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May 27, 2012, Sunday

Erdoğan, Gül and Davutoğlu: the inner bargain on Turkish foreign policy

Only some of the paradigms that Turkey had devised before the Arab Spring are functional today. Turkey's current problems are not just confined to states like Syria as it encounters major snags with its relations with the EU as well. But this is not necessarily the fault of the Erdoğan government, as developments that are out of your control can sometimes cause the death of your diplomatic paradigms.

What will be Turkey's next diplomatic paradigm which it can adapt to new developments in global politics? Only Turkish politicians can provide the answer to this. However, one can formulate certain possibilities by observing three key players in Turkish diplomacy.

Turkish foreign policy today is the design of President Abdullah Gül, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmet Davutoğlu. I believe the inner bargain struck by these three actors determines Turkish foreign policy.

Among the three, Erdoğan is the most important actor with his veto power. I am not sure that Erdoğan reviews Turkish foreign policy on a daily basis. More likely, he sets the red line and jumps in when necessary with the veto. This is critical for one key reason: What many foreigners fail to understand is that the daily dialogue among the key political actors is not very intense. As long as there is no serious problem, any minister, including Davutoğlu, has a large amount of autonomy in which to manage his mandate.

Clearly, Erdoğan has no well-defined foreign policy paradigm. He is more the pragmatist who believes that Turkey should be a leading actor in many fields, and “globalist” might best describe his foreign policy vision. Erdoğan targets active leadership in any part of the globe, be it in the Islamic world or in Latin America. Unlike Davutoğlu, Erdoğan is not constrained by an intellectual paradigm so he can bargain with any other actor, be that the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) or Israel. This absent intellectual paradigm is indeed one of Erdoğan's most important foreign policy assets.

The key actor in Turkish diplomacy is Davutoğlu. Davutoğlu's main approach to diplomatic analysis is civilization. To him, states should act in the manner of the historic structures of their civilizations. Therefore, the Ottoman civilization from which the modern Turkish state evolved shapes his diplomatic paradigms. As a person who analyzes world politics through a “civilizations” lens, Davutoğlu contextualizes Turkish-EU relations on a broad historical model -- to him, the trade or agricultural details of EU standards do not really matter. Rather, the grander issues of culture and identity are the more decisive arbiters.

This structuralism impedes Davutoğlu's keeping fast the traditional link between foreign policy and Turkey's domestic problems, such as democratization and the Kurdish problem. Rarely does one hear Davutoğlu comment on the Kurdish issue. Unlike many of his predecessors, including Gül, Davutoğlu never employs foreign policy as a lever for solving Turkey's domestic issues. Quite unlike Erdoğan's freedom from intellectual paradigms, Davutoğlu's steadfast attachment to his own is, I argue, an obstacle.

The final actor is Gül. Gül is literally the last important pro-EU leader in Turkish politics. Gül simply believes that EU membership should be a major factor in Turkish foreign policy. However, since the beginning of his presidency, his impact on the conduct of diplomacy has been declining considerably. As a typical pro-EU actor, Gül believes in the vital contact between foreign policy and Turkey's domestic problems, such as the Kurdish issue. In his view, Turkey should benefit from a foreign policy dynamic that lends itself to solving domestic problems, mainly its democratization problem. As an academic, I have no first-hand information about politics in Ankara, but it would not surprise me to hear that Gül is somehow critical of Davutoğlu's approach to certain issues.

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