The end of the Cold War caught Turkey unprepared. The collapse of the communist regime inRussia, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of Eastern European and Central Asian republics leftAnkara to face foreign policy problems it did not know how to deal with. During the Cold War it had pursued a policy of full commitment to the Western alliance. However, it was now being questioned whether Turkey had any remaining value for NATO, and it had all of a sudden fallen behind the liberated Eastern European countries in the waiting line for accession to the European Union (EU).
It also found itself in the center of conflict-ridden regions and surrounded by neighbors it was at odds with. Western allies who throughout the Cold War years did not at all mind its human rights and democracy deficit all of a sudden became very critical. Coalition governments running the country throughout the 1990s could not conceive of any other method than the use of force or threats of using force in dealing with the armed Kurdish uprising as well as foreign policy problems.
Turkey managed to adapt itself to the post-Cold War international environment only after the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 and the putting into practice of the paradigm drawn up by Professor Ahmet Davutoğlu, the chief foreign policy adviser to the government. The main principles of that paradigm, simply referred to as the “zero problems” policy, were the following: remaining committed to the Western alliance and the goal of accession to the EU; using a multidimensional approach moving closer in political, economic and cultural terms to countries with which Turkey had historical ties; solving problems with neighbors not by resorting to threats of the use of force but through diplomacy and dialogue and by increasing economic interdependence; and exerting diplomatic efforts to help overcome regional disputes through multilateral initiatives while remaining equidistant to the various ethnic and religious parties involved.
The “zero problems” policy, based on the principles summarized above, proved to be most successful. With that policy Turkey was able to substantially enhance not only its democracy, economy and security but also its international prestige and soft power. It became a source of inspiration for the entire Arab world while it was increasingly clear that the independent and national interest-based policies Turkey pursued did not at all mean its moving away from the Western alliance. On the contrary, they in fact helped it move closer to the EU's membership criteria.
Just as the end of the Cold War had caught Ankara unprepared, however, so did the advent of the Arab Spring, which may be said to have been triggered, among other factors, by Turkey becoming a source of inspiration for the Arab peoples. The “zero problems” policy which relied on the status quo in the Middle East faced a number of difficulties. It may be argued thatAnkara is now engaged in adapting itself to a new regional environment full of uncertainties. It can surely achieve this only by sticking to the principles of the “zero problems” paradigm rather than deviating from them. The principles that matter now more than ever are those that have to do with the resolution of disputes through diplomacy and dialogue, support for democratization and avoidance of taking sides along sectarian or ethnic lines.
The most difficult problem facing Turkish foreign policy currently is, undoubtedly, how to deal with the popular uprising inSyria, which has reversed relations with that country, that had increasingly normalized over the last decade. It was unthinkable for Ankara to side with the authoritarian regime against the people, and it rightfully engaged in efforts to convince the regime to reform itself. Those efforts having, unfortunately, failed, it should throw all its weight behind United Nations-led multilateral efforts to achieve stability and open the way for the democratization of the regime. A wise policy based on universal values and national interest surely necessitates that Ankara refrains from measures like unilaterally setting up a buffer zone or humanitarian aid corridor inside Syria that would inevitably draw it into a likely civil war.
And what is imperative for Turkey's adaptation to the post-Arab Spring regional environment, for consolidation of its democracy and territorial integrity remains to be its reconstitution as a state that recognizes the equal rights of its citizens of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.