A Political Obituary of Ahmet Davutoğlu: a Post-Script in Turkish Foreign Policy?

By Harriet Fildes

With the news that the Executive Council had curbed the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s power to elect district officials, the end was clearly nigh: no longer a matter of if, now just a matter of when. And yet Davutoğlu’s political demise as PM will surely pale in the history books when compared with the ruins of his foreign policy vision, which ensured his downfall as much if not more so than Erdoğan’s palace coup.

Source: World Tribune

Source: World Tribune

Following the now infamous Pelican Brief, Davutoğlu is out and Erdoğan’s more pliable son-in-law is likely in. If not him, then another one of a handful of obedient Erdoğan yes-men. But Davutoğlu’s short-lived and overshadowed tenure as prime minister is not what the man will be known for; rather it is his time as foreign policy advisor and later foreign minister which will continue to attract analysts for years to come.

Academic discussions of Turkey as a regional hegemon: a humanitarian diplomat and legitimate mediator/ peace-keeper in the Middle East have dominated foreign policy analysis since the AKP first came into power, precisely as Davutoğlu intended – ever the rhetorician.  And although the debates rather than the practice may be his greatest accomplishment (some would argue only), it is that which ended his reign long before Erdoğan turned on him: breaking his vision and emptying out his promises.

During the loftier days of New Turkey  – when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) were still lauded across the western world as the only Muslim democrats, served up to the Middle East as the ubiquitous Turkish model – Davutoğlu was widely agreed to have revolutionised Turkish foreign policy. But did he? A brief survey of the comings and goings of Turkey’s relations with Europe and the Middle East tells us the answer is likely no.

Davutoğlu was an academic by trade and, despite the rising paradigm of him as a strong-man ready to rival Erdoğan, was an academic by nature.  Yet he was Turkey’s foreign policy architect and had historical vision if nothing else. In particular he was attuned to Turkey’s historical memory, mobilising publicly pervasive nationalist (and many would argue, neo-Ottoman) sentiments of Turkey as a ‘central-country’, put forth in his seminal doctrine Strategic Depth, to set a new global stage with Turkey at the epicentre.

Davutoğlu’s writings and theorising provided the fundamental intellectual and strategic framework for developments in foreign policy, both the self-styled re-orientation towards the Middle East and the new actors involved (including less desirable ones such as Hamas).

He devised the much acclaimed but short lived ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy, which was used to legitimise Turkey’s rapprochement and later, leadership position, within the Islamic world to an angry secular public who, correctly as it turns out, believed this to be reflective of the hidden Islamist agenda of the AKP.

Ignoring such domestic protestations, the AKP was brought into the fold by the EU. However, the intensification of accession talks was not only used to further democratic development through carrot and stick tactics. It was additionally and more importantly used by European leaders (read: the UK) desperate to co-opt allies in the Middle East with the disastrous Iraq war tearing through the region, the worst thing since the last Iraq war.

Despite the authoritarian writing on the wall, global leaders looked set to embrace New Turkey, flattering the AKP and self-congratulating for surface- level liberalisation efforts such as changes to minorities’ laws and human rights, and ignoring the activists, journalists and academics who argued the situation was in fact regressing. That’s the problem with rose tinted glasses however; red flags just look like flags.

Yet when compared with the 1990s, when Turkey was engaged in near total war on all fronts: embroiled in constant border feuds with Syria, incursions into Iraq and a diplomatic ice age with Russia, as well as a catastrophic war of attrition against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (and Kurdish communities), Davutoğlu’s rhetoric of rapprochement and conflict resolution did indeed appear as a oasis in the desert.

However, anyone who has glanced at Turkey over the past few years will recognise that quite a number of those conflicts have reared their ugly heads once again. Davutoğlu’s time at the helm appears then not as an oasis but rather as the calm before the storm.

New Turkey or Old Turkey Renewed?

Although zero problems with neighbours quickly became zero neighbours without problems, an impossible equation after all, some of Davutoğlu’s vision endures. So let’s look then at ‘New Turkey’s’ buzzwords and alliances built over the past decade and a half.

