Davutoglu's doctrine

THEORY AND PRACTICE

When Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul visits India early next year he will be representing a nation that has reinvented its geostrategic role through an independent foreign policy in barely eight years. I hope he brings along Ahmet Davutoglu, who shaped the theory and then structured the practicals, first as principal adviser to Prime Minister Recip Tayyab Erdogan, and now as foreign minister. He must be one of the few academics fortunate enough to get a chance to make ideas work.

The starting point was 2002, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won the elections and ended the monopoly on power exercised by a military-bureaucratic-civilian Istanbul-centric elite which claimed the inheritance of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his European-style secularism which still prohibits a Turkish woman from wearing a headscarf to university. This elite protected Ataturk’s secular vision, but, somewhere along the way lost sight of Ataturk’s independence.

The wives of Erdogan and Gul wear headscarves, but that is not the point: the wives of many cabinet ministers and high officials do not, and are not required to. What is relevant is that AKP subtly shifted a policy that had become synonymous with America’s, without the angry rhetoric that has become a regrettable hallmark of so many who strut as lead actors on the anti-American stage. AKP proved that change was possible without compromising an amicable and mutually beneficial relationship with Washington. Their predecessors had America’s friendship. AKP has America’s respect as well.

Turkey has played a pivotal role in two of the three great wars of the 20th century. It was an ally of Germany and the Central Powers in the First World War, but refused to declare war on the United States even when the latter joined the Anglo-French alliance. Even though it lost its empire in the fighting, Turkey did not permit a single enemy soldier on its territory during wartime. Istanbul was occupied only after truce. Ataturk, victor of Gallipoli, was the great hero of this conflict; but took his true place in his nation’s history after 1918, when the vainglorious trio of Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Clemenceau, leavening their intent with anti-Muslim crusader sentiment, armed and financed a Greek invasion of Turkey. Their aim was to partition the country and leave Turkey as a rump Anatolian state. Ataturk mobilised a proud army and people, and shocked the victors of World War I by destroying the Greeks after they reached the outskirts of Ankara.

Ataturk, protecting his nation’s independence, kept Turkey neutral in the Second World War. Historic fears of next-door Russia, later Soviet Union, drove Istanbul into Washington’s embrace in the Cold War. But when in the 1980s flexibility became an option, and in the 1990s a necessity, Turkey remained rigid. When it looked south it could only see Israel; when it looked east it could see nothing more than Pakistan. Both were American allies. Turkey did not have a policy or a vision for the 21st century.

New players

Davutoglu selected the moment of departure with uncanny vision: George Bush’s war on Iraq in 2003. It gave an early sign of change, when it refused to let American troops pass through Turkey on their way to Iraq. It also realised, fairly early, that America would be weakened by Bush’s Iraq folly, creating space for new players, since the Soviet Union was too weak to play any role at all.

Israel and Iran have sufficient muscle to fill a regional vacuum, but both were inherently belligerent. They would be able to intervene, but as destabilisers rather than stabilisers. Iran had a natural advantage in Shia-majority Iraq, but it simultaneously provoked deep suspicions in the Arab world. Turkey set itself up as the region’s centre of stability. Ironically, this was its role during the days of the Ottoman Empire; but this time around, it could create an arc of influence only through diplomacy and harmony, not imposition.
Turkey set about strengthening its relations with Arab nations. It distanced itself from warriors in Israel, without breaking ties of trade and cooperation. It criticised Israel’s Gaza war unambiguously. But it realised that a critical key to peace lay in the amelioration of its own antagonisms with its neighbours. This was, given the emotionalism that is attached to the past, difficult.

But Turkey has now signed historic protocols with Armenia, warmed icy relations with Syria to the point where visa has been abolished, lifted ties with Iran and become a vital partner of Iraq in the reconstruction of the country. In October Erdogan signed 48 MoUs covering energy, commerce and security (among other things) with Baghdad. Davutoglu paid a visit to the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq, which is equivalent to an Indian foreign minister dropping in on Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Not too long ago, Turkey’s air force was bombing this Kurdish region as punishment for being a base for terrorism. Turkey, America and Iraq are working together to bring the long and bitter Kurdish war against Turkey to an end — another sign of Washington’s new respect for Istanbul.
Pakistan has recognised the change as well, but done so in its India-centric manner. It has asked Turkey to help solve the Kashmir problem. Istanbul is not so green as to try and do so; and certainly Delhi will be frosty towards any such misguided initiative. But Turkey has found its role on the world stage. A stem in the Cold War greenhouse has flowered in the fresh air of an open mind.

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