There has been a lot of focus on Turkey this week in Washington, prompted by Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit and his Oval Office meeting with President Obama. Erdoğan has had a number of high-profile speaking engagements in town, as have Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu (whom some observers describe as “Erdoğan’s Kissinger”) and key advisers to the Prime Minister. Today, at the New America Foundation, we hosted an extremely interesting roundtable with Ibrahim Kalin, Erdoğan’s chief foreign policy advisor (who assumed this role earlier in the year when Davutoğlu moved from the Prime Minister’s staff to become Foreign Minister) and Suat Kiniklioğlu, deputy chairman of the governing AK Party for external affairs and a senior member of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
The focus on Turkey is well deserved, and not just because Prime Minister Erdoğan is in town. Under the AK Party, which formed its first government in 2002, Turkey has developed an impressively strategic approach to the formulation and conduct of its foreign policy. One of the more important consequences of this approach has been a steady rise in Turkey’s importance in Middle Eastern affairs. Some neoconservatives and pro-Israel advocates in the United States argue (as do some Israelis and Europeans) that this represents a dramatic shift in Turkey’s strategic orientation, driven by the AK Party’s ideological interest in forging an “Islamist” foreign policy. But Erdoğan and his associates make a persuasive case that what they are doing is correcting an anomaly of the Cold War, when Turkey’s strategic ties to the West kept it from interacting normally—that is, on the basis of tangible economic and political interests—with many of its neighbors, including key Middle Eastern states.
Turkey’s Western orientation—including its European “vocation”—remains a “major strategic choice”, according to Erdoğan and his colleagues. But, under the AK Party, Ankara now complements that choice with the equally strategic pursuit of a “zero problems” policy toward all of its neighbors. The pursuit of that policy is enabled by principled commitments to increasing economic cooperation and integration among states in Turkey’s regional environment and engaging all relevant actors in that environment (including some that Washington does not like very much, like the Islamic Republic of Iran).
Erdoğan and his associates argue that building better relations with Turkey’s neighbors and fostering a more stable regional environment are essential to Turkey’s own security and prosperity. The results of their “zero problems” approach have been deeply impressive on many levels—including, for example, a tenfold increase in the value of Turkey’s trade with its neighbors (now roughly a quarter of Turkey’s total trade portfolio) and a dramatic rise in Turkey’s standing among Arab and other Middle Eastern publics. Our colleague Marc Lynch wrote a piece in ForeignPolicy.com this week aptly describing Erdoğan as “the most interesting man in the Middle East” ; a prominent pollster who works regularly in the region told us that Erdoğan has become a “rock star” in the region.
These developments hold potentially profound strategic implications for the Middle East, as our friend and colleague Alastair Crooke, of the Beirut-based Conflicts Forum pointed out in an Op Ed published last week in The New York Times (link here) and, in longer form, in Asia Times (link here). The heart of Alastair’s argument is that the “release” of Turkish foreign policy in a new direction could be “as significant as the destruction of Iraq and the implosion of the Soviet Union were, 20 years ago, in ‘releasing’ Iran to emerge as one of the preeminent powers in the region”. In other words, a new balance of power is taking shape in the Middle East, and Turkey has become an indispensable player in the regional order.
Of course, we also believe that the Islamic Republic is an indispensable player in the Middle Eastern order. We believe that, in the next year or so, Turkey may well conclude upstream energy deals with Iran, notwithstanding U.S. reservations–and that Washington will not offer a “serious” response (e.g., the United States will not impose secondary sanctions on Turkish companies) to such a development. Erdoğan’s government is very clear that Ankara does not want to see Iran obtain nuclear weapons. However, Erdoğan’s government is equally clear in expressing its view that the Iranian nuclear issue will not be resolved through diplomatic isolation and sanctions, much less through military confrontation. From the Turkish government’s perspective, engagement is the only route to resolving this issue—engagement through which the United States and its partners would recognize Iran’s legitimate rights to the full range of civil nuclear technology and a secure place in the region and Tehran would take steps to restore and enhance confidence in the non-military nature of its nuclear activities. We could not agree more strongly that this is the right model for resolving the controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear activities.
While Erodğan was reportedly well received by President Obama at the White House, it is a pity that the Obama Administration is not really prepared at this point to take advantage of the enormous benefits that Turkey’s rising influence in Iran and the Middle East more broadly could provide for American diplomatic efforts in the region. At this point, frankly, the United States could use the help. Turkey’s foreign policy path in the Middle East leads to greater strategic influence. America’s path, followed without substantial alteration, will lead ultimately to strategic marginalization.
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett