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What Drives Turkish Foreign Policy? II

The AKP’s Alternative Worldview

While Davutoğlu’s best-known work is his 2000 book Stratejik Derinlik[37] (Strategic Depth), of equal interest are his earlier works: a doctoral dissertation published in 1993 as Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory[38] and his 1994 volume Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World.[39] These works are dense, theoretical treatises, as are several lengthy articles published in the Turkish journal Divan in the late 1990s. While heavy going, the main thrust of Davutoğlu’s work could not be clearer: It is dominated by a deep conviction in the incompatibility of the West and the Islamic world, and by resentment of the West for its attempt to impose its values and political system on the rest of the world.

Davutoğlu argues that the “conflicts and contrasts between Western and Islamic political thought originate mainly from their philosophical, methodological, and theoretical backgrounds rather than from mere institutional and historical differences.”[40] He focuses on the ontological difference between Islam and all other civilizations—particularly the West. While most of this work is almost two decades old, Davutoğlu has continued to reiterate the same views, showing their continued relevance to his thinking. In a 2010 interview, for example, he stressed:

All religions and civilizations before Islamic civilization had established a demigod category between god and man. In fact, civilizations except the Islamic civilization always regarded god, man, and nature on the same ontological level. I named this “ontological proximity.”… Islam, on the other hand, rejects ontological proximity between god, nature and man and establishes an ontological hierarchy of Allah, man, and nature.[41]

Davutoğlu’s problem with the Western “modernist paradigm” lies in its “peripherality of revelation,” that is, the distinction drawn between reason and experience, on the one hand, and revelation on the other, resulting in an “acute crisis of Western civilization.”[42] By contrast, Davutoğlu underscores the Islamic concept of Tawhid, “the unity of truth and the unity of life which provides a strong internal consistency” by rejecting the misconceived secular division of matters belonging to church and state.[43] Such a view is neither merely theological nor theoretical, and its main implication is that the Western and Islamic worlds are essentially different and that Turkey’s long-standing effort to become part of the West is both impossible and undesirable. It is impossible because it goes against the country’s intrinsic nature: the “failure of the Westernization-oriented intelligentsia in the Muslim countries … demonstrates the extensive characteristic of this civilizational confrontation.”[44]

As far as Turkey is concerned, Davutoğlu concludes that Atatürk’s republican endeavor was “an ambitious and utopian project to achieve a total civilizational change which ignored the real cultural, historical, social, and political forces in the society.” Thus, “the Turkish experience in this century proved that an imposed civilizational refusal, adaptation, and change … cannot be successful.”[45]Moreover, it is undesirable, because the West is in a state of crisis. As early as 1994, he argued that capitalism and socialism were “different forms of the same philosophical background” and that “the collapse of socialism is an indication for a comprehensive civilizational crisis and transformation rather than an ultimate victory of Western capitalism.”[46] Thus, the downfall of communism was not a victory of the West but the first step to the end of European domination of the world to be followed by the collapse of Western capitalism.[47]

Davutoğlu approvingly characterizes the emergence of the Islamic state as a response to the imposition of Western nation-states on the world but takes the argument one step further: Viewing globalization as a challenge to the nation-state system, he suggests that “the core issue for Islamic polity seems to be to reinterpret its political tradition and theory as an alternative world-system rather than merely as a program for the Islamization of nation-states.”[48]

Indeed, Davutoğlu’s worldview has important consequences for how recent, key world events are interpreted in Ankara. For example, since the 2008 financial crisis has affected the West much more severely than emerging economies, it could easily be taken as evidence of the supposed “acute crisis of the West” that Davutoğlu wrote about twenty years ago, vindicating his view of Western civilization in decline.

Not only do Davutoğlu’s writings and Erdoğan’s statements dovetail, they also demonstrate the power of ideology that lies behind some of Turkey’s most controversial foreign policy stances. Indeed, the tendency of the AKP government to side increasingly with Islamist causes, its growing attention to non-Western powers combined with its increasing criticism of the West, can be fully understood only if the ideological background of Turkey’s top decision-makers is taken into account. This is not to say that the other factors previously cited are not useful in grasping changes in Turkish foreign policy. But it suggests that they are insufficient and that the ideological component must be factored in for a full understanding of Ankara’s evolving policies.

