Less than one week ahead of the US presidential election, Turkish-US relations and Turkey’s role in its neighboring regions were the subject of a one-day conference organized by the SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
The keynote address was delivered by Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief foreign policy advisor to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Other speakers included Cengiz Çandar, Ian Lesser, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, Kemal Kirişçi, Steven Cook, Taha Özhan, Mustafa Akyol, Ömer Taşpınar and Bulent Ali Riza. The day-long panel discussion was attended by over 150 academics, journalists, people from Washington policy circles and government agencies and others. In his opening remarks, Mark Parris, the former US ambassador to Turkey and one of the finest observers of US-Turkish relations, highlighted Turkey’s growing role in its region and its strategic significance for the US. Parris made a comparison between Davutoğlu and Henry Kissinger, saying that both came from an academic background and had a deep impact on the foreign policy structure of their countries. Given Kissinger’s reputation, I am not sure if Davutoğlu was happy with the comparison, but it certainly underlines the new outlook of Turkey’s foreign policy.
This is what Davutoğlu talked about in his keynote address: Starting with Turkey’s election to the UN Security Council, Davutoğlu defined Turkey as a regional player with a global reach. He called for a re-making of the global power structure whereby a new system of economic, political and cultural representation and distribution would be put in place to uphold the principles of justice and peace. Davutoğlu also introduced a new concept and said Turkey is now moving from a zero-problem policy with its neighbors to a stage of “maximum cooperation.” In this regard, he mentioned Turkey’s continued efforts to normalize relations with Armenia which, together with the Greek Cypriots, is one of the two missing dimensions of the zero-problem policy. If things move ahead as planned, we can expect the opening of the borders between Turkey and Armenia.
One of the recurring themes of the SETA-Brookings conference was Turkey’s rising soft power. Davutoğlu mentioned that Turkey is no longer seen as merely a military power but is increasingly becoming a point of reference and actor for negotiations, multilateral diplomacy and economic, social and cultural investments in the region. Turkey’s new role in the UN Security Council, its current engagements in the Middle East and the opening of 10 new embassies in Africa will widen the country’s sphere of activities and influence.
When asked about the discrepancy between the role Turkey plays abroad and the deep political polarization within the country, Davutoğlu said Turkey needs to work harder to address key political issues, including the Kurdish problem, the closure of political parties and constitutional reforms, all of which affect foreign policy in one way or another.
This issue was raised by other panelists, including Cengiz Çandar, Kemal Kirişçi and Ömer Taşpınar, and points to a major contradiction in Turkey today. Turkey’s quantum leap in foreign policy issues is yet to be repeated in domestic politics. But as Taha Özhan of SETA stated, the back-and-forth interaction of Turkey’s domestic and foreign policy agendas does provide a context for relative improvement on, for instance, the Kurdish issue. While the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government needs to do much more to find a lasting solution to the problem, improving relations with Arbil is a step in the right direction. The policy of isolation against Iraqi Kurds has not worked and goes against the principles of Turkish foreign policy as outlined by Davutoğlu and others.
Parris asked what would happen if the Armenian genocide resolution was brought up again next April with US presidential candidate Barack Obama in office. Suat Kınıklıoğlu, a long