Turkey’s Failed Foreign Policy

In 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., turned to Ahmet Davutoglu, then an obscure academic, to help craft its new foreign policy.

In 2009, he became foreign minister and was soon attempting to resolve the region’s numerous crises. His foreign policy vision guided Turkey’s approach to the Arab Spring uprisings and has served as the basis for Turkey’s handling of the Syrian civil war.

With the Foreign Ministry under his stewardship, Turkey has both been hailed as a democratic beacon for the Islamic world, and denounced as an irresponsible regional power for allowing foreign fighters to transit its territory en route to battlefields in Syria.

After initially receiving accolades, Mr. Davutoglu’s decision-making has become a source of controversy in the West. And in the Middle East, Turkey’s embrace of religiously conservative political movements has run afoul of several Persian Gulf states and now Egypt, contributing to its political isolation.

Now Mr. Davutoglu has risen to the premiership, filling the shoes vacated by President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Unfortunately, we should not expect any changes to Turkey’s failed foreign policy. Mr. Davutoglu believes his vision will eventually be vindicated.

Mr. Davutoglu has argued for decades that Turkey should embrace its Ottoman imperial past and use its unique geography to expand its influence throughout the Balkans, the Middle East and Central Asia. This “strategic depth” represented a departure from the country’s historic emphasis on maintaining close ties with its NATO allies in the West. Mr. Davutoglu envisioned that this policy, once implemented, would eventually result in Turkey having “zero problems with neighbors.”

Turkey’s efforts in this regard have been decidedly problematic. The country currently does not have an ambassador in Syria, Egypt or Israel. Moreover, Ankara’s relations with the Gulf States are strained, owing to the A.K.P.’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood. And diplomatic ties with Iraq are near non-existent after Turkey opted to side with the Kurdistan Regional Government and facilitate the export of Kurdish oil without Baghdad’s approval.

The incoming prime minister’s approach is based on four assumptions. First, he believes that the “era of nationalism” will come to an end in the Middle East and a new crop of religiously conservative leaders will emerge. Second, these new religiously conservative leaders will look to Turkey — and more specifically, to the A.K.P. — as a source of political inspiration. Third, wider religious conservatism will allow Turkey to expand its influence via its shared religious identity with like-minded states. And fourth, the West, especially America, has an interest in preventing democratic change in the region.

These assumptions underpin the A.K.P.’s understanding of recent regional events since the Arab uprisings. In the Arab world, the swift overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and their subsequent replacement with political parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, was seen as a confirmation of Mr. Davutoglu’s predictions. The A.K.P. believed it could share its own experience with states undergoing transitions to democracy.

However, Turkey’s efforts to help Egypt draft a secular constitution were rejected by the Muslim Brotherhood when it was still in power. Turkey’s eager attempts to influence the political process in Cairo were viewed as an encroachment on Egyptian sovereignty and a potential source of political weakness that opponents of the Brotherhood used to cast the party as under foreign influence before forcibly ousting it. Turkey’s influence in Egypt is now near zero.

The A.K.P., however, believes that its embrace of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated parties in Egypt, Iraq and Tunisia was politically prudent, morally correct and pro-democratic, and that it will help strengthen Turkish influence abroad. This approach is built on the idea that the A.K.P. has overseen the transformation of Turkish domestic politics and has led the way to making Turkey a more democratic country.

The same logic explains Turkey’s support for Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The A.K.P. blames the West for isolating the militant group after its election victory in 2006 and logically contends that this isolation is one of the drivers of tumult in Palestine. However, Turkey’s efforts to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have failed because it is no longer seen as a neutral party. In much the same way, Turkey has chastised America for its handling of the July 2013 coup in Egypt, and has lambasted the West for its reluctance to intervene in Syria.

The A.K.P. views the Persian Gulf states as corrupt, illegitimate and destined to fall. Mr. Davutoglu believes that the dynamics that led to the Arab revolts are still present, and that Turkey is therefore playing a “long game” with its support for the struggling Islamist forces in Palestine and Egypt while the West hopes to restore the region’s autocratic status quo ante by relying on a small cadre of corrupt political and military elites who have lost all legitimacy.

For Mr. Davutoglu, these issues are black and white: Either you support democracy, or you don’t. Turkey is on the “right side of history” and is standing up for democratic change in the region. The United States and Europe are not.

These assumptions are flawed. First, they assume that a shared religious identity will be able to transcend nationalism. Turkey’s recent history in Egypt suggests that this is easier said than done. Second, the nationalism that Mr. Davutoglu predicts will fail has proven to be far more resilient than initially anticipated. Third, in states described as being in Turkey’s “natural hinterland,” these nationalist movements are mostly based on a rejection of colonial rule — including that of the Ottomans. Turkey’s efforts to expand its influence, therefore, will not be so easy.

Yet the A.K.P. is undeterred. It believes in its own strategic and moral rectitude and views its recent troubles as temporary. As Mr. Davutoglu assumes the premiership, Turkey is likely to continue pursuing the flawed foreign policy he has conceived and constructed.

Aaron Stein is an associate fellow at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute.

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