The Eternal Candidate Turkey Bets on Regional Influence as EU Hopes Fade

Frustrated by European opposition to its EU membership bid, Turkey is looking instead to its eastern and southern neighbors in a bid to flex its regional muscles. But will courting the Arab street actually bring Ankara any benefits?

At the Sütlüce Cultural and Congress Center on the Golden Horn in Istanbul, experts and officials from around the world have come together to talk about water. The thousands attending the event include water experts, presidents and ministers, and they are here to talk about the Euphrates, the Nile and the Tigris, about major dams and about the privatization of entire rivers. One of mankind's future problems is being debated, and it is the Turks who are hosting the event. A coincidence?

Turkish youths carry national flags at a ceremony to mark Turkey's Youth and Sports Day on May 19.

Turkish youths carry national flags at a ceremony to mark Turkey's Youth and Sports Day on May 19.


Ankara, the Ataturk Mausoleum: Two men pay their respects to the founder of the Turkish republic, one wearing a brown robe with a sheepskin cap, the other wearing a suit. They have many problems in common, chief among them the fact that they are both leaders of states on the brink. The two men are Pakistani Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Turkish President Abdullah Gül, of all people, has brought them together. A coincidence?

In Ankara, US President Barack Obama is addressing the Turkish parliament. He has nothing but good things to say about Ataturk and his political heirs, the government's reforms and Turkey's geopolitical importance -- precisely the sorts of things for which the country, desperate for recognition, has been waiting so long. Ankara, of all places, is the last stop on Obama's first trip abroad as president. This, at least, is no coincidence.

Presidents and militia leaders, diplomats, military chiefs of staff and the heads of intelligence services from the Middle East are choosing the city on the Bosporus as a meeting place, and economic delegations are visiting Turkey. Even Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, against whom the International Criminal Court has issued an arrest warrant, chooses to visit Ankara, because he knows that he will not get a lecture there.

The Turks, who always used to complain to their Western allies about their rough neighborhood, apparently no longer have any enemies in the east. Turkey's old rival Russia has since become its most important energy and trading partner. Syria and Iraq, two countries with which Ankara has in the past been on the brink of war, are now friends of Turkey, and relations are even improving with Armenia.  The Arabs, who never truly took to the successors of the Ottomans, now look with admiration to what they call the "Turkish model," a dynamic, open country that has a better handle on its problems than they do. But what caused the transformation?

Europe is to blame. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan assumed office in 2003, he planned to lead Turkey into the European Union. But Europe was unmoved by this vision, and it has also lost much of its appeal within Turkey. According to Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a think tank linked to the center-left Social Democratic Party, as the Europeans have become weary of expansion, Turkey has lost interest in joining the EU. Indeed, what Erdogan meant when he spoke of Turkey's "alternative" to becoming an EU member is becoming increasingly clear.

Critics and supporters alike describe this new course as "neo-Ottomanism." Ankara remains formally committed to its European ambitions. However, frustrated by the open rejection with which it has long been met in Paris, Vienna and Berlin, and which it has been facing once again during the EU election campaign,  Turkey is focusing increasingly on its role as a peacekeeping power in a region it either ruled or dominated for centuries.

Turkey's change of course raises fundamental questions for Europe. Is it a good thing or a bad thing for Turkey to be looking more to the south and east than to the west these days? Does this shift speak in favor of or against the eternal EU candidate? And wouldn't the reorientation of Turkish foreign policy be a welcome excuse to conveniently bury the unpopular project of Turkish EU membership for good?

The architect of Turkey's new foreign policy, Ahmet Davutoglu, 50, would certainly disagree. Davutoglu is a short man with a moustache who is a professor of political science and, since the beginning of May, the country's new foreign minister. He has not yet broken with the West: Only recently, he told his counterparts in Brussels that his country would be "not a burden but a boon for Europe."

But Davutoglu, the author of the remarkable book "Stratejik Derinlik" ("Strategic Depth"), in which he discusses "multidimensional policy" at length, follows a different compass than his predecessors, most of whom were the sons of civil servants from Ankara and western Turkey, drilled in Kemalist ideology and focused entirely on Nato, Europe and the United States.

Davutoglu, like President Gül, is from Central Anatolia and a member of a new elite influenced by Islamic thought. He completed his secondary-school education at a German overseas school, learned Arabic and taught at an Islamic university in Malaysia. He believes that a one-sided Western orientation is unhealthy for a country like Turkey.