The Challenge of the Arab Upheavals

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have been challenging for Turkey, which has seemed to struggle with formulating its stance in the face of unfolding events.

Ankara was an early cheerleader for the Egyptian revolution: Erdoğan called on Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak to resign on February 2, 2011,[49] making him the first world leader to do so. This behavior was markedly different from Turkey’s reaction to the 2009 events in Iran, which otherwise bore great similarity to the Egyptian protests. In the Iranian case, far from urging Ahmadinejad to step down, Erdoğan was among the first to congratulate him on his fraudulent reelection.[50] Likewise, Davutoğlu repeatedly refused to discuss the validity of the Iranian presidential elections, promising “to respect the outcome of Iran’s political process”—in marked contrast to the decision to take sides in Egypt’s internal struggle.[51] This ostensible inconsistency lay to a considerable extent in the ideological affinity of Turkish Islamism with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (and for that matter—with the Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran) and the pervasive hatred generated by the Mubarak regime within the global Islamist movement as a result of its repression of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.

If Ankara was unequivocal on Egypt, Libya proved more complicated. When violence in Libya escalated, the Turkish leadership refrained from taking a clear stance. In fact, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu initially opposed U.N. sanctions on the Qaddafi regime and rejected calls for a NATO operation in the developing civil war. Erdoğan, Gül, and Davutoğlu cast doubt on Western motives, referring to “hidden agendas” and the West’s thirst for oil resources.[52] Ankara eventually relented when some of its reservations were taken into account and later approved the NATO operation, calling for Qaddafi’s resignation in April,[53] formally withdrawing its ambassador from Tripoli and recognizing the Transitional Council in early July.[54] Following the collapse of Qaddafi’s regime, Turkey tried to maximize its influence in the country, and Erdoğan was received more warmly during his visit[55] than either French president Nicolas Sarkozy or British prime minister David Cameron.[56]

However, the deteriorating situation in Syria proved the most difficult for Ankara to handle. From a country with which Turkey almost went to war in 1998, Syria had become what one expert called “the model success story for [Turkey’s] improved foreign policy.”[57] A seemingly solid rapprochement developed between the two countries, involving the lifting of visa regimes, economic integration, and deepened strategic relations. In particular, Erdoğan developed a close personal relationship with Bashar Assad. When Assad’s violence against civilian protesters escalated over the spring and summer of 2011, Ankara took upon itself to caution the Syrian regime to exercise restraint. Despite repeated trips by Davutoğlu to Damascus, Turkish efforts appeared to yield no result. By June, Erdoğan was declaring that “we can’t support Syria amidst all this,”[58] and in early August, Turkish leaders spoke of being unable to “remain indifferent to the violence” and demanded reform in Syria.[59] Later that month, President Gül stated that Turkey had lost confidence in Assad[60] but did not call for his resignation though it seemed only a matter of time before Ankara would be forced to take that step.

Ankara’s response to the turmoil in the Middle East, thus, lends itself to several conclusions. First, it shook the policy of “zero problems with neighbors” to its core. The refugees pouring across the Turkish border, fleeing Assad’s crackdown, triggered an inevitable test of the Davutoğlu doctrine. Ankara proved unable to use its clout with the Assad regime to affect any significant change. Moreover, its growing criticism of Assad led to a deterioration in Turkish-Iranian ties: Official Iranian media outlets have openly criticized Ankara’s stance on Syria since June 2011, hinting that it was doing the West’s bidding in the region.[61] The Turkish government’s decision in the fall of 2011 to accept the stationing of U.S. missile defense systems was very much linked to these new tensions with Tehran while also in all likelihood an attempt to ingratiate itself with Washington and reduce the impact of its increasingly harsh anti-Israeli policies.

Davutoğlu’s “zero problem with neighbors” policy was always predicated on the unrealistic assumption that none of Turkey’s neighbors had any interests or intentions that ran counter to those of Ankara while neglecting the difference between the regimes and peoples of Turkey’s neighbors. Likewise, the alienation of Israel was based on the equally unrealistic assumption that Turkey would never need the friendship of either Israel or its allies in Washington. But mostly, perhaps, these policies have been based on the notion that the United States and the West need Turkey more than Turkey needs the West. This might make sense if Ankara is growing economically while the West is in the throes of crisis, but it might well prove a dangerous assumption given the risk that Turkey’s economy could enter a crisis of its own in the not too distant future.

