Opinion | Columnists

Turkey in the era of Erdogan

Turkish diplomacy, which a couple of years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, now risks looking naive and ineffective

  • By Gideon Rachman, Financial Times
  • Published: 00:00 June 28, 2012
  • Gulf News

Recep Tayyip Erdogan
  • Image Credit: AFP
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey, in the era of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is playing a regional and global rule that has filled its leaders with pride and ambition.

The country’s record of economic and political success has greatly added to its prestige and power. Some around Erdogan have even spoken of a “new Ottomanism”, that would see the country re-emerging as a dominant force in the region.

But the Arab spring and, specifically, the uprising in Syria have risked exposing Turkey’s claim to a unique influence in its region. Turkish diplomacy, which a couple of years ago seemed to be sweeping all before it, now risks looking naive and ineffective.

Yet, even through the flaws in the Erdogan approach to the world are now emerging, the prime minister can justly point to a transformation in the country’s international image in recent years.

In the decades before the Erdogan era, foreign policy was one-dimensional. Following in the tradition of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the country was determined to look West. Its self-imposed mission was to join the European Union (EU).

Unfortunately, in recent years, it has become painfully clear that — whatever the official position — the EU does not really want Turkey inside the club. Turkey risked being put in the humiliating position of a spurned suitor, with no proper alternatives.

Erdogan and his AKP party were, however, perfectly placed to respond to rejection from Europe. As a party with Islamist roots, that is in a state of semi-conflict with Turkey’s secular elite, the AKP was happy to develop relations with the Middle East.

At a time when the Gulf was booming and the Brics (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) were trendy — and with Europe in a slump — a Turkish foreign policy that looked East, as much as West, made both political and economic sense.

Better still, the country’s efforts to burnish its role in the Muslim world enhanced it prestige in Washington.

At a time when the Barack Obama administration is desperate to build better relations with the Muslim world, Turkey has seized upon as an example of a country that is governed by a mildly Islamist party, but which maintains a democratic system, a secular constitution, a successful economy and a foreign policy that is friendly to the West.

As they say in America, what’s not to like?

As it happens, many Americans and Europeans have become uneasy with the direction of Turkey in the Erdogan era.

Its efforts to co-broker a nuclear deal with Iran were regarded as distinctly “unhelpful” by Washington, at a time when the US was leading an effort to ramp up sanctions on Iran.

A serious deterioration in the relationship with Israel has also lost Turkey many friends on Capitol Hill, even as it burnished Erdogan’s credentials as a popular figure in the Muslim world.

As Turkey has lost friends in the West, its democratic credentials have also come under closer scrutiny. A wide-ranging inquiry into an alleged plot to stage a military coup has involved the administrative detention of scores of suspects, many of whom have been awaiting trial for years.

Yet, Erdogan has continued to enjoy an excellent relationship with Obama, who reportedly sees his Turkish colleague as a valued interlocutor.

The real difficulties with the Erdogan approach to the world have risen from closer to home.

The single slogan that summed up Turkey’s new approach was provided by the country’s hyperactive Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who coined the phrase “zero problems with the neighbours”.

Given that Turkey’s neighbours and near-neighbours include Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia, this policy was more controversial and less bland than it sounded.

Davutoglu was speaking about more than mere conflict-avoidance. He believes that Turkey’s rich cultural inheritance and network of economic ties should allow the country to operate with ease and understanding in a range of countries.

The Turkish foreign minister has also claimed that his country has a “unique understanding of the Middle East”.

It was all the more awkward, therefore, that Turkey seemed nearly as wrong-footed by the Arab spring as the EU or the US.

Erdogan did side fairly swiftly with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, but he had initially opposed the Nato intervention in Libya — only later attempting a victory lap in Tripoli, after the Muammar Gaddafi regime had been deposed.

Although many Arab intellectuals and members of the Muslim Brotherhood have looked with great interest at the Turkish model, there is little sense that an awakened Arab world is looking at Turkey as a regional leader.

Old antagonisms between Turks and Arabs — colonisers and the colonised — are probably too deep for that to happen.

The Syrian conflict has been particularly difficult for Turkey. As part of the “zero problems” policy, Erdogan had cultivated a special relationship with Bashar Al Assad.

Now, in common with many Turks, he is aghast at events in Syria and has cut the Al Assad regime loose.

But Turkey seems uncertain about how to respond and has failed to play a galvanising role in the international response — exposing its pretensions to be a regional leader.

The aspiration to have “zero problems” with neighbours has now been displaced by a real world in which Turkey in fact has awkward relations with most of its neighbours: Iraq, Iran, Syria and Israel — foremost among them.

This has left Turkey feeling exposed and anxious that regional antagonists may stir up internal strife, particularly with the Kurdish minority.

Yet, if this collision with reality introduces a little more humility into Turkish foreign policy, that may not be a bad thing.

There is no doubt that Turkey has made big strides on the global stage in the Erdogan era. But there was always a risk, given the personality of Erdogan himself, that this pride would lead to a fall.

If Turkey gets away instead with a couple of stumbles — and learns to tread more carefully — the country’s forward march can continue.

Gulf News

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