Davutoglu is convinced that Ankara must be on good terms with all its neighbors, and it cannot fear contact with the countries and organizations branded as pariahs by the West, namely Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. He believes that Turkey should have no qualms about acknowledging its Ottoman past -- in other words, it should become a respected regional power throughout the territory once ruled by the Ottoman Empire (see graphic).

The Turkish press touts Davutoglu as "Turkey's Kissinger," and even Erdogan and Gül refer to him as "hoca" ("venerable teacher"). The country's foreign policy increasingly bears his signature. For example, at his suggestion, Turkish diplomats revived talks between Syria and Israel that had been discontinued in 2000, leading to secret peace talks that began in Istanbul in 2004. However, the talks were temporarily suspended in late 2008 because of parliamentary elections in Israel and the Gaza offensive.

The Turks say that they achieved more during the Gaza conflict than Middle East veterans like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, arguing that Hamas's willingness to accept Israel's ceasefire offer was attributable to Ankara's intervention. They also say that the fact that Erdogan angrily broke off a discussion  with Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Summit in Davos cemented his reputation in the Islamic world as a friend of the Palestinians. When street fighting erupted in Lebanon between supporters of the pro-Western government and of Hezbollah in May 2008, Erdogan intervened as a mediator.

Ankara is also seeking to reduce tensions in the Caucasus region, where the Turks have often acted against Russia, prompting Moscow to accuse Turkey of being sympathetic to the Chechen cause. After the war in Georgia last summer, the Erdogan government brought together officials from Tbilisi and Moscow. Turkey and Armenia are now seeking to overcome long-standing hostility by establishing diplomatic relations and reopening their shared border.

Off the Horn of Africa, the US Fifth Fleet turned over the leadership of Combined Task Force 151, which is responsible for combating piracy in the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia, to the Turkish navy. At the same time, a man paid an official visit to Ankara who had not appeared in public since 2007: Iraqi Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, the head of the notorious Mahdi Army militia. Davutoglu had sent a private jet to bring him to Turkey from his exile in Iran.

Compared with the cool treatment Turkey gave its southern and eastern neighbors for decades, this is a stunning about-face. But not everyone approves. Critics like political scientist Soner Cagaptay describe Ankara's foreign policy as "pro-Arab Islamist." In a recent op-ed for the Turkish daily Hurriyet, Cagaptay argued that Turkish diplomats, who had once "looked to Europe, particularly France, for political inspiration" have now fallen for the Arab world, and generally for Islamists -- in other words, for Hamas instead of secular Fatah, or Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood instead of the government in Cairo. "However, being popular on the Arab street is not necessarily an asset for Turkey, since in autocracies popularity on the street does not translate into soft power in the capitals," Cagaptay argues.

Diplomats like Hakki Akil, the Turkish ambassador in Abu Dhabi, disagree. According to Akil, Turkey has acquired "soft power" by expanding its sphere of influence from the Balkans to Afghanistan, transporting Russian, Caspian Sea and Iranian oil and gas to the West, and building housing and airports in Kurdish northern Iraq. Europe, says Akil, ought to be pleased with Ankara's course. As Akil's boss Davutoglu said in Brussels, political stability, a secure energy corridor and a strong partner on its southeastern flank are all "in the fundamental interest of the EU."

In truth, everyone involved knows that Turkey doesn't stand a chance of becoming a full member of the European club in the foreseeable future -- and probably never will. Of course, no one in Brussels is willing or able to admit this. The EU stands by the accession negotiations without limitations, European Commission President José Manuel Barroso repeats on a regular basis.

But these very negotiations are hardly moving forward. According to a recent internal European Commission report, Turkey has made "only limited progress." Some EU countries have already abandoned the idea of accepting Turkey into their midst. In Bavaria, conservative Christian Social Union campaigners promote a message of "No to Turkey" as they make the rounds of beer tents. At a televised campaign appearance in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy made their opposition to EU membership for Turkey clear.

Ironically, Turkey's strategic importance for Europe "is even greater today than in the days of the Cold War," says Elmar Brok, a German member of the European Parliament for the conservative Christian Democratic Union who specializes in foreign policy issues. And then there is the paradox of the fact that the more intensively Turkey, out of frustration with Europe, engages with its eastern neighbors, the more valuable it becomes to the West. According to Brok, the West must "do everything possible to keep Ankara on board."

Brok and other members of the European Parliament envision making so-called "privileged partner" status palatable to Turkey. It would enable Turkey to have a similar relationship to the EU as Norway does today and to enjoy many of the benefits of EU membership, including access to the European single market, visa-free travel, police cooperation and joint research programs. But it would not, however, become a member.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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