Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey and the Middle East by Sefa Secen, PhD Candidate, Political Science

Ahmet  Davutoglu,  practitioner  and  theoretician  of  Turkish  foreign  policy,  and  Turkey’s  former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current Prime Minister, has become one of the most con-troversial figures in Turkish history. Some praise him for successfully transforming Turkish foreign policy  from  total  passivism  into  pragmatic  activism,  while  others  criticize  him  for  being  a  naïve  idealist  pursuing  irrational  Neo-Ottomanist policies. He is likened to Kissinger as he attempts to change the theory and practice of Turkish foreign policy.1  In his book, Strategic Depth, Davutoglu criticizes traditional Turkish foreign policy for lacking a grand theory of strategy that would serve as a reservoir of strategies. His book has become the handbook of Turkish foreign policy.

During the first ten years of Justice and Development Party rule, Davutoglu’s zero problem foreign policy was credited and celebrated for having worked relatively well. However, the series of events that unfolded during the post-Arab spring period left him with critical decisions to make. The foreign policy decisions made during that period locked Turkey into a new isolationist position. Despite the fact that the elites of the ruling party dubbed this new status quo as “Valuable Loneli-ness” necessary to save the day, in essence, there is no difference between Turkey’s pre-Davutoglu and post-Davutoglu positions in the region now. Turkey does not have an embassy today in Cairo, Damascus, Tel Aviv, or Tripoli. An important question that continues to puzzle the minds of Turkish policymakers is: What should be the ideal Turkish policy towards the Middle East? 

Davutoglu’s  ideals  for  turning  attention  back  to  the  Middle  East  after  100  years  of  dis-continuation seems contrarily to have resulted in a new Turkish retreat from the region. This begs another important question: Is it really Turkish foreign policy or the post-Ottoman structure in the Middle East that sooner or later leads to Turkey’s exclusion? Turkey’s relationship with the Middle East is a mindboggling love story; no matter what Turkey does, the developments taking place in the region – the Syrian Civil War, the rise of ISIS – are very likely to produce positive and negative outcomes for Turkey due to Turkey’s ethnic composition and close historical ties with the region. By this logic, it might be utterly justified and seen as necessary for Turkey to follow an active foreign policy in the Middle East; however, Turkish involvement in the region in recent years has not done much  good  for  Turkey.  Turkey  is  now  home  to  millions  of  Syrian  refugees,  and  feels  threatened  by the rise of ISIS and autonomous Kurdish groups in the region. The Middle East is a very tricky terrain  to  navigate  and  states  are  constantly  in  the  process  of  formation.  Identities  and  borders  are not in a perfect match and people are more loyal to their sects and tribes than to their states. Therefore, state building processes in the Middle East are very unlikely to reach a conclusive and stable end at any point in the foreseeable future.

Recent  developments  are  proving  three  things  for  Turkey:  first  is  the  need  for  Turkey  to  pursue a balanced, cautious, and rational foreign policy in the Middle East; second is the inability and insufficiency of Davutoglu’s theory in times of conflict and crisis; third is the fact that today’s Middle East is so different than the Ottoman Middle East, leading Turkey to misread and misin-terpret the current social dynamics of the region. Middle Eastern societies mostly do not consider Turkey a perfect fit for the role that Davutoglu thinks Turkey can play in the region. A bitter truth is that Turkish soap operas, a great means of soft power, seem to have achieved more than what Turkish foreign policy has achieved in recent years. No matter what people think of Turkish foreign policy, they certainly enjoy watching Turkish soap operas.