A second conclusion is that the AKP government had grossly overestimated its influence in the Middle East. Erdoğan’s hard line on Israel has indeed made him a darling of the Arab street, and the AKP government spent significant efforts building trade relations across the region. While Ankara peddled its clout in the Middle East as a key reason for the West to be supportive of its decisions, the events of 2011 suggest that at least for now its rhetoric has not been matched by actual influence. Erdoğan’s visit to Egypt in September 2011, when the Muslim Brotherhood appeared unwilling to adopt his suggestion that they emulate Turkey’s political system, is a case in point.[62] This is not to say that Turkey is not a rising power, rather that the country’s leadership has been unable to realistically gauge its true level of influence. Indeed, building regional influence of the type to which Turkey aspires is a process that takes place gradually and incrementally over decades and not as an immediate result of the hyperactivity of Davutoğlu’s diplomacy.

Finally, Ankara’s policies never squared the circle of the AKP’s rhetorical embrace of democracy and human rights, on the one hand, and its focus on developing ties with the authoritarian regimes of the region on the other.[63] Indeed, a policy of “zero problems” essentially suggests the absence of principles or, for that matter, concrete and well-defined national interests. While some of the missteps in regard to Libya and Syria can be understood against the backdrop of Turkish overconfidence, the dramatic divergence in Ankara’s attitude to the various countries in the region cannot be so easily explained. Indeed, the slack that Turkey’s leadership was willing to cut Iran’s Ahmadinejad or Syria’s Assad, or even Libya’s Qaddafi, stood in marked contrast to the vehemence with which it denounced Egypt’s Mubarak.

In the fall of 2010, the author asked a former AKP minister and deputy chairman why Turkey was so much more assertive on the Gaza issue than the Arab countries. The answer was straightforward: One should not misconstrue the Arab regimes with the Arab countries. These, he argued, are all monarchies that are doomed to collapse. When that happens, democratic forces sharing the AKP’s views on these issues would seize power.[64] While the response was indeed prescient given the events that would follow, it betrayed a deep disdain for the pro-Western regimes of the Arab world as well as an expectation that Islamic movements would replace them and see Turkey as a leader or model.

Indeed, this senior official’s perspective echoes Davutoğlu’s worldview. It indicates an expectation of a fundamental remake of the Middle East with the demise of the pro-Western regimes. Thus far, the vision might not differ much from that of Western supporters of the wave of popular protests sweeping the Arab world. The question, of course, is what would succeed the regimes that had hitherto been safely ensconced in power for decades.

While in the early 1990s, Turkey was touted for its secularism and democracy as a model for the newly independent Muslim-majority states of the former Soviet Union, in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, Ankara was looked to as a model for a different reason: In the words of The New York Times, it was perceived as “a template that effectively integrates Islam, democracy, and vibrant economics.”[65]

Indeed, Islamist movements across the Middle East—primarily in North Africa—have emulated the AKP’s approach to gaining power through democratic means. The question, however, is: Do these movements see a party that truly democratized its ideology and accepted underlying liberal democratic principles, or a party that successfully used the democratic system in order to achieve power without being committed to democratic values and ideals? The jury is still out on this question, but the developments in Egypt are indeed cause for concern given the Muslim Brotherhood’s growing dominance over the country’s political scene.

As the AKP’s recent authoritarian tendencies have become increasingly acknowledged, its credibility as a force of true democratization in the Middle East has suffered concomitantly. More and more it appears that the AKP—and Turkey—has adopted a rather simplistic understanding of democracy as majority rule: In societies where the overwhelming majority are conservative Muslims, democracy will ensure that the political forces representing these conservative Muslims will be ushered into power.


While there is much to suggest that Turkey’s role in the world is likely to grow, confidence appears to have turned into hubris. At the bureaucratic level, Turkey’s state apparatus—especially the Foreign Ministry—is hardly equipped to handle the load of initiatives coming from Davutoğlu’s office, and expanding the foreign policy machine can only happen gradually. Thus, many Turkish initiatives have been less than well prepared, suggesting a top-heavy approach rather than balanced and serious planning. This was true of the opening with Armenia, and similarly, Turkish leaders appeared truly surprised when the Turkish-Brazilian deal on Iran failed to prevent new sanctions against Tehran at the U.N. Security Council.

