MEET THE MAN SHAPING TURKEY’S NEW DIPLOMACY
Nov 30 2009
Expect to hear a lot more of the name Ahmet Davutoglu. The former
university professor who became Turkey’s foreign minister last year is
the man behind Ankara’s landmark new diplomatic outreach, including
a previously unimaginable rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia
and a new warmth with Syria.
Some Western analysts are dismayed at these developments, interpreting
them as a sign that Turkey is turning East at the expense of the West.
The mild-mannered Davutoglu typically gets angry at these suggestions,
saying these comments come from those who begrudge Turkey its expanding
role in the region.
Yet while Davutoglu is no stranger to Turkish politics — he began
serving as chief foreign-policy adviser to the ruling AKP in 2002
— he remains something of a cipher, even in his home country. To
remedy that, NEWSWEEK’s Turkish-language partner, NEWSWEEK Turkiye,
recently examined the forces that shaped Davutoglu and how he is
changing relationships with Turkey’s neighbors in the Middle East,
the Balkans, and the Caucasus.
Some of the highlights from the magazine’s comprehensive profile,
written by Yenal Bilgici with reporting by Semin Gumusel and Nevra
Davutoglu risked the deadly Izmit earthquake to save the manuscript of
his signature book, Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position,
which lays out the conceptual framework for what he now calls his "zero
problems with neighbors" policy. When the shaking started on Aug. 17,
1999, he managed to flee his endangered Istanbul home unharmed —
but then ignored warnings of aftershocks to dash back into the house
and eject the computer disk containing his years of work.
Now in its 30th printing, the book brought him national and
The foreign minister is a somewhat reluctant politician. After
Turkey’s ruling AKP won the elections of 2002, he turned down
requests to serve in the government and opted instead to continue his
university work while serving as an adviser to Prime Minister Recep
Tayyip Erdogan. Five years later, he was on the verge of a full-time
return to academia when rebels from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party
(PKK) attacked the Daglica military post in Turkey’s eastern city of
Hakkari, killing 13 soldiers. "I cannot leave now," Davutoglu told
his inner circle. Instead, he stayed on to take up the position of
foreign minister and facilitate recent agreements aimed at granting
long-denied rights to the Kurdish minority and ending two decades of
attacks by the PKK.
The peripatetic minister went to 13 countries in October alone,
raising Turkey’s diplomatic profile to its highest level in years.
Indeed, Davutoglu won unprecedented praise in Arabic media, like the
London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, where a columnist begged the foreign
minister to help solve Lebanon’s problems as well. "You carry ideas,
aspirations, solutions, and medicine in your luggage," wrote the
columnist. "You are the window to the future."
Davutoglu may be known for his temperate demeanor, but he has little
patience with Ankara’s political elites and their unassertive
approach to diplomacy. "These rootless elites are conditioned to
not being noticed and not taking initiative rather than coming to
the front and being decisive during critical periods," he wrote
in an uncharacteristically sharp tone in Strategic Depth. "They
think of being passive as a safer and risk-free policy." These
criticisms, writes Bilgici in NEWSWEEK Turkiye, are a beginner’s
guide to understanding Davutoglu and his policy. The second pointer
to his character: the minister’s constant use — and embodiment —
of the term "self-confidence." Davutoglu is also known for his work
ethic and self discipline. A family friend told NEWSWEEK Turkiye that,
while working on his book, the professor once spent three straight days
without leaving his chair. A former student says Davutoglu believes
that sleeping eight hours a night is a luxury. "We do not have the
right to sleep this much," he frequently told the student.
Davutoglu’s conscientiousness manifested itself at a relatively early
age. As a high-school student at the prestigious Istanbul High School
for Boys, where he was taught by German teachers who had come to
Turkey during World War II, he presented his teachers with ambitious
reading lists of dense philosophical and scientific works that he
thought would serve him well in the future. His instructors advised
him and his friends to go out and play ball for a while instead.
Davutoglu took the advice to heart; even after he’d become a professor,
he continued to play soccer with his students (as a highly regarded
forward), right up until he was appointed foreign minister.
While honing his soccer prowess, Davutoglu was refining his language
and academic skills too. In addition to the German learned in high
school, he took all-English programs to graduate from the economics
and political sciences department of Bogazici University. He learned
Arabic while studying on a scholarship in Jordan, worked on his
doctoral thesis at Cairo University, and learned Bahasa Malaysia while
a professor at Malaysia’s International Islamic University. His thesis,
a comparative analysis between Western and Islamic political theories
and images, was published in 1993 by American University Press with
the title Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western
Weltanschauungs on Political Theory. Davutoglu’s postdoctoral work
included critiques of the theories of Samuel Huntington (clash of
civilizations) and Francis Fukuyama (end of history).
Colleagues say that Davutoglu’s oratorical skills are equal to his
writing ability. "There is no one the minister cannot make drop their
guard in 10 minutes," one high-ranking team member told NEWSWEEK
Turkiye. One example: when Ankara refused to allow U.S.-led forces
cross Turkish territory for the 2003 invasion into Iraq, a local Jewish
leader came over to read Davutoglu the riot act. The visitor initially
said he could only stay 10 minutes — partly because he needed to
prepare for a fast the following day — but ended up spending three
hours with Davutoglu after being won over by the minister’s erudite
discourse about Jewish culture, history, and the background to the
upcoming fast. Next time, the Jewish leader said, he’d like to stay
for the day.
Davutoglu is not without his critics; but even those who don’t support
him see him as a statesman who is both a thinker and a doer. And
right now, he’s the talk of more than just Ankara.