ISTANBUL: Zero problems with neighbors revisited

Sunday’s Zaman , Turkey
Feb 5 2012

Zero problems with neighbors revisited
by Richard Falk*

Pundits in Europe and North America in recent months have delighted in
citing with a literary smirk `zero problems with neighbors,’ the
centerpiece of Ahmet DavutoƄ?lu’s foreign policy agenda since he became
foreign minister on May 1, 2009, having previously served as chief
advisor to both the prime minister and foreign minister.
These critics point to the heightened tensions with Syria and Iraq,
the persisting inability to overcome the hostile fallout from the Mavi
Marmara incident with Israel, and even the renewed salience of the
long unresolved dispute with the Armenian diaspora sparked by a new
French bill that makes the denial of genocide associated with the 1915
massacres of Armenians in Turkey a crime.

Troubles to be sure, but should these be interpreted as `failures,’
and more precisely as `Turkish failures’? Perhaps, DavutoƄ?lu was
insufficiently cautious, or alternatively too optimistic, when he
articulated the zero problems diplomacy, but was it not an accurate
way of signaling a new dawn for Turkey’s approach to neighbors,
especially its Arab neighbors, and actually, to the world as a whole.
And DavutoƄ?lu followed through with a dizzying series of initiatives,
conceiving of the neighborhood in a broad sense and managing to banish
many of the bad memories associated with Ottoman rule over much of the
Arab world.

It should be recalled that Turkish foreign policy began charting a new
course years before DavutoƄ?lu became foreign minister. In an important
sense, the turning point came in 2003 when the Turkish government
refused to allow the United States to use its territory to stage an
invasion of Iraq. At the time the anti-Justice and Development Party
(AKP) opposition called the decision the biggest mistake in Turkish
republican history. In retrospect, it was a transformational moment
that showed Turkey, its neighbors and the world that it could think
and act for itself when it comes to foreign policy, that the Cold War
was over and that Washington could no longer take Ankara for granted.
And yet this move did not mean, as some critics immediately claimed, a
turn toward Islam and away from the West. As recently shown, Turkey
still values its NATO ties even to the extent of allowing radar
stations on its territory that is linked to missile defense for
Europe, Israel and the Gulf in relation to Iran.

Forgetting Turkey’s past

By now it is almost forgotten that it was Turkey that encouraged peace
talks between Syria and Israel that seemed to be headed for dramatic
success until their abrupt breakdown, a development attributed at the
time to the Israeli attacks on Gaza at the end of 2008, but in
retrospect better understood as the unwillingness of Israel to give up
any of its 1967 conquests. Turkey also sought to be a peacemaker
further afield in the Balkans and the Caucasus, doing the seemingly
impossible, bringing Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia together in a
manner that moved their two antagonistic governments on a path leading
to peace. Even more ambitiously, in collaboration with Brazil, Turkey
used its new stature as an independent player in May 2010 to persuade
Tehran to accept an arrangement for the storage of much of Iran’s
enriched uranium in Turkey, thereby demonstrating the plausibility of
a peaceful alternative to the United States/Israel posture of
sanctions and warmongering.

To be sure, the earlier sensible effort to have friendly relations
with Syria backfired, but not until the regime in Damascus started the
massive shooting of its citizens and refused to meet the demands of
its people for far reaching reforms. Arguably, the same reversal of
outlook in Ankara occurred in relation to Libya after Muammar Gaddafi
threatened to massacre his opposition, leading even to extending some
Turkish support to the UN-backed NATO intervention in Libya in 2011
that shaped the outcome of an internal struggle for control of the
state. Also, there is no doubt that the refusal of the European Union
to shift its one-sided stance on Cyprus has soured relations with
Greece, producing a temporary deterioration that has taken place
despite the Turkish show of reasonableness and exhibiting a spirit of

Even with Israel, despite the strong sympathies of the Turkish public
with the struggle of the Palestinians, the AKP leadership has done its
best to restore normalcy to the relationship between the two
countries. After all, the May 31, 2010 attack by Israel’s navy in
international waters on the Mavi Marmara carrying humanitarian
activists and assistance to Gaza and challenging the Israeli blockade
was not only a flagrant breach of international law but resulted in
the death of nine Turkish passengers. Turkey has demanded an apology
and compensation for the families of the victims, a reasonable set of
expectations that was on the verge of acceptance by Tel Aviv, but
collapsed when challenged by the internal opposition to Benjamin
Netanyahu led by the super-hawk foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann,
now under indictment for fraud.

