AKP’s Foreign Policy Doctrine: Illusion or Distortion?

Turkey could pay a high price for the failures following the foreign policy changes under AKP’s Ahmet Davutoglu.


The intellectual architect of Turkish foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, is a prospective candidate to join the club of famous thinkers whose ideologies have failed following political and economic events in the world. One of the senior club members is Francis Fukuyama, who argued in his 1989 essay “The End of History” that the progression of human history as a struggle between ideologies was largely at an end, with the world settling on liberal democracy after the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took less than a decade for the world to get hit by a series of terrorist attacks and became a stage for newly arising ideological competition.

Turkey’s current situation proves that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy approach molded by Davutoglu, has roundly failed. The regional and global developments of the past two years put at risk the coherency, credibility, and future of Davutoglu’s foreign policy doctrine.  Fukuyama eventually admitted the shortcomings of his theory; time will show if Davutoglu will accept his mistakes or try to justify his doctrine by interpreting events as he prefers.

A relatively unknown university professor before his political career, Davutoglu was treated as a superstar in academic circles, and AKP circles especially, from the time he was named as the minister of foreign affairs in May 2009. He played a significant role in shaping Turkish foreign policy, first as an advisor to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and then as a minister. He made Foreign Policy magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers list, cited as “the brains behind Turkey’s global reawakening.” Some even compared his achievements with those of the legendary Henry Kissinger, and defined him as a revolutionary politician who transformed Turkish foreign policy from reactive character, into a proactive and multi-dimensional one.

Even though the new foreign policy approach, referred to as “Strategic Depth,” is the brainchild of Davutoglu, the concepts on which it is based were not new to many Turkish foreign policy experts. Former foreign affairs minister Ismail Cem had stated repeatedly his beliefs in the need to improve regional ties, broaden foreign policy interests into far regions, and make more effective use of Turkey’s Ottoman heritage. Those were also the main pillars of Davutoglu’s policy, which legitimized his approach in different circles, especially at the beginning of his tenure. The difference was that a strong one-party government sympathetic to his views allowed Davutoglu to implement them more directly in policymaking.

Despite their similar views on the need for a proactive foreign policy, contrast between Cem and Davutoglu is a more telling one that highlights the problems of today. As a secular social democrat, Cem’s primary motivation was universal enlightenment principles, not religious sensitivities, while it is easy to distinguish the religious flavor of Davutoglu’s ideology by reading his book “Strategic Depth”. Because of its religious affiliations, AKP began to act selectively on foreign policy between 2002 and 2008. While establishing extraordinary warm relations with authoritarian Muslim nations such as Libya, Iran, Syria and Sudan; Erdogan and Davutoglu kept up harsh critiques of Israel.  Even though many of the criticisms were legitimate, turning their back on other problems such as Darfur’s humanitarian crisis and Iran’s nuclear program made Turkey seem subjective in the eyes of the international community. AKP’s policy vision of “zero problems with neighbors” required Ankara to have warm relations with all its neighboring governments, which was never a realistic goal to begin with, given the conflicts it would pose for Turkey’s ties with US and NATO. Turkey held joint cabinet meetings with the Syrian government until only a year ago, and Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad enjoyed close personal relations until Syria’s civil conflict spiraled out of control. Iran and Turkey maintained ties on multiple levels. And Erdogan accepted a human rights award bestowed by Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in December 2010, just months before a revolution erupted there.

As regional issues have grown in complexity and required more concrete steps, AKP foreign policy has started to seem more abstract over time. “Zero problems with neighbors” ignored the fact that the policy’s success depended on the neighbors, and on the assumption that they would get along well with each other regardless of Turkey’s role. In the case of neighboring countries with serious structural problems—authoritarian domestic policies, threatening other countries with unacceptable language, and serious human rights violations—there can be only two options on the table: either giving up improved relations or aggressively trying to convince them to resolve those issues. If the government chooses not to take either of these two steps, it will only harm its own sincerity and credibility in relations with third-party actors, especially if it also continues to claim that soft power is the main pillar of its foreign policy approach. AKP government asserts that it got its criticism across behind closed doors, but there is little opportunity to confirm that.

