Turkey’s Brilliant Statecraft: The Achievement of Ahmet Davutoglu

15 Nov

   This post is a significantly modified version of an article published by Al Jazeera English  a week ago.


            By a happy quirk of personal destiny I happened to be in Istanbul recently when the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu gave a talk at the opening dinner session of the Istanbul Forum. His theme was the Arab Spring as a defining  historic moment of the post-Cold War era of world politics. In the past I have made no secret of my admiration for the thought and creativity of Mr. Davutoglu’s diplomacy. Since appointed as Turkish foreign minister on May 1, 2009 he has already made in this short period an indelible impact on regional and world affairs. I believe that his exceptional contributions to the statesmanship of our time flow directly from his academic studies carried out prior to his entry into government service, as well as the experience he gained during several years of prominent apprenticeship as Chief Advisor to both the Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. Rarely in my knowledge has a major country allowed its foreign policy to be shaped by a non-politician whose public stature and morally attuned sensibility are based on his intellectual accomplishments. Mr. Davutoglu’s authority rests on an impressive mastery and blending of history, politics, law, ethics, and culture as providing the necessary components for a coherent strategic outlook.

One struggles for contemporary comparisons, finding a few similarly qualified and constructive figures that served their country well by directing its foreign policy. Perhaps the most obvious comparison is with the great Chinese Communist Foreign Minister between 1949-1958, Chou En-lai, who was renowned for his learning and pragmatically sound insights into the foreign policy challenges facing his country at a difficult time of transition. Yet the comparison falters because Chou’s thought and action were derivative from a totalizing ideology, lacked freedom of maneuver in policy given Mao’s stern overall control of the Chinese state, and devoted most of his career to navigating with great skill a turbulent revolutionary struggle within China.

Another comparison that might be the intellectually formidable Dean Acheson who served as the American Secretary of State in the period immediately following World War II, and presided over the formation of efforts to respond both to its role as leader of the West and to the Soviet challenge. His was an articulate and generally sensible pragmatic leadership that deserves generally high praise, but it was anchored in a starkly realist worldview that rejected any mention of normative perspectives based on law, ethics, and justice when contemplating the future of world order. It is precisely this receptivity to the normative foundations of human identity that gives Davutoglu’s worldview its uplifting historical relevance. I would observe that without such an appreciation of law, ethics, and justice Davutoglu would be just one more intelligent realist who spent his time devising how best to manipulate the power configurations confronting his government. At the same time Davutoglu is not a dreamy legalist or moralist in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson; he has a firm grasp of the strategic dimensions of world politics, and his untranslated volume on ‘strategic depth’ is undoubtedly his greatest intellectual contribution up to this point.


Comparing Kissinger

In all probability the only recent political figure that possesses an influence and academic credentials comparable to Davutoglu is Henry Kissinger, but having proposed the comparison I need immediately to subvert it mainly for reasons just indicated. Before doing so, it needs to be acknowledged that Kissinger has at this point far exceeded Davutoglu both by his length of tenure at the pinnacles of state power, and by his historical impact, have served a government that possessed the role and status of being the global leader. In contrast, Davutoglu is a relative newcomer, and Turkey is a rising middle power on the global stage, although increasingly a dominant regional presence.

Yet still positive and negative comparisons with Kissinger seems useful. To begin with, Kissinger was a facilitator, not an architect or even an innovator. He was an adept amoral foreign policy entrepreneur who successfully sought and gained entry to the domains of the powerful, and while not a politician, always was prepared to make himself available to do the dirty work of politics. Both Kissinger and Davutoglu share an uncommon ability to think about and explain clearly the most complex international challenges, and both seem endowed with inexhaustible reserves of superhuman energy to implement almost singlehandedly a multi-faceted foreign policy, and neither exhibits great sophistication or appreciation of the economic dimensions of foreign policy, but here the recitation of similarities ends.