Nonetheless, Turkey is now an active and independent player in regional affairs whose clout is likely to continue to grow in coming years. It is also a less predictable force than it used to be and one whose policies will occasionally clash with those of the West. This is, in part, a result of Turkey’s economic growth, of the mistakes made by the West in alienating Ankara, and of Turkish overextension, which is in turn related to an inflated view of its newly found role in the world. But the role of ideological reflexes and grand ambitions, in particular those of Turkey’s two foremost decision-makers, Prime Minister Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, must not be underestimated. These impulses are likely to continue to have policy consequences as Turkish leaders will interpret events from a distinctively different—and Islamically-tinged—viewpoint than their Western counterparts.

While a cause for concern, Ankara’s changing foreign policy is not necessarily a cause for alarm. On many issues, Turkey is a power with which the West can work: As the Libyan operation showed, suspicions of Western motives notwithstanding, Ankara came around to join the undertaking. The reaction to the Syrian crisis and Turkish cooperation on missile defense are further examples of this possibility.

But significantly, whenever Turkey and the West will cooperate, it will be because their interests happen to align rather than as a result of shared values. Where the values of the Turkish leadership do not align with those of the West, most prominently concerning Cyprus and Israel, Turkish behavior will continue to diverge from the Ankara the West used to know. It is increasingly clear that the Turkish leadership does not consider itself Western, a worldview that will inevitably have far reaching implications for Turkey’s role in the Euro-Atlantic community.

Author: Svante E. Cornell is research director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, affiliated with Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Stockholm-based Institute for Security and Development Policy.


[1] Hürriyet (Istanbul), June 13, 2011.

[2] See, for example, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye’nin Uluslararası Konumu (Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001).

[3] Hürriyet, Nov. 17, 2008; The Economist (London), Nov. 27, 2008.

[4] The Guardian (London), Oct. 26, 2009; Sofia (Bulgaria) Echo, Oct. 26, 2009.

[5] Svante E. Cornell, “Iranian Crisis Catches the Turkish Government off Guard,” Turkey Analyst, June 19, 2009; Hürriyet, Feb. 2, 2010.

[6] Middle East Online (London), Mar. 17, 2010; The Wall Street Journal, Apr. 8, 2010.

[7] Reuters, Nov. 27, 2009.

[8] The Economist, May 17, 2010.

[9] The New York Times, May 21, 2008; Ha’aretz (Tel Aviv), June 30, 2009; Reuters, June 10, 2010.

[10] Khaleej Times (Dubai), Feb. 19, 2006.

[11] Ha’aretz, Jan. 13, 2009; Eurasianet (New York), Feb. 4, 2009; The Jerusalem Post, Jan. 13, 2009.

[12] Hürriyet, Oct. 11, 2009.

[13] The Jerusalem Post, June 24, 2011; Michael Weiss, “Ankara’s Proxy,” Standpoint, July/Aug. 2010.

[14] The Jerusalem Post, Feb. 6, 2010.

[15] Radikal (Istanbul), June 4, 2010; The Jerusalem Post, June 4, 2010.

[16] The Telegraph (London), Sept. 13, 2011.

[17] The New York Times, Sept. 1, 2011; Today’s Zaman (Istanbul), Sept. 12, 2011.

[18] Today’s Zaman, Sept. 13, 2011.

[19] Eurasia Daily Monitor (Jamestown Foundation, Washington, D.C.), Jan. 15, 2008.

[20] Milliyet (Istanbul), Mar. 30, 2006.

[21] Today’s Zaman, Nov. 9, 2009.

[22] “The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre’s Response to the Goldstone Report,” Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre, Gelilot, Israel, Apr. 4, 2011.

[23] The New York Times, Sept. 19, 2011.

[24] BBC News Europe, June 9, 2010.

[25] Gareth Jenkins, Turkey and Northern Iraq: An Overview (Washington: Jamestown Foundation, 2008), pp. 15-20.

[26] Ömer Taspinar, “The Rise of Turkish Gaullism: Getting Turkish-American Relations Right,” Insight Turkey, Jan.-Mar. 2011.

[27] Gökhan Saz, “The Political Implications of the European Integration of Turkey: Political Scenarios and Major Stumbling Blocks,” European Journal of Social Sciences, no. 1, 2011.