Notably, Turkey was one of the handful of countries that welcomed a visit from Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir in 2009, even as he faced charges of genocide. Al-Bashir was set to visit Istanbul in November 2009 for a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Although the trip never materialized, largely due to pressure from the EU, Turkey’s insistence on ignoring the realities, and comments such as Erdogan’s obtuse insistence that “no Muslim could perpetrate a genocide,” severely tarnished Turkey’s reputation.

When the abuses of neighboring regimes began to come to the forefront during the revolts of the Arab Spring, Turkey effectively abandoned its zero-problems policy. This was the only alternative for Davutoglu, if he did not want his country to be isolated from the global system, Yet even during the early days of the Libyan conflict, Erdogan made statements in favor of Gaddafi and against any intervention. In a speech on February 28, 2011, less than a month before the NATO intervention started, Erdogan firmly opposed any NATO role in Libya and criticized Western countries for their “double standard” approach. In the ensuing weeks, when the government realized that Turkey risked being shut out of post-Gaddafi trade with Libya, it quickly backtracked.

Davutoglu’s recent visit to Washington in February 2012, as policymakers grappled with the Syrian conflict, Iranian nuclear crisis, the Arab awakening and the wider global turmoil, was a good platform for him to attempt to prove that his doctrine had not failed. As always, he relied on methodological explanation and structural analysis to deliver this message. In short, his main message was that there was a need for a new ideological platform to deal with today`s global problems, and that Turkey’s vision, set of values and principles would be a great asset in this process.

Those who have read his book and followed him closely during the last decade, know how strongly his personal ideology rests on religious belief. While it is understandable that a policymaker’s personal views will influence his work, it becomes a serious problem when this influence begins to risk the well-being and the security of his country, as Davutoglu’s has since 2009. Now, he is in a dangerous phase of justifying his failed doctrine using misinformation and changing perceptions.

First, he asserts that Turkey had the most visionary policy in the region with regard to the Arab revolutions of 2011, seeing them as “normalization” of politics in the region. If so, one may ask: If AKP had been expecting such a shift, then why did it maintain such extraordinarily warm relations with the authoritarian regimes of Syria and Libya over the decade leading up to the Arab Spring? Second, Davutoglu has spoken of democracy and freedom of speech as the philosophical basis of the newly emerging Middle East. But talking about freedom of speech rings hollow when one’s on country has the second-highest number of jailed journalists worldwide, behind China. According to the European Federation of Journalists, more than 70 Turkish journalists are in prison to they. Turkey continued its descent in the Press Freedom Index by losing 10 places in 2012. It now ranks 148th of 179 countries, behind countries such as Russia, Tunisia, Nigeria, Uganda and only slightly above Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq on the list.

Third, Davutoglu has asserted that the “zero-problems policy” has been a success because Turkey has not had any problems with neighboring people, only their leaders. Aside from the strain on credibility posed by this statement, it should be pointed out that policy actions such as joint cabinet meetings with Syria, make clear that good ties with leaders and public alike were always the goal from the beginning.

Ironically, the “zero problems with neighbors” policy has brought Turkey to a point at which it has many problems with all its neighbors. While Davutoglu seeks to maintain the illusion of a peaceful Middle East under Turkish leadership, Iran threatens to retaliate if NATO missiles based in Turkey are activated, and Syria to hit back if Turkey does not stop arming rebel groups. Problems with Armenia persist mostly because of Armenia’s stance, while the situation in Syria risks hurting ties with Russia, on which Turkey is dependent for 70% of its energy imports. If Davutoglu does not accept the failure of his doctrine and rein in his overconfidence, Turkey’s credibility and national security will be under serious threat.

About Cenk Sidar

Managing Director, Sidar Global Agency