Kissinger is stained by his many prevarications and unprincipled approach: extending the war in Vietnam to Cambodia in a manner that allowed, almost coerced, the extremist Khmer Rouge to abandon the countryside, and take over the cities and then harshly impose its will on the entire country by perpetrating one of the worst genocides in history; in the course of diplomatic negotiations to end the Vietnam War, threatening the North Vietnamese with nuclear weapons if they did not give in to American demands in the course of what were supposed to be peace talks; encouraging the military coup in Chile, ironically carried out on 9/11 (although in 1973,) and then backing the notorious dictator, Pinochet, even endorsing Operation Condor, a pre-drone assassination program that inflicted torture and terror on the people of Chile, especially its most idealistic and dedicated youth. Despite his intellectual stature, formidable diplomatic skills, and public recognition, Kissinger is far too compromised ethically and legally to be regarded in a positive light. In this regard, the criticism of Kissinger goes beyond his arch embrace of political realism, and extends to his complicity in the commission of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Davutoglu has served his government without making any such Faustian Bargains that would suggest that his foreign policy activities are part of an unacknowledged agenda of ambition, international opportunism, and political subservience rather than a reflection of prudence, wisdom, and above all, moral integrity. This quality of principled behavior is what sets Davutoglu permanently apart from the Kissingers of this world, and as unusual as it is for someone of such qualities to rise to such governmental heights, it is probably rarer still, for the presiding politicians in government to seek, welcome, and reward such principled guidance. In this respect, the citizens of Turkey, and really all of us of in the region and the world, should be grateful for the confidence and trust bestowed on Davutoglu by Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul. It is they who have lifted him from relative academic obscurity to diplomatic eminence, and obviously shared, appreciated, and rewarded his growing number of contributions to Turkish security and influence, as well as to regional peace and justice. This principled consensus was dramatically displayed by the recent visit of the Turkish leadership to Somalia followed by major financial assistance to this most ravaged of African countries. Turkish acceptance of responsibility to lead UN policy toward the 49 Least Developed Countries, beginning with the UN mega-conference held in Istanbul this May is a further demonstration that Turkey’s identity as a principled global actor is more than a reflection of its foreign policy.  

The Republican Inheritance

Perhaps, in this case, the fusion of private religious devotion and public service are connected in ways unique to Turkey that create political space needed for this show of benevolence in government. And here, I think, but it is no more than a conjecture on my part, that some credit needs to be given to the republican legacy of Kemal Ataturk. I say this hesitantly, as an outsider peering inside Turkey through the narrow window slit of my limited knowledge and experience, but it does seem that Turkish secularism, despite its unfortunate excesses, has allowed (for men at least) an effective fusion of religion, morality, and politics at the highest level of the Turkish governing process. Such a fusion has not happened elsewhere in the region. For instance in Iran the Shah tried to mimic the West without establishing a sustainable republicanism. The Shah’s brand of authoritarian rule undermined the moral and religious traditions that derive from the great Persian heritage in the course of embracing a form of modernity that privileged only a small internationalized Iranian elite while consigning the mass of Iranians to seemingly permanent squalor. In the process the Shah left nothing behind by way of constitutionalism on which to build a better Iranian future. Of course, significant blame for Iran’s trials and tribulations is deservedly given to the British/CIA interventions, especially covert moves in 1953 that helped overthrow Iran’s most encouraging democratic movement led by Mohammed Mossadegh, a passionate nationalist. This intervention led to restoring the Iranian monarchy, which established an oppressive police state with the help of its foreign friends. Mossadegh’s sin had been to challenge Western interests by claiming the right to pursue an independent foreign policy, especially through asserting Iranian sovereignty over natural resources by way of the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. To understand the pattern of Western interventions in the Middle East, follow the oil! Consider in this regard, the current war talk directed at Iran, but also the recent destructive wars fought in Libya and Iraq.

The Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 spun out of this moral and spiritual vacuum that resulted from the Shah’s rule, but without having the benefit of a secular tradition that was both populist and principled. Unfortunately, the new Iran went on to reproduce in theocratic form many of the deformities of power that had precipitated the downfall of the Pahlevi monarchy despite its extensive apparatus of oppressive political rule and its unconditional support in Washington. Kissinger for good reason praised the Shah of Iran in his memoir “as that rarest of things, an unconditional ally.” The concrete embodiments of this submissive Iranian role meant selling oil to apartheid South Africa, as well as opening up its national oil fields to mainly American energy companies and allowing a huge U.S. military presence in the country that included surveillance operations carried out in the Soviet Union from bases in Iran. These comments on Iran are intended to point up how different has been the evolution of modern Turkey, and why someone of Davutoglu’s outlook could not possibly have risen to a position of influence in post-1979 Iran, and if somehow given such an opportunity, would likely have quickly lost the backing of the political leaders of the country, and been forced to return to the sidelines of power.

Before the Arab Spring

The relevance of this detour is to underscore the likely inadequacy of a foreign policy that is either cast adrift from the traditions of a society or that insists on embodying those traditions in a rigid form that is not flexible and normative (respectful of law and morality) enough to address effectively the complexities of the modern world. What Davutoglu possesses as a result of his extraordinary combination of religious devotion and cosmopolitan education is a sophisticated capacity to navigate the waters of global society without getting drawn into power games at home and abroad that are by their nature cut off from principle. In this respect, Davutoglu will never receive or wish for Kissinger’s compliment of being an unconditional ally. A principled ally must always retain the option to act independently, even oppositionally, as the occasion requires. In fact, Davutoglu has been chastised by Big Brother and his think tank minions for taking Turkey out of ‘its lane’ or chided for designing a foreign policy that was premised on the durability of the established order in the Middle East that existed in the region prior to Tahrir Square.  In this respect, Davutoglu was evidently taken as much by surprise as the rest of us by the awakenings throughout the Arab world of this year, not only by their abruptness but also by their originality.

Davutoglu has also been criticized for allowing the relationship with Israel to move from friendship to hostility. If this deterioration is looked upon objectively it becomes clear that Israel was not willing to accommodate the new Turkey that was not just another poodle in the White House kennel. What Turkey did under Davutoglu’s influence, including while he was advising rather than devising Turkish foreign policy included trying to have Hamas after its electoral victory in 2006 treated as a political actor rather than as an ostracized ‘terrorist’ organization, criticized the attacks of Gaza at the end of 2008, and allowed a Turkish NGO to have a prominent role in the Freedom Flotilla that was so crudely attacked by Israeli naval forces in May 31, 2010. This latter attack that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens represented a shockingly provocative set of moves by Israel that included executing several of the Turkish humanitarian activists. In response, Turkey sought an apology and some compensation for the families of these victims, but Israel has been unwilling to do either. If Israel were to be capable of pursuing its interests, no more than in the manner of prudent realists, it would seize the olive branch that Turkey has been dangling before its eyes.

To be on occasion controversial in geopolitical circles is almost inevitable whenever a non-Western government seeks to forge its own path, to make its formal political independence into a foundation for the exercise of existential sovereignty. If a Turkish foreign minister were never being criticized in either the West or East he would not be doing his job for Turkey or the world, and should be regarded as inconsequential.

Without entering into a detailed examination of Turkish foreign policy in the Davutoglu years, it is essential to draw a line distinguishing a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in relation to the Arab Spring. Before it was obviously economically beneficial and politically stabilizing to pursue engagement with all countries in the Middle East. Such engagement was premised also on the importance attached to mutual respect for sovereignty, and ultimately, for self-determination, and presupposed what almost all informed observers believed, that the regimes in power were there to stay for the foreseeable future. In this period of ‘zero problems of neighbors’ Turkey raised its foreign policy profile in a positive manner that probably also reflected the heightened difficulties and frustration for Turkey that seemed to negate their strenuous efforts to gain entry to the European Union. The result of these policies seemed to promise over time a mutually beneficial regionalism that also sought to minimize disruptive conflicts. In this regard Turkey made itself available to negotiate peace between Israel and Syria, encouraged peaceful resolution of the Israel/Palestine conflict, attempted to calm the buildup of war threats directed at Iran, and experimented with peace building initiatives to the Balkans and in the Caucasus. Each attempt seemed worthwhile even in retrospect, was done with tact, and produced an inevitable mixture of successes and failures, although overall the economic gains in trade and investment and the diplomatic gains in conflict resolution remain valuable.