What this brief overview argues is that Turkey has consistently tried
to avert recourse to intervention and war in the Middle East and to
promote diplomatic approaches that rely exclusively on soft power. It
has, to be sure, resisted geopolitical rebuffs, as in relation to its
efforts to end the confrontation with Iran, impressively refusing to
stay in line behind the bellicose leadership of the United States and
Israel. DavutoƄ?lu has correctly affirmed Turkey’s resolve to act on
the basis of its values and convictions in the post-Cold War politics
of the region and not blindly follow directives from Washington. Iran
is a striking case where the Turkish approach, although incapable of
stemming the drift toward war being mounted by the West, is both wiser
and more likely to achieve the goal of reassuring the world that
Tehran means what it says when it insists that it does not intend to
acquire nuclear weapons. As in every other foreign policy setting,
DavutoƄ?lu is exhibiting his belief that in the 21st century persuasion
works better than coercion, not to mention the avoidance of death,
devastation and displacement.

In sum, the zero problems with neighbors as a touchstone to Turkish
foreign policy in the Middle East and the world needs to be understood
as an aspiration and strong preference rather than as an invariable
guide to practice. There are too many contradictions embedded in
political realities to be slavishly tied to a rigid doctrine incapable
of taking account of context. For instance, in Syria and Libya the
Turkish government was forced to choose between siding with a regime
slaughtering its own people and backing the population in its efforts
to democratize and humanize the governing process. Zero problems needs
to be understood as a framework for addressing the relations between
countries, not just governments, and in situations of strife choices
must be made. Arguably Turkey went too far when it backed NATO in
Libya or not far enough when it failed to show support for the Green
Revolution in Iran after the stolen elections of June 2009. These are
difficult interpretative choices that do not invalidate the principled
positions that DavutoƄ?lu has repeatedly affirmed as being as important
as realist calculations in shaping foreign policy in complex
situations. Possibly, if the Green Revolution had shown more
persistence or the regime had engaged in more widespread killing of
its people Turkey would have made a `Syrian choice.’

`Great historical transformations’

DavutoƄ?lu on more than one occasion has expressed enthusiastic support
for the upheavals grouped together under the banner of the Arab
Spring. He calls these upheavals great historical transformations that
are irreversible and expressions of a thirst by young people for lives
of dignity and democratic freedoms. There is nothing that Turkey has
done to thwart these high ideals.

In this respect, I think it is possible to reach an assessment of
Turkish foreign policy as of early 2012. It has charted a course of
action based on — to the extent of which it is feasible — soft power
diplomacy, taking initiatives to resolve its conflicts with neighbors
but also to offer its good offices to mediate conflict to which it is
not a party. Its credibility has become so great that ƄĀ°stanbul has
replaced European capitals as the preferred venue for conflict
resolution whether in relation to Afghanistan or even Iran. It is
notable that despite Washington’s annoyance with Ankara regarding Iran
or due to the simmering dispute with Israel, the US government seems
to favor ƄĀ°stanbul as the most propitious site for negotiations with
Iran concerning its nuclear program.

At the same time, as Syria and Libya show, it is not always possible
to avoid taking sides in response to internal struggles, although
Turkey has delayed doing so to give governments in power the
opportunity to establish internal peace. In a globalizing world
boundaries are not absolute, and sovereignty must give way if severe
violations of human rights are being committed by the regime, but that
still should make armed intervention a last resort, and one only
undertaken in extreme instances on behalf of known opposition forces
and in a manner that has a reasonable prospect of success at
acceptable costs for the targeted society. Such conditions almost
never exist and so intervention is rarely if ever, in my judgment,
justified, although conditions may quite often create strong
interventionary temptations.

We can only hope that Turkey stays the course, pursuing every opening
that enables positive mutual relations among countries and using its
diplomatic stature to facilitate conflict resolution among others.
Rather than viewing `zero problems’ as a failure, it should be a time
to reaffirm the creativity of Turkish foreign policy in the course of
the last decade that has shown the world the benefits of soft power
diplomacy. This diplomacy, as supplemented by Turkey’s economic
success and political stability, helps us understand the great
popularity of and respect for the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip
ErdoƄ?an, throughout the region and the world.

*Richard Falk is a professor emeritus of international law and
practice who taught at Princeton University for 40 years.

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