Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu: New Arab Legitimacy or Regional Cold WarInterview with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
Michel Nawfal and Cengiz Çandar
At the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over which he presides, they call him “Professor” rather than “Mr. Secretary.” The same holds true for his colleagues within Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Indeed, he speaks like a professor come to politics and diplomacy from academia. Addressing his interlocutors in a soft voice and modest manner, he reflects the environment of his early childhood in Konya, an environment shaped by the Turkic traditions his family brought with them from Central Asia when they migrated to Anatolia during the sixteenth century.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu carries himself with casual elegance. He is fond of talking about his enchantment with Istanbul and its world, but says he could never loosen the bonds that tie him to his mountainous birthplace in the Konya region. He considers the great Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din al-Rumi, who ended his days in Konya and whose followers established the Mevlana order there, to be a personal and spiritual bulwark. His father, a pious shopkeeper, moved to Istanbul so that his only son could get a suitable education, going against the current of his traditional and conservative upbringing to enroll the boy in the Istanbul Erkek Lisesi (Istanbul Lycée for Boys), where the language of instruction was German. The young Ahmet was thus exposed from an early age to Western culture, becoming an avid reader of Goethe, Kafka, and Berthold Brecht. A brilliant student, he went on to study at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University (originally Robert College), where he received BA and MA degrees in economics and political science and a PhD with honors in political science and international relations in 1989.
Turning down several offers from U.S. universities, Davutoğlu accepted a teaching position at the International Islamic University of Malaysia in 1990 so he could pursue his interests in Eastern philosophies (especially Buddhism) and Islamic movements and trends in East Asia. While in Kuala Lumpur, he established and chaired the political science department at the university, which made him associate professor in 1993. Before returning to Turkey, he spent time in Cairo and Amman to perfect his Arabic.
Back in Istanbul, Davutoğlu taught at several universities, notably Marmara University and Beykent University, becoming a full professor in 1999. He also established the Institute of Arts and Sciences. A dynamic professor, he attracted an enthusiastic following, especially among Muslim-oriented youth. Later, many of those who studied under him would serve the AKP as a cadre whose Islamic base was cross-fertilized with Western knowledge.
When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became Turkey’s prime minister in March 2003 following the AKP’s 2002 victory at the polls, he appointed Davutoğlu as his primary foreign policy advisor and ambassador at large. By that time, Davutoğlu had already published the influential Strategic Depth (2001) and several other books, including Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory, and Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World (the latter two published in English). As Erdoğan’s chief advisor, he played an increasingly prominent role in shaping Turkish policy in the Middle East. He strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and in general set out to reshape Turkey’s Arab diplomacy, including forging a relationship with Hamas. Soon recognized as the principal architect of post-Kemalist Turkish foreign policy, he became a distinguished player in global diplomacy and in May 2009 was appointed minister of foreign affairs. Davutoğlu’s trajectory could serve as a model for a new generation of Turks from the Anatolian heartland who want to combine their geohistorical heritage with the Turko-Islamic confluence to restore their ties to the Arab world and the wider Islamic East.
Our interview took place on 13 February 2013. Arriving at the Foreign Ministry at the appointed hour, we were greeted by one of Davutoğlu’s aides, who told us, “Normally, the professor’s busy schedule does not permit lengthy interviews, but since the topic is Palestine and the organization you represent deals with Palestine, he has given it priority over other pressing concerns.” The secretary himself greeted us graciously, and carefully examined the latest issue of our quarterly, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya, reading the titles on the front cover aloud in Arabic and then turning to skim several abstracts. He had not asked to see the questions beforehand, and after we outlined the main points we wanted to discuss, we began. It is no exaggeration to say that our meeting with Dr. Davutoğlu was a lesson in the theory and application of Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly its Eastern face, addressing a range of topics from the Arab legitimacy crisis and Turkey’s ideas for a new regional system to the problematic relationship with Israel and the future of the Palestinian issue.
You are considered the architect of the new Turkish foreign policy. What can you tell us about the achievements related to your vision of Turkey’s “strategic depth” and the “zero problem with neighbors policy”?
First of all, let me clarify what I mean by “strategic depth,” and then we will come to the “zero-problems” policy. In foreign policy, you can change every parameter: economics, politics, demographics parameters, and so on. But there are two major parameters you cannot change: geography and history. These are givens that can’t be changed. It’s up to you how to interpret your geography and your history, and to transform your foreign policy by adapting it to them.