After the Arab Spring

Then in January 2011 came the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and the effective challenge to the Mubarak autocracy in Egypt. These were remarkable uprisings with still indeterminate revolutionary possibilities, but also containing grave counterrevolutionary risks. What happened in Tunisia and Egypt began happening elsewhere to varying degrees with very different responses: the fires of populist discontent burned brightly in Yemen, Bahrain, and then Syria, Libya, and less so in Morocco and Jordan. Turkish reactions were measured, and Ankara initially used its diplomatic leverage to encourage compromises shaped to avoid bloodshed, especially in Libya and Syria, but as it became clear that the regimes would not accommodate democratic demands, Turkey shifted sides, openly aligning its interests and hopes with the popular struggles. More specifically, this even led to Turkish support for the UN mandated NATO intervention in Libya and increasingly confrontational relations with Syria. As Davutoglu explained when a government shoots and kills its own unarmed citizens so as to retain power, then Turkey will side with such an opposition. In effect, at such a point Turkey’s respect for self-determination shifts its locus from the government to the people.

In my judgment these Turkish realignments were entirely appropriate so long as they did not crossed the line of military intervention. In this regard, I would endorse the Turkish response to Syria while criticizing its support for NATO’s regime-changing military intervention in Libya. These ‘hard choices’ involve difficult decisions of policy in settings of extreme uncertainty as to the effects of deciding to intervene or not to intervene. Put differently, non-intervention can be a form of intervention in some settings, and there is no escaping from a responsibility to act. I would not agree with Davutoglu’s approach in every instance of Turkish foreign policy in the confusing and differentiated national unfoldings after the Arab Spring, but I would strongly affirm the consistency of his principled approach based on this dramatic recalibration of foreign policy tactics and goals in response to the regional turmoil that upset the earlier diplomatic calculus highlighting the benefits of stability and interaction.


5 Responses to “Turkey’s Brilliant Statecraft: The Achievement of Ahmet Davutoglu”

  1. Syed Zaidi November 27, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    Your statement: “As Davutoglu explained when a government shoots and kills its own unarmed citizens so as to retain power, then Turkey will side with such an opposition.”

    I approached your piece by going through a number of reports about the bona fides of Erdogan and Davutoglu. Including this piece on the funding of Islamic Turkey through CIA opium money to the tune of 25 billion dollars via Gulen:
    and this piece from Aangirfan:

    Your charge that Assad’s government is shooting and killing its own unarmed citizens so as to retain power is not supported by independent observers on the scene, such as Webster Tarpley, in the November 19 report on his “radio” website:
    Almost all the killing of civilians is by black-robed snipers, he says, shooting people at random.

    This report, too, does not comport with your analysis:
    It is lucky that you can testify to your friend’s spiritual devotion. With leaders like Bernard-Henri Levy, first in Libya and now in Syria, he needs all the testimonials he can muster.

    Regards, Syed Zaidi, formerly with the department of philosophy, Delhi University

    • Richard Falk November 27, 2011 at 5:03 am #

      Your comments are disturbing. It is difficult to evaluate conflicting accounts of what is taking place in Syria, as well as Israel’s role..

      As for Davutoglu, I feel confident about my assessment of his intentions and integrity, and how this differs from other representatives of important governments. At the same time, I know there are unseen dimensions in world politics that can be deeply disturbing.

      Thanks for alerting me to some of these..

      • Syed Zaidi November 27, 2011 at 9:51 am #

        I just came across this excellent piece, Turkey’s Syrian Ambit: New War in the Making, by Jeremy Salt and am passing it on, on the chance that you might not have seen it:

      • Richard Falk November 28, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

        Thanks for calling my attention to Jeremy Salt’s article. I am trying to get more information on whether to regard as accurate its overall interpretation of the situation, which has rather far reaching implications.

  2. Syed Zaidi December 14, 2011 at 7:08 am #

    In case you did not see this, here is a very informative piece from Global Research on the Syria-Iran-Turkey triangle:


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