP’s fledgling diplomatic apparatus prevented its visionaries from getting too creative. At the time, Turkey’s tropism was the European Union. Atatürk’s European-inspired legacy had never reached its apogee, and Erdogan thought he would be the man that would finally integrate the Turks into the EU.

When that project failed to bear fruit, AK-Party’s natural alternative was the elaboration of a policy more in sync with that of its regional neighbors. Spearheaded by Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s notion of Neo-Ottomanism – or the idea that Turkey should re-engage with former regions of the Ottoman Empire – a new Middle East policy was laid out. Based on economic exchange, political rapprochement with the regimes of the Arab world and Iran, and the slow liquidation of Turkey’s alliance with Israel, Erdogan set out on an adventure to hop on board the Middle Eastern political status quo.

When 2011 came along, most Western states that had gambled all their stakes on authoritarianism in the region chose at first hand to side with the regimes in place. Turkey was no different with this regard. Having invested heavily with Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qadhafi, the Turkish Premier was reluctant, from the very beginning, on calling for regime change and supporting the revolutionaries. Erdogan, which had based his entire Mid-East policy on the existing status quo, found himself facing a conundrum head-on.

Turkey’s initial stance on the Arab Spring was one of great caution. Domestically, winning the general elections of June 2011 constituted the political priority of the leading party. The Prime Minister was careful not to position himself too drastically on the new developments of the region, as any other sudden shift in foreign policy could have easily backfired. In Turkey, while the government and pro-AKP elites may now regard their geographical neighbors as their new natural associates, a large part of the population remains convinced that Turkish identity is linked to a European historical trajectory. On an international level, calling for Bashar al-Assad’s premature departure could have isolated Erdogan, as the policies of the United States, France, Britain, and Saudi Arabia were still focused on the implementation of reforms rather than on regime change itself.

Two important developments marked the third week of August: Saudi Arabia and the West’s call for Assad to step down, and Tripoli’s symbolic fall at the hands of the Libyan National Transitional Council. The former resulted in Bashar’s complete isolation from the Western world, whereas the latter served to legitimize NATO’s intervention in Libya. Turkey, which had played a low-key role in Libya and seemed apathetic towards the shifting positions of the West vis-à-vis the Syrian Revolution, found itself completely out of the international loop. Erdogan’s choice to pursue the status quo, rather than seeking to play an active and independent part in the Middle East, did little more than unveil the reality of Turkey’s limited influence in the region.

September 2011, in many ways, marked the beginning of a paramount evolution in Turkish foreign policy. Erdogan’s firm and severe condemnation of Bashar al-Assad’s massacres, his willingness to go through with the NATO missile shield despite risking to upset relations with Iran, and the escalation of his war of words with Israel, in which he has announced a military escort of a future flotilla to Gaza, has placed Turkey at the heart of Middle Eastern politics. Moreover, Turkey appears to be, for the first time since the Ottoman Empire’s pinnacle, the power that will shape the future of the region’s political landscape.

Regionally, Turkey’s new positions will serve to challenge the authoritarian mechanisms that have held the Arab regimes together for decades. By condemning violence and calling for regime change, and choosing to push for diplomatic calamity with Israel, Erdogan has set out to reconfigure the existing state of affairs in the political realm of Arab states. Traditionally, the most widespread tactic used to legitimize dictatorships in the Arab world has been the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Today, with Turkey constituting the only actor that is tangibly challenging the Jewish state, while pursuing a policy of animosity towards the Assad dictatorship, and to a certain extent Iran, the main legitimizing pillars of these regimes are undermined. Erdogan’s dual support of the revolutionaries and Palestinians, strips Arab autocrats from their anti-Israel rhetoric, and links the pro-democracy movements to the Palestinian cause. This in turn allows for a new axis to emerge that does not place the two political positions in contradiction to one another.

Erdogan’s “Arab Spring tour” set to start today heralds a new doctrine that is being laid out by the Prime Minister. Up until now, most of Turkey’s regional escapades were limited to economic exchange, with the AKP preferring to remain politically prudent in its rapports with regimes. The audacity of Erdogan in the coming days, and the consequences of the positions he will outline, should reveal the true scope of Turkey’s new influence in the changing region. Notwithstanding years of trial and error, it finally seems like the Turks have got the Arabs right.

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5 Comments

Filed under English, Foreign Policy & IR, Turkey

5 responses to “Erdogan’s New Doctrine: How the Turks Finally Got it Right

  1. not an ottoman

    1. You completely ignored the most important event in Turkey of the last decade. Army’s influence in Turkish politics (which was vast and dictated foreign policy) effectively ended. The army was Arabophobic, had an allergy to religious Muslims, was paranoid about domestic and foreign minorities and neighbors like Greece and Armenia. Not to mention Kurds. One can’t discuss Turkish domestic and foreign policies without mentioning it.

