Friday, November 18, 2011

Turkey’s leadership not fading but emerging

It is now famous hobby among observers to document what they say “demise of Turkey’s zero problems foreign policy” in a “I told ya” style. They are largely claiming that Turkey’s foreign policy of zero problems – a disguise to claim a responsible regional leader – is falling apart in the face of uncertainty that encircled Turkey’s foreign policy decision-makers as they are confused over an appropriate way of responding to recent developments in the Middle East.

Observers largely ignored the fact that it is not Turkish foreign policy that is peeling but an ideology that has naively driven the country into an utopian land of friendships that yielded no benefits. Demise of ailing foreign policy for a rising regional power means the country is now more exposed to conduct a successful foreign policy that marries with realities on the ground. Eloquent speeches Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was delivering over the past few years where the gap between rhetoric and action widened only consumed Turkey’s credibility on the world stage.

Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy, undoubtedly, seemed out of touch with realities on the ground and the country’s zero problems doctrine took it down a slippery slope once the challenges have become inevitable. Underlying this strategy was the view that a borderless Middle East, one in which Turkey arrogates to itself the regional role of setting standards, would allow people freely trade with each other and contribute to the prosperity of each nations. A win-win.

This grand strategy – designed only for peaceful times -- has been pursued through an array of liberal initiatives in which Turkey started to reap its economic fruits. If history is any guide, it will be evidently clear that there is no a quarter decade in the history of the Middle East when wars and conflicts did not prevail every kind of economic or social transactions.

And then a furious wave of unrest blew in like a fatal wind. Navigating in a region of fragile balance of power and vulnerable dictators is challenging and that is why, to borrow Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s phrase, there is “no mercy for the weak” and let me add – for the naive. Turkey’s leadership had later learned that maintaining good ties with Arab rulers is a sure path to a room full of trouble. Its decision-makers are still tossing back and forth the question of whether to pursue principled foreign policy at the expense of Turkey’s interests.

Steven A. Cook penned a piece in The Atlantic – surely better than anyone else who has written on this subject lately – claiming that Turkey’s dream of regional leadership has failed. Cook is correct is pointing to the fact that things are not developing in the way Davutoğlu envisioned but this is good news rather than a cause of concern for Turkey’s Kissinger.

Turkey has learned an important lesson from its interaction with leaders like late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: No one can be trusted.

The future now hinges on Turkey’s ability to reinvent its foreign policy strategy. Turkey’s prime minister and foreign minister drafted Turkey’s strategy in dealing with the unrest sweeping in Libya and Syria based on their trust and expectation that these leaders will heed Turkey’s recommendation. That did not happen.

Current crises and cracks in Turkey’s foreign policy strategy will surely heal its already bleeding foreign policy rather than damaging it. Turkey’s leadership is thus not fading in the region yet its rise will now be more conspicuous than ever.

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