Economist: Turkish Foreign Policy: Dreams From Their Fathers


July 23 2009

Turkey’s canny foreign minister seeks to pursue delicate diplomacy
all around

WHEN the official result of Iran’s contested presidential election
was announced last month, Turkey was one of the first countries to
congratulate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Set against the repression (and
deaths) of Iranian protesters in the streets, this raised eyebrows
in Europe and America. It even provoked the tired old question of
whether Turkey may be turning its back on the West.

"People see only one side of this story," complains Ahmet Davutoglu,
Turkey’s foreign minister, in an interview. He does not elaborate. But
Turkey’s friendship with the Islamic republic has also proved useful to
the West. Its behind-the-scenes mediation was instrumental in securing
the recent release of British embassy staff in Tehran. And it can
play both ways. Five Iranian diplomats detained by the Americans in
Iraq in 2007 were freed earlier this month at Turkey’s urging.

The ease with which Turkey juggles different worlds, be they Arab or
Jewish, Muslim or European, prompted Hillary Clinton to call it an
"emerging global power". Its strong relations with Israel matter to
both countries, as became clear when they cooled during the invasion
of Gaza in January. The Turks have just had a high-profile spat with
China over its treatment of Xinjiang’s Uighurs, whom they regard
as kinsmen. It was understandable that one of Barack Obama’s first
presidential visits to a foreign country was to Turkey.

Some credit is due to Mr Davutoglu, who was a foreign-policy adviser
to the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for seven years before
becoming foreign minister in May. This spry former academic is seen as
the architect of Turkey’s soft power, which blends realpolitik with
a fierce pride. A pious Muslim with a moralistic bent, Mr Davutoglu
has been among the most influential foreign ministers in the history
of the Turkish republic.

His approach rests on two pillars. One is to have "zero problems"
with the neighbours, many of them troubled or troublesome. The other
is "strategic depth". This calls for a Turkish zone of political,
economic and cultural influence, primarily among neighbours (many
of them former Ottoman dominions) in the Balkans, the south Caucasus
and the Middle East.

None of this detracts from Turkey’s determination to join the
European Union. Rather, it enhances its appeal as a member, says Mr
Davutoglu. He seems unfazed by the hostile noises from France and
Germany. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel are lobbying for a
"privileged partnership" instead of full membership for Turkey. Mr
Davutoglu suggests that they are merely playing to their respective
electorates. "Instead of complaining, of being angry, we should work
together," he says. For Turkey that means reviving the flagging reform
process that won it the opening of EU membership talks in 2005. Mr
Davutoglu is hopeful, for example, that the Greek Orthodox seminary
on the island of Halki off Istanbul will soon be reopened.

But EU diplomats say none of this will let Turkey off the hook over
Cyprus. Mr Davutoglu agrees that decades-old peace talks between
Turkish- and Greek-Cypriot leaders should not be open-ended. A
deal really needs to be struck by the end of this year. For that to
happen the EU and America must tell the Greek-Cypriots to get serious
(though, as EU members already, they have little incentive to help). A
settlement would avert the possible train wreck in Turkey’s relations
with the EU that might otherwise come in December. In theory Turkey
has until then to open air- and seaports to the Greek-Cypriots, but it
refuses to do this until EU trade restrictions on Turkish-controlled
north Cyprus are lifted.

Might France and Turkey’s other enemies use this as an excuse
to freeze the EU membership talks altogether (eight chapters have
already been suspended)? Turkish leaders like to believe that Europe
needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. It has become even more
crucial as a potential transit route for Europe-bound natural gas
from energy-rich Azerbaijan and Central Asia, as well as from Iraq
(and eventually Iran). Mr Davutoglu points proudly to the recent
signing of an agreement between Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary
and Austria on the Nabucco pipeline that is meant to carry gas through
these countries, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russia.

Yet some say that Turkey is overplaying its hand. Its energy dreams are
tightly linked to its ethnic cousins in Azerbaijan. Relations between
these Turkic allies took a dive in April when Turkey unveiled a draft
agreement to establish diplomatic ties and reopen its border with
Armenia. In a dramatic shift, Turkey even dropped its long-running
precondition that Armenia must withdraw from the territories that it
occupied in the 1990s after its war with Azerbaijan over the mainly
Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.

An infuriated Azerbaijan promptly threatened to turn to Russia. In
June it signed a deal to sell gas to the Russians from 2010
onwards. So Turkey did another volte-face. Mr Erdogan declared that
friendship with Armenia was no longer possible unless it withdrew
from Nagorno-Karabakh. Mr Davutoglu insists that Turkey wants peace
with Armenia. But one Western diplomat says that "rapprochement with
Armenia is on its last legs."

This has raised the spectre of a row with Turkey’s most powerful ally,
America. Armenian-Americans want Mr Obama to honour his election
pledge to insist that the massacre by Ottoman forces of more than a
million of their ancestors in 1915 was genocide. In a fudge in April
Mr Obama said that he had not changed his views on the matter; yet he
spoke only of the Medz Yeghern ("great calamity" in Armenian). He did
not want to torpedo Turkish-Armenian rapprochement by using the G-word.

Turkey’s strategic location had once again proven decisive. As
American forces withdraw from Iraq, Turkey is seeking to avert a
looming conflict between the Arabs and the Kurds, especially over the
disputed city of Kirkuk. Turkey urged Iraq’s Sunnis not to boycott
elections in 2005. Mr Davutoglu is again lobbying to ensure that
all Iraqi groups take part in the parliamentary election in January
2010. "We have excellent relations with the United States at every
level," he says. And, notes a Western official, "when it comes to
Turkey and Armenia, Turkey wins every time."