    2. This is minor but annoying. You’re using the term “schizophrenic” wrong. Schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder are different things and neither of them is a proper term to define seemingly inconsistent politics.

    3. Turkey’s EU push goes on with the newly created EU ministry. Turkey’s latest actions in ME are in no way harmful to its EU ambitions, it will even help it. The EU refusal at the moment stems from right wing governments in countries like France and Germany. The opposition in both countries are social democrats who want Turkey in the EU. And ruling parties in both France and Germany are losing confidence of the voters.

    4. Turkey does not believe that Middle East or Arab world and Europe are rival teams hostile to each other. Turkey’s bridging role, in my opinion, is important. It’s time to stop looking at the greater region with a sense of rivalry.

    5. AKP is not neo-Ottoman and they said this a thousand times. “Ottoman” has negative connotations. Believe it or not it was an empire which participated in imperialism. Turkey’s diplomatic and economic push in Africa, China, Brazil etc. cannot be called Ottomanism or reconnecting with former Ottoman states. Yes there is cultural similarities with other ex Ottoman states but these similarities should be used to strengthen ties not in a supremacist manner.

    6. Israel is not a Jewish state just like Turkey is not an ethnic Turkish state. There are Arab citizens of Israel and Kurdish citizens of Turkey.

    -someone from Turkey

    • Tamer Mallat

      Thanks for your comment. I will include a reply after each of your points:

      1. You completely ignored the most important event in Turkey of the last decade. Army’s influence in Turkish politics (which was vast and dictated foreign policy) effectively ended. The army was Arabophobic, had an allergy to religious Muslims, was paranoid about domestic and foreign minorities and neighbors like Greece and Armenia. Not to mention Kurds. One can’t discuss Turkish domestic and foreign policies without mentioning it.

      — To a certain extent, I believe that the army had precisely no real foreign policy. Aside the Cyprus issue, the Aegean issue, the Kurdish issue, and other foreign policies that are focused more on the creation of a “structural enemy” that legitimizes internal rule/ security, the army never had a real clear cut strategy. It varied from conflict to conflict, but it went never beyond purely Turkish questions. This is why I don’t talk about the army, although you raise an interesting point.

      2. This is minor but annoying. You’re using the term “schizophrenic” wrong. Schizophrenia and multiple-personality disorder are different things and neither of them is a proper term to define seemingly inconsistent politics.

      — Turkish FP suffers, to a certain extent, in my view, of a multiple-personality disorder. This is why I spoke of a fledgling diplomatic apparatus versus haphazard diplomacy (before 2002). By trying to consolidate all fronts, Turkey’s rulers lacked consistency, and to a certain extent, ended up confusing themselves for some time.

      3. Turkey’s EU push goes on with the newly created EU ministry. Turkey’s latest actions in ME are in no way harmful to its EU ambitions, it will even help it. The EU refusal at the moment stems from right wing governments in countries like France and Germany. The opposition in both countries are social democrats who want Turkey in the EU. And ruling parties in both France and Germany are losing confidence of the voters.

      — You are right, and I don’t oppose this idea. However, my view of the EU ministry is precisely a sign that Turkey is backing away from a head on EU bid. By deconcentration EU attention from the PM to a lesser ministry, Erdogan somehow shows that his interest in Europe has diminished. Somewhere, the stagnation of the EU bid was countered with the creation of a ministry to deal with the endless rhetoric. Yes, many European states (stupidly) deny Turkey entry to the EU, but AKP seems less interested either way by Europe. Economically things are great between the two. Further, were Turkey to enter the EU, it could harm their autonomy. This touches on your next point.

      4. Turkey does not believe that Middle East or Arab world and Europe are rival teams hostile to each other. Turkey’s bridging role, in my opinion, is important. It’s time to stop looking at the greater region with a sense of rivalry.

      — I don’t mention any question of rivalry in my article. For the past year, it’s evident that Turkey has reclaissified its priorities. Regarding your point, I don’t see this as a bridge either. Somewhere, and this is the core of my article, Turkey has taken up an opportunity to develop its own policy; one that is independant from both the EU and the former political status quo of the ME.

      5. AKP is not neo-Ottoman and they said this a thousand times. “Ottoman” has negative connotations. Believe it or not it was an empire which participated in imperialism. Turkey’s diplomatic and economic push in Africa, China, Brazil etc. cannot be called Ottomanism or reconnecting with former Ottoman states. Yes there is cultural similarities with other ex Ottoman states but these similarities should be used to strengthen ties not in a supremacist manner.

      — Being Lebanese, I’m well aware of the negative connotations. I hestitated to include that this is not the term that AKP officially uses, but for questions length and clarity, I opted to include it. I also included a broad definition, which, if you read my article, includes no negative connotation. Further, interpretations vary with regard to connotation. Some Turks view the idea of neo-ottomanism as positive as it includes this pluralistic dimension absent from a former interpretation of “Turkishness”.