[28] Daniel Pipes, “Erdoğan: Turkey Is Not a Country Where Moderate Islam Prevails,”DanielPipes.org, updated Apr. 12, 2009.

[29] The Times (London), July 3, 2010.

[30] See, for example, Birol Yesilada, “The Refah Party Phenomenon in Turkey,” in Birol Yesilada, ed.,Comparative Political Parties and Party Elites (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), pp. 123-50; Itzchak Weissmann, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and Activism in a Worldwide Sufi Tradition(London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 152-6; Svante E. Cornell and Ingvar Svanberg, “Turkey,” in Dawid Westerlund and Ingvar Svanberg, eds., Islam outside the Arab World (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999), pp. 125-48.

[31] Banu Eligur, The Mobilization of Political Islam in Turkey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), chap. 3; Birol Yeşilada, “The Virtue Party,” in Barry M. Rubin and Metin Heper, eds., Political Parties in Turkey (London: Frank Cass, 2002); Gareth H. Jenkins, “Muslim Democrats in Turkey,”Survival, Spring 2003, pp. 45-66.

[32] William Hale, “Christian Democracy and the AKP: Parallels and Contrasts,” Turkish Studies, June 2006, pp. 293-310; Sultan Tepe, “Turkey’s AKP: A Model ‘Muslim-Democratic’ Party?” Journal of Democracy, July 2005, pp. 69-82.

[33] Der Spiegel (Hamburg), Feb. 11, 2008.

[34] Hürriyet, Nov. 9, 2009.

[35] Ha’aretz, Jan. 13, 2009; Reuters, June 6, 2011; Bugün (Istanbul), June 4, 2011.

[36] Sedat Ergin, “Can the Symbols of Nazism and Judaism Be Considered Equal?” Hürriyet, June 22, 2010.

[37] Istanbul: Küre Yayınları, 2001.

[38] Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993.

[39] Kuala Lumpur: Mahir Publications, 1994.

[40] Ahmet Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms: the Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschauungs on Political Theory (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1993), p. 2.

[41] Kerim Balci, “Philosophical Depth: A Scholarly Talk with the Turkish Foreign Minister,” Turkish Review, Nov. 1, 2010.

[42] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 195; idem, Civilizational Transformation (Kuala Lumpur: Mahir Publications, 1994), pp. 13-4.

[43] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 196; Michael Koplow, “Hiding in Plain Sight,” Foreign Policy, Dec. 2, 2010.

[44] Davutoğlu, Civilizational Transformation, p. 64.

[45] Ibid., pp. 107-8.

[46] Ibid., p. 64.

[47] Ibid., p. iii.

[48] Davutoğlu, Alternative Paradigms, p. 202.

[49] Press TV (Tehran), Feb. 2, 2011.

[50] Halil M. Karaveli and Svante E. Cornell, “Turkey and the Middle Eastern Revolts: Democracy or Islamism?” Turkey Analyst, Feb. 7, 2011.

[51] Cornell, “Iranian Crisis Catches the Turkish Government off Guard.”

[52] World Bulletin (Istanbul), Mar. 24, 2011.

[53] Al-Arabiya (Dubai), May 3, 2011.

[54] Al-Jazeera TV (Doha), July 3, 2011.

[55] Bahrain News Agency, Sept. 14, 2011.

[56] The Guardian, Sept. 15, 2011.

[57] Henri J. Barkey, “Assad Stands Alone,” The National Interest, June 14, 2011.

[58] Today’s Zaman, June 10, 2011.

[59] The Turkish Daily News (Ankara), Aug. 1, 2011.

[60] The New York Times, Aug. 28, 2011.

[61] Sobh’eh Sadegh, quoted in Burak Bekdil, “Zero Problems, a Hundred Troubles,” Hürriyet, Aug. 9, 2011.

[62] The Huffington Post, Sept. 13, 2011.

[63] M. K. Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli, “Vision or Illusion? Ahmet Davutoglu’s State of Harmony in Regional Relations,” Turkey Analyst, June 5, 2009.

[64] Author interview with an AKP deputy chairman who requested anonymity, Ankara, Aug. 2010.

[65] Landon Thomas, Jr., “In Turkey’s Example, Some See Map for Egypt,” The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2011.

Middle East Quarterly, Wınter 2012 • Volume XIX: Number 1, pp. 13-24


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