Transformation or Make-Over? Turkish foreign policy after the Davutoğlu era

By Ahmet Erdi Öztürk

According to many experts and observers, foreign policy has undergone a rapid transformation following the resignation of Turkey’s much-touted foreign policy architect, Ahmet Davutoğlu. And indeed this appears to be the case: under incumbent Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım and the ever-regnant President Erdoğan, Turkey has pursued normalisation with Russia and Israel, and even suggested the same could be done for Egypt and, most controversially, Syria.



This remarkable reversal in regional policy following years of hostility and underlying conflict has become one of the biggest issues on Turkey’s political agenda. Yet many are debating whether this constitutes a real transformation in foreign policy, or rather simply a make-over.

While some analysts have touted this process as normalisation, others a U-turn, a more cynical understanding sees this as simply a re-setting of foreign policy, designed to do some damage control. There appears to be only one agreed-upon element of this ‘new’ policy: when Prime Minister Yıldırım speaks, it is Erdoğan we hear.

Baby steps

Claims over the transformation of Turkish foreign policy are based on two important policy developments from June this year. Firstly, the backdoor agreement between Turkey and Israel, which, after protracted and secretive negotiations, has seemingly ended the diplomatic deep-freeze that had engulfed the two regional powers since the Mavi Marmara crisis of 2010.

The second development is a letter Erdoğan sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin, apologising for the downing of a Russian fighter jet in November last year, which had allegedly violated Turkish airspace along the Syrian border.

Given the damage caused to Turkey’s economy by the drop in Russian and Israeli tourism, it is not particularly surprising that the government should choose to pursue normalisation with the two. Yet Erdoğan is also making overtures toward Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s administration in Egypt, which he declared “illegitimate” after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi.

Yet most controversially, the new PM seemed to indicate willingness to pursue normalisation with Syria, a country from which a number of foreign policy catastrophes have already stemmed. Prime Minister Yıldırım has said that “I am sure that we will return to normal relations with Syria as well. We need that.” He has also said that “We will expand the circle of friendship as far as possible. This is our aim.”

Although the government later clarified its position, stating that it will never talk to the Assad regime, it seems increasingly apparent that, despite the on-going atrocities perpetrated by the regime (with Russian backing), Turkey may be forced to pursue dialogue at some point.

Relations with the international community and the region, especially Iran and Russia, have been nearly destroyed over the course of the Syrian crisis, not least due to accusations of Turkey’s collaboration with the so-called Islamic State. Turkey’s international standing, and its increasingly isolated regional position, hang in the balance. In this respect, Turkey must do something to mitigate this situation. And given the uptick in diplomatic overtures – though moderate – that has emerged in recent months, perhaps it finally is.

But can a letter, an agreement, and a declaration of will constitute a foreign policy transformation? Or to put it another way: Is the sum total of these changes, substantial as they may appear, enough to transform Turkish foreign policy after more than a decade of highly ideological and antagonistic policy lines? To answer these questions and to understand the real impact of the current foreign policy ‘transformation,’ it is useful to revisit Davutoğlu’s failed strategic depth doctrine and the potential resurrection of the ‘zero-problems’ paradigm.

Davutoğlu: from theoretician to politician 

It’s difficult to describe Davutoğlu as an unadulterated politician. In actuality, he was an ambitious, but low-level, scholar who tried to instrumentalise his hypothetical research in the real world as a policymaker. Prior to his time in the spotlight, Davutoğlu’s theories were largely unknown, un-cited and without prestige or reputation in the international academic community.

He was largely only famous in Turkish Islamist circles. Yet he has served as the Aristotle of ‘New Turkey’ since the beginning of his tenure, first as chief advisor, later foreign minister and finally PM. He worked to establish his doctrine as the skeleton of Turkish foreign policy, subsequently being lauded as its “architect”. So, what were his main ideas, and was Davutoğlu’s much-touted foreign policy vision a failure? When did it end?

Turkey has undergone widespread and multidimensional transformations since the election of the AKP in 2002. Nowhere is this truer than in the domain of foreign policy. Turkey’s foreign policy has traditionally hewn to a realist orientation, centred on three enduring principles – westernisation, a commitment to a stable international order, and strict adherence to law. After 2002 however, scholars have noted Turkey’s more active, culturally and ideologically, driven foreign policy, primarily in its immediate region, but also globally.

The instrumentalisation of Turkish history, culture, and religion under the influence of Davutoğlu and his foreign-policy doctrine of strategic depth have been the primary force behind this shift.  The novelty of Davutoğlu’s perspective is its definition of Turkey as a state neither at the periphery of Europe nor at the periphery of the Middle East. Rather, Turkey sits (as it did in Ottoman times) prominently at the crossroads of the two continents, and is thus a pivotal centre mainly due to its unique geographical, historical, and cultural links with both regions.

In other words, during the AKP period, Turkey has shifted its foreign-policy identity by describing itself as the inheritor of a long-standing Ottoman cultural tradition, and attempting to influence its former Ottoman territories more actively. Moreover, many have observed a distinct ‘soft power’ emphasis in this approach as Turkey has reached out culturally and economically in its relations with non-Western states from Africa to the Caucasus.

Clearly this doctrine did not achieve the projected foreign policy success for Turkey, arguably because of its surface-level reading of contemporary world conditions, unrestrained political choices and hegemonic Islamist discourse. Moreover, this doctrine and mentality is not malleable to transforming international conditions, as has been seen in Turkey’s imploding foreign policy following the exigencies of the Arab Spring.

Regardless of, or perhaps because of this inflexibility, Davutoğlu’s theorising came to encompass Turkey’s foreign policy approach: its tools, the institutions and ideological state apparatuses such as the Diyanet, TİKA and the Yunus Emre Institution. These instruments of Davutoğlu’s vision have become increasingly visible across Turkey’s old Ottoman stomping grounds, from the Balkans to Somalia.

Given the diplomatic crises, terrorism and social upheavals that have rocked Turkey since the Syrian civil war pushed Davutoğlu’s foreign policy to its limits, a frank discussion about this approach, the religion and cultural hegemonic ambitions inherent, and the possibility for a reversal of these trends is desperately needed.

Following the swift collapse of the AKP’s ‘precious isolationism’, it’s certain that Turkey is in need of allies in this ever-tumultuous region. These normalisation efforts with Israel, Russia and even Egypt show that Turkish decision makers are increasingly aware of this fact.

After more than a decade it will not be easy to change Turkish foreign policy overnight. In light of that, it is worth mentioning that to undergo a full transformation, rather than simply a make-over, this must be not only discursive but systematically organised by experts, accompanied by real normative policy change.

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