Like their old ally-turned-enemy Fetullah Gülen, the AKP – with Davutoğlu at the stern – extended a ‘soft power’ network of cultural, economic and humanitarian feelers into its surrounding region as part of his much touted ‘multi-dimensional’ foreign policy.

Soft power can be said to be one of the defining features of the Davutoğlu era. It has been used as the ideological framework behind foreign policy initiatives as broad as infrastructure building in Somalia (notable here is that the pay off was great, Erdoğan and his party are favourites in this failing state and revenue is rolling in from extensive construction initiatives), to the expansion of now extremely popular Turkish soap operas across the Middle East. Although seemingly small fish, these catches have greatly assisted in extending Turkey’s cultural ties across the region and have paid off both in economic terms, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars per annum, and in cultural capital as Turkish influence and popularity spread.

And yet Davutoğlu’s humanitarian diplomacy in Somalia is in clear continuation with the activities of grassroots Islamic NGOs, who cut their teeth delivering emergency aid to the Balkans in the 1990s and are now some of the most important actors in Sub-Saharan Africa. Their humanitarianism and extremely verbal support of the Palestinian cause then? A paternalistic dependency relationship almost identical to western donors aside from the focus on mosque construction and some widely, although perhaps unfairly chastised relations with Hamas.

His cultural diplomacy? A counterfeit of the Gülenists’ use of education and media to subtly indoctrinate. And a rather less successful one at that, if we are to believe the Illuminati-esque conspiracy theories that a million Gülenists are seated in positions of power around the world.

His economic diplomacy then, which led to the strengthening of economic relations with Israel (yes, even after the diplomatic silence that followed Mavi Marmara) and a kindling friendship with the Assad regime prior to the Arab Uprisings – was it revolutionary? No. Seemingly homage to the Özal government’s understanding of economic development as the root of regional conflict resolution and stability, following Özal’s plans for rapprochement with the Middle East prior to his untimely demise.

Not a visionary then. But still a sharp mind, combining the most successful aspects of the AKPs challengers’ and predecessors’  ideologies with a potent mix of pan-Islamic religious nationalism to create New Turkey, regional hegemon, a leader in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the Alliance of Civilizations, and observer at the League of Arab States.

Such status was crucial to Turkey’s growing global power: allowing for its participation in important mediation activities between Israel and Syria, and also in Myanmar, which in turn strengthened their bid to join the EU as an important and age-old bridge to the Muslim world.

From Europe with Love

On the European front Turkey’s rising soft power image, economic stability and emergence as a global humanitarian power (notably the third-biggest donor in the world) led to greater steps taken towards EU accession than ever before. Even Cyprus, an enduring sticking point for EU accession negotiations, came tantalisingly close to a resolution under Davutoğlu.

Having spoken to civil society activists involved in the negotiations, it appears that Davutoğlu was indeed willing to commit to the peace process, unlike previous nationalist leaders. Importantly it was Davutoğlu rather than Erdoğan at the helm of many of the negotiations, using his energy as a public diplomat and international networks with intellectuals, civil society activists and universities to achieve tangible results. Without his networks and calming influence, Turkey’s increasingly egomaniacal president –Syrian refugee cart blanche in hand – may well undo much of this progress.

Similarly the visa-free travel deal Davutoğlu has long been negotiating, a central aspect of his time as foreign minister, is seemingly dead in the water just days after his resignation. There are a few underlying issues behind the influence of this bid on Davutoğlu’s foreign policy which should be noted here.

Firstly, the AKP’s wish to obtain EU visa-free travel has pervaded their actions since they came to power in 2002. First it triggered widespread domestic reforms, but also – and less well known – it was a factor in Turkey’s blossoming relations with the Middle East. As concerns grew in the mid 2000s that the EU was, and would remain, a white Christian club, Davutoğlu looked east for allies and economic adventures.

This led most notably to liberalisation and later visa exemption with Northern Iraq. Turkish normalisation with a looming Kurdish state over the border was no small feat and certainly facilitated the long-awaited and quickly mourned domestic peace process with the Kurds. Moreover, EU frustration was an important aspect leading to normalisation of relations with pre-war Syria and Israel, and pushing the expansion of Turkish influence all the way to Indonesia and Latin America.

So, the stage was set – Turkey was a rising global power with some chance of becoming the first Muslim country in the European Union, the US had jumped into bed with them before nationalists could say neo-imperialism and even Israel blessed the pragmatic foreign policy of the AKP government for a time.

The swing in the regional environment resulting from the cataclysmic tremors of the Syrian war however put an end to Davutoğlu’s era long before the president did. His vision of soft power, humanitarian diplomacy and pan-Islamic Turkish leadership of a new, peaceful Middle East, crashed down around him as security threats mounted and Turkey was once again fighting a war on all fronts.

And herein lies the enduring problem. Despite variable praise and condemnation based on early improvements and later deterioration in human rights, press freedom et al, Turkey’s relations with the EU and US have always hinged upon one thing: security. And for that, Davutoğlu was certainly not their man.

A Legacy in Tatters?

And so new stage was set. Hard power eclipsed soft. Davutoğlu’s brief time as PM saw him battling various regional conflicts often caused or exacerbated by an uncontrollable president, not least of which against Russia, the Kurds and Syria.

Turkey was being used by radical groups (including, some would say, elements within the government) as a thoroughfare for arms smuggling, people smuggling, oil smuggling and just about everything else. And Davutoğlu as the new PM was struggling to foster any level of security in his own country, much less help Turkey to resume its oft-touted leadership position as mediator and leader in the Middle East – a job profile Davutoğlu had strived to create.

These challenges led to the rise of Turkey’s shadowy security agency MIT, and it’s equally shadowy leader Hakan Fidan, to the fore of foreign relations – with Fidan emerging as Erdoğan’s new right-hand man and Davutoğlu promoted to puppet prime minister, and then to no minister at all.

The elevation of this newly re-modelled security apparatus impelled a U-turn in the AKP worldview and a shift away from the soft power ideology of Davutoğlu. The soft-power paradigm was motivated by the aforementioned belief that regional economic growth could facilitate peace. When that strategy, and hopes for peace, clearly became untenable following the chaos of the Arab Spring, the Erdoğan-dominated AKP reverted to type in its not-so-diplomatic relations with the region.

Moreover, Turkey’s cultural ties carefully cultivated under Davutoğlu’s tenure, which up until 2013 saw astounding approval ratings from the Arab street, were deteriorating rapidly. Unrest fomented from what was increasingly perceived as Turkish meddling in Middle Eastern affairs. Egypt in particular recoiled from Turkey’s outright support for the Muslim Brotherhood and the ever-megalomaniacal Morsi.

Coupled with the unveiled hypocrisy of Turkey’s staunch support for the Arab uprisings juxtaposed against the brutal suppression of the Gezi park protests, Turkey’s nation brand as a benign regional power and human rights defender, which Davutoğlu had worked tirelessly to create, was gone in a gas cloud.

And so to Davutoğlu’s legacy. Soft power is dead, the economy is in tatters and New Turkey’s new nation brand is despotism. And yet Davutoğlu’s humanitarian diplomacy survives him.

The balance between ‘conscience and power’ is how he once put it. Although I’d argue it leans firmly to the latter – Turkey’s support of Syrian refugees cannot be negated, and attempts to bleed the EU dry in return are understandable as the bloc essentially manoeuvres to turn the country into a prison camp for the world’s most vulnerable.

Conscience and power, or identity and interest, may be the enduring legacy of Ahmet Davutoğlu. Turkey’s humanitarian diplomacy and continuing efforts to play regional conflict mediator, centring themselves on the global stage, are all informed and shaped by Davutoğlu’s theorising.

His political philosophy of Turkey as an emerging civilisational leader with historical and cultural kinship ties and a responsibility to shape the world around is the legacy that will endure.

No longer the isolationist state it was under successive Kemalist regimes, it is this shift which sets Turkish foreign policy apart during the Davutoğlu era. It is also this shift that will continue to lead Turkey down the ever spiralling rabbit hole of Middle Eastern conflicts for better (using soft power tools) or, more likely, given the reversion to hard power and Davutoğlu’s unceremonious demise, for worse.

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