      6. Israel is not a Jewish state just like Turkey is not an ethnic Turkish state. There are Arab citizens of Israel and Kurdish citizens of Turkey.

      — Israel officially classifies itself as a Jewish state. Whether or not 20% of the population is of Arab decent is of little interest to many of the ruling elites and general population of Israel. I also make no mention of questions of ethnic origin, nor do I make any assertions of any sort. My article, as you will notice, has no political connotation. Although some of my other pieces are politically oriented, I tried to keep this one purely analytical.

      I hope my responses complete the points that you have raised. And thank you for your interest.

  2. Béatrice Garapon

    Tamer, ton article pose de bonnes questions, et tu y réponds bien. Mais il me fait penser à d’autres choses et soulève pour moi d’autres questions, plus sur un plan de politique intérieure peut-être
    Donc quelques remarques:
    1. Il est temps de s’interroger sur le sens de ce concept de “néo-ottomanisme”: c’est un concept qui avait à la base, et garde, pour une certaine élite politique turque, valeur de projet, et même de doctrine. Mais ce projet prend ses racines dans un imaginaire nationalo-religieux qui n’a rien de rationnel. Il a été abandonné pour des raisons tactiques, mais à mon avis on peut quand même parler de “rêve néo-ottoman”, ou de “fantasme néo-ottoman” pour beaucoup de dirigeants turcs. C’est un truc qui flatte leur nationalisme et plein d’autres choses. Il faut lire les premiers écrits de Davutoglu! Il n’a que ça à la bouche, l’empire ottoman, cet âge merveilleux où tous les peuples du Moyen-Orient vivaient en paix sous l’égide turque. Donc c’est en réalité une sorte de principe idéologique mou qui ne guide la politique étrangère turque que sur le plan de l’inconscient collectif.
    MAIS à mon avis, ce n’est pas un concept pertinent analytiquement pour décrire la politique étrangère turque, et à mon avis il faudrait bannir ce terme. Parce qu’au fond, ça ne veut rien dire, ou en tout cas, personne n’est vraiment d’accord, comme le montrent les commentaires laissés par cette personne turque.
    Car si on s’interroge vraiment, quelle pourrait être le sens de cet adjectif, “néo-ottoman”? Au sens fort, une politique étrangère “néo-ottomane” de la part de la Turquie serait une politique qui chercherait à rétablir l’empire ottoman de façon informelle? Mais personne en Turquie n’est assez fou pour penser qu’une telle chose est possible.
    Au sens faible, et c’est ce que tu as l’air de considérer, un politique “néo-ottomane” consiste simplement en une plus forte implication de la Turquie dans les affaires du Moyen-Orient. A ce moment-là, on devrait plutôt dire “réengagement dans les affaires moyen-orientales” que “politique néo-ottomane”. C’est à la fois moins racoleur, plus neutre et plus précis. Et ça a l’avantage de montrer qu’on ne reprend pas à son compte les fantasmes d’une partie de la classe dirigeante turque, ni ceux des opinions publiques arabes.
    2. Je suis très intéressée par l’avis que tu donnes sur la surenchère turque par rapport à Israël.
    A mon sens, Erdogan ne fait qu’exploiter un filon dont il s’est rendu compte, à plusieurs reprises, qu’il lui était très profitable. Je ne pense pas, ni que tout cela relève d’un plan ordonné, ni d’une compréhension par les Turcs, des enjeux arabes. Ce qu’Erdogan a compris, c’est que le problème israëlo-palestinien était l’autoroute pour s’attirer les faveurs de l’opinion arabe.
    Mais la deuxième question, que je te soumets, c’est: est-ce que Erdogan tire des gains de cette surenchère en politique intérieure et quels sont-ils?
    Je ne crois pas, pour ma part, que l’intérêt des Turcs pour la question israëlo-palestinienne dépasse la simple curiosité et aussi, comme une très large partie des opinions publiques dans le monde, le sentiment que l’injustice faite aux Palestiniens est indiscutable.
    Mais ça n’est pas comparable avec l’attachement viscéral des Arabes à la question palestinienne.
    Il y a en revanche une question que je me pose, et à ce jour je n’ai pas pu trouver de réponse satisfaisante: est-ce que l’intérêt pour la question palestinienne et la détestation d’Israël en Turquie sont très liés, sur un plan sociologique, à la pratique religieuse? Ce serait quelque chose de très intéressant à voir.

  3. Bulent01

    Beatrice … Would you please rewrite your message in the one and only universally accepted International Language; ‘English’? There has not been much interest in French for the last half a century or so!

  4. google translate come on
    The EU definitly does not want Turkey and Turkey knows it.
    there is too much blood between them
    I think Turkeys policy should be/is
    buy from us and we will invest in your country

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