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'Turkey's Kissinger' Leads Foreign-Policy Balancing Act

Ahmet Davutoglu
Ahmet Davutoglu
During a recent televised discussion on foreign policy, six former Turkish foreign ministers recently gave Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu's performance eight out of a maximum of 10 points. The six included some harsh Social Democrat critics of the current Justice and Development (AK) party government.

Even before his promotion from Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's special adviser to foreign minister in April, Davutoglu was regarded as the eminence grise behind Turkish foreign policy, and was occasionally even referred to as "Turkey's Kissinger." The Turks love to see their personalities, cities, and performances positively compared with the world's most famous, but Davutoglu doesn't like the comparison.

Still, the 51-year old professor of political science is considered the architect of the new active foreign policy that the AK party has been pursuing since coming to power in 2002: "zero problems" with the neighbors while continuing to maintain traditionally good relations with the West.

The West, Russia, and most members of the international community were pleased when Turkey and Armenia on October 10 signed accords, still to be ratified by the two countries' parliaments, to restore diplomatic ties and open borders after almost a century of enmity. The accords were widely attributed to Davutoglu's personal planning and implementation.

In 2008, he mediated similar indirect talks between Israel and Syria in an effort to take first steps towards a Middle East peace. The effort was met with skepticism by the Bush administration and produced no tangible results, for reasons beyond Ankara's control.

Meanwhile, Turkey's increasingly good relations with Russia and Iran have raised some eyebrows in the West. At the same time, Prime Minister Erdogan's occasionally outrageous criticism of the Israeli operation against Gaza last winter, as well as the exclusion of Israel from a NATO air drill in Turkish skies two weeks ago, have led conservatives in Washington and Europe to ask if Ankara is rethinking its traditionally good relations with Israel. Discussing a potential Israeli attack on Iran, U.S. analyst Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute recently affirmed boldly that "Turkey is now on Iran's side."

Rebalancing, Not Shifting

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Ankara has leaned increasingly towards the West while maintaining no more than functioning good relations with its neighbors. Davutoglu describes Turkey's new foreign policy initiative as a Turkish version of the German Ostpolitik of the 1960s. "Turkey is a natural part of the European continent and culture," he wrote in his book "Strategic Depth," published 10 years ago.

Echoing U.S. President Barack Obama, Davutoglu recently said that Ankara and Washington enjoy a "model partnership." With regard to Turkey's relations with her neighbors and regional policy, on the other hand, he said "zero-problem-based relations" must be transformed into "maximum mutual-interest-based ones."

Both Davutoglu and Erdogan have their roots in Turkey's traditional, conservative, and Islamic thinking. However, improving relations with neighboring states and playing an increasingly leading role in the region seems to be based on real political influence and economic and energy interests, rather than prestige and nostalgia for the old Ottoman Empire, as some suggest. Erdogan and Davutoglu have attracted billions of dollars in Arab investment into Turkey and plan to make the country a main oil and gas corridor between the East and Europe.

While Muslim and non-Muslim neighbors view Ankara's balancing act with both appreciation and suspicion, many in the West suspect that Turkish efforts to promote "mutual interests" between "rogue states" such as Iran and Syria and the West will ultimately end in Turkey's betrayal of Western values and commitments. Others, including the Turkish opposition, even suggest that the ruling AK is tacitly pursuing that goal.

But Davutoglu denies that the axis of Turkey's foreign policy is shifting. A region that is increasingly peaceful, with countries cooperating with one another, is good for the West and the world, he said recently. "This is an exceptional and unique role Turkey could play."

Abbas Djavadi is associate director of broadcasting at RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL