TSG IntelBrief: Turkey’s “Zero Problem” Foreign Policy
October 28, 2013
• Over the past five years Turkish foreign policy has gone through a transformational change, fueling heated debates among foreign policy observers and international security analysts about the country’s long-term strategic imperatives and geopolitical standing
• However, in today’s post-Arab Spring environment and with a ruling party bruised by recent nationwide social unrest, Turkish foreign policy establishment finds itself at a crossroad.
The Resurgence of Religious-Oriented Politics
In the 1970s and 1980s, Turkey experienced unbalanced economic development characterized by relentless modernization of major urban and western coastal cities, often at the expense of economic development in rural areas. The growth in urban centers prompted millions of conservative villagers to migrate to cities with the hope of upward social and economic mobility. This resulted in gradual integration into the social and economic fabric of urban centers and the formation of a new middle class with a penchant for a greater role of religion in politics. The new middleclass later formed the supporting backbone for Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
With economic reforms undertaken by the ruling AKP since 2002, Turkey experienced massive foreign investment and saw the formation of a strong private sector that included a new emerging religious capitalist class with aspirations to expand into the Muslim Middle East.
Zero Problem: A New Foreign Policy Doctrine
Having witnessed significant economic growth and a tendency by a new business class to become involved with the Muslim world, Turkey decided to leverage its position in Europe as an emerging economic powerhouse while forging new relationships and partnerships with both Arab states and Iran.
Erdogan’s party designed the transformation of this new self-discovery into a foreign policy roadmap, and the man behind the doctrine was Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Based on Davautoglu’s landmark paper, “Stratejik Derinlik” (The Strategic Depth), later published as a book, the new doctrine envisioned Turkey as a country worthy of a much greater role in influencing geopolitical and energy developments in the Middle East and Central Asia, and saw itself as an underutilized power that should no longer be shackled by Western interests and an American-designed polity. The country expanded its trade and diplomatic ties with the Arab world including those later affected by the Arab Spring.
The “Zero Problem” foreign policy sought to forge closer economic and cultural ties with the Muslim world irrespective of their political ideology; so it was an ideologically agnostic policy. For example, based on this doctrine, Turkey would help Iran resolve its nuclear impasse with the West while trying to resolve the decades-old differences between Bashar al-Assad’s regime and Israel, with the hope of brokering peace between Damascus and Tel Aviv. Also, the Turkish private sector invested in Qadhafi’s Libya and Mubarak’s Egypt, developing new markets for Turkish exports. The expansion of Turkish private sector in the Arab world and in Iran contributed to the consolidation of Ankara’s geopolitical stance in the region.
Facing a Whole New Reality
Turkey initially welcomed the changes brought about by the Arab Spring and saw itself as the best model of governance, to be emulated in the Arab world —as opposed to Iran’s—and forged diplomatic ties with the newly born governments of the region. What Turkey did not foresee was how the Arab Spring would realign strategic alliances in the region and even lead to bloodshed and a new wave of geopolitical rivalries.
The unintended consequences of the Arab Spring continued to mushroom for Turkey, leading to the unraveling of its Zero Problem foreign policy doctrine. The post-Qadhafi Libya plunged into chaos with an increasingly weak and powerless central government unable to form national unity and revitalize the economy outside of oil producing regions. In Egypt, from the ashes of Tahrir Square emerged an increasingly authoritarian and religious leadership followed by a new wave of unrest and bloody crackdown that led to a military coup that displaced Mohammed Morsi’s young government. And with little prospects of a peaceful outcome, the Turkish leadership is faced with Syria’s bloody civil war, pulled by multiple regional players to their respective orbits, and with hundreds of thousands of refugees on Turkish soil.
The post-Arab Spring Middle East has put Turkish foreign policy objectives at odds with those of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and its key NATO ally, the US. In Egypt, Turkey supported the government of Mohammed Morsi and criticized the military leadership for toppling Morsi’s government and in the process found its interests at odds with those of Saudi Arabia, which supported the military leadership. In Syria, Turkey’s chief objective has been the removal of al-Assad, an objective that is in direct opposition to Iran’s strategic goals. In Iraq, much to the chagrin of Iranians, Ankara is vying for greater political and economic influence, seeking to shape that country’s political landscape. And though Turkish-Israeli relations remain in tatters, Syria is the strongest factor potentially able to transform the relationship as both Ankara and Tel Aviv seek a common objective in Syria in al-Assad’s ouster.
Erdogan as an Afterthought
Turkey’s increasing challenges in its foreign policy have led the Turkish public opinion to seriously question Davutoglu’s Zero Problem policy to the point that many Turks view him as responsible for many regional challenges the country is facing today. Many Turkish academics and observers believe that Davutoglu did not have the capacity to lead the Turkish foreign policy. He has reportedly fallen from grace in the eyes of many at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Erdogan’s government has also suffered domestically. Recent nationwide protests that started in May to protest plans for an urban development in Istanbul’s Gezi Park have damaged Erdogan’s and his government’s image. Erdogan enjoys support from the country’s conservative and business establishments, with support from the latter out of increasing concerns for the worsening Turkish economy. However, Erdogan has lost credibility in the Turkish public opinion.
• In an effort aimed at boosting plunging support among diverse groups of the Turkish population, the Erdogan government plans to release Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the PKK, the Kurdish Workers Party that launched a bloody insurgency against the central government in 1984, and lasted until 2013. This policy has the potential to backfire against Erdogan as many Turks, including some religious conservatives, harbor deep animosity for the PKK and Ocalan himself.
• Moreover, Erdogan’s heavy-handed policy response to Gezi Park protests led to disenchantment of one of his key allies, Abdullah Gul, the Turkish President. Gul grew critical of Erdogan and his heavy reliance on a closed circle of advisors for crucial policy matters. Today Gul is believed to be considering launching a new party with Abdullatif Sener, a former finance minister, who also served for a period as Erdogan’s Deputy Prime Minister. The potential plan to launch a new political party is a reflection of Erdogan’s declining fortunes and development of ripe conditions in Turkish politics for change.
• The future of Turkey’s ties with the Arab world will remain unclear as Syria, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and perhaps soon Jordan and Tunisia, undergo political transformations and Saudi Arabia charts a different approach from Turkey’s. The prospects for Turkish-Iranian relations will be dim as long as the tensions between Iran and the West continue over Tehran’s nuclear program and its adventurous foreign policy.
• Both domestically and in its foreign policy Turkey is at a crossroad. Davutoglu will not be able to revive the short-lived glory in Turkish foreign policy as the entire region undergoes a transformation. At some point Turkey will have to redefine its strategic imperatives concerning its foreign policy, with or without Erdogan in power.
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