That was the starting point when I wrote Strategic Depth,[i] because I believed—and still believe—that geography and history have been misinterpreted in the past in keeping with the bipolar nature of international relations. For example, during the Cold War, Turkey was seen as a barrier against Soviet expansion—this was a defensive interpretation of our geography. Or Turkish history was interpreted so as to strengthen the foundations of the Turkish nation-state—that made sense at one time in light of the problems facing Turkey. But the post-Cold War era brought us new challenges: Bosnia, Azerbaijan, the Caucasus, and the Iraq war all resulted in refugees pouring into Turkey. These events showed us that history should be reinterpreted in order to understand foreign policy challenges. After these experiences, in 1999, I began to write Strategic Depth, and in 2000 it was published.
The underlying assumption of the book is that our geography is multidimensional, and that therefore Turkey’s foreign policy cannot be one-dimensional. We have been a European state throughout history and will continue to be a European state, but that doesn’t mean that we are not part of Asia—geographically we are. We are also an African country—North African countries are our neighbors, and there should be an African strategy as well. These facts are inescapable. We are also part of the Balkans geography. During the Cold War era, the Turkish-Bulgarian borders were not just the borders between two states, but also the borders between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. This meant that we were cut off from the Balkans. But now, we are part of Balkan politics again, especially after the Bosnian crisis and the Kosovo war.
It’s the same for the Caucasus. We are a Caucasian nation. Over the centuries, many Caucasian peoples came to Turkey for safe haven—Circassians, Abkhazians, Georgian peoples. And it’s the same for peoples from the Middle East. We are a Middle Eastern country and a Black Sea country, a Mediterranean country and a Caspian country, a Central Asian country, a Red Sea country, a Gulf country. This is our environment. What I am trying to say is that for each of these regions, we need to reframe our approach, and the approach should not exclude any of the characteristics/aspects of this geography. A strictly continental geography is a constraint.
Based on these multiple dimensions, geographic, as well as historical, the Turkish state tradition and Turkish history cannot be interpreted as static, but rather should be seen in a dynamic way in order to respond to the challenges. The Turkish nation and the Turkish people today have elements from all the neighboring regions: we have more Bosnians here in Turkey than in Bosnia, more Albanians than in Albania, more Abkhazians than in Abkhazia, more Chechens than in Chechnya, more Kurds than in Iraq and Syria. We also have Arabs, but not in such great numbers. Turkey is a melting pot of peoples from all these regions.
For some people this is a burden—one of our former presidents expressed this idea.[ii] In the early 1990s, there was the Bosnian crisis, with thousands seeking refuge in Turkey; there were refugees from Kosovo; Kurds fleeing the post-1991 retribution by Saddam.[iii] That represents the burden perspective. But for us, this is Turkey. The way I see it, this is not a burden but an asset. My theoretical approach was that instead of seeing this history from a defensive perspective, we should see it as the point of departure for an active foreign policy. Otherwise, we cannot secure our borders.
So, how can we transform all this into an active foreign policy? That is why I formulated the “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Why? Because if you study our borders—not just Turkey’s borders, but all our boundaries in the Balkans and especially the Middle East—we will see that they are neither ordinary nor natural. They’re borders we must respect, yes, but none of them are natural. People here always mixed—our peoples, our nations, lived without these types of boundaries for centuries. But now, within this past century, there are new boundaries that divide villages, tribes, nations, in this way or another, creating an abnormality. When I said “zero problems with neighbors,” I meant normalizing relations with neighbors. Of course, I know that it’s not possible to have zero problems even between brothers, but what I mean is a psychological shift, a paradigm shift away from the perception that all around us are enemies. That was the old mentality of the Turkish elite: “The Russians are enemies. The Greeks are enemies. The Arabs betrayed us. The Armenians betrayed us.”
 Michel Nawfal, a Lebanese journalist and writer, is the managing editor of JPS’s sister publication, Majallat al-Dirasat al-Filastiniyya (MDF). Cengiz Çandar is a Turkish journalist and writer, a senior columnist of the Istanbul daily Radikal. The interview, conducted in English, took place in Ankara on 13 February 2013, and was published in MDF no. 95. Michel Nawfal wrote the introduction, which was translated from the Arabic by Jenab Tutunji.