Ahmet Davutoğlu has a wide-ranging interview in the Cairo Review on a host of topics ranging from Turkey’s strategic interests to its issues with Cyprus and Armenia, and there’s way too much in there to cover comprehensively, but I want to hone in on a few of the more interesting points.
Whatever else one thinks of him, Davutoğlu is an impressive character and his reputation as a thinker is well earned. He speaks on topics with a depth and understanding that is rare for foreign ministers of any stripe. That said, the first thing that jumps out at me is a combination of stubbornness and what I assume is willful naivete. He makes it clear that he believes “zero problems with neighbors” is alive and well despite the numerous assumptions that should have been shattered by the Arab Spring. It is all fine and well to trumpet the desire to have harmonious relationships with everyone and help other states solves their problems, but it is not anything that can be seriously sustained if Turkey is to guard its own interests. This is international relations 101, and Davutoğlu surely knows that its dumping of Assad has guaranteed newly strained relations with Iran, to take one prominent neighbor. Zero problems with neighbors is a nice slogan and might have even worked when the Middle East appeared to be relatively static, but for an ambitious global power like Turkey that is aiming to expand its reach throughout and Middle East and beyond, it is nothing more than hubris to believe that it can revolutionize the way in which states interact. Turkey and Davutoğlu need to publicly and privately come to grips with this fact sooner rather than later.
This might be reading between the lines too much, but it is interesting that in listing Turkey’s interests, Davutoğlu orders them as economic, democratic, and the alliance with Europe and the Atlantic community. I think his prioritization of economic interests is perfectly normal but gives lie to the idea that Turkey is able to dance on the head of a pin when it comes to respecting everyone and forming a set of cooperative and non-confrontational relationships. Some of Turkey’s relations in the region will be characterized as such but others will not, and the foreign minister’s rundown demonstrates that Turkey is actually not so different from everybody else.
Davutoğlu also talks about Turkey consolidating its democracy as its greatest success on the domestic front. Political scientists all know that democratic consolidation is a famously slippery term that can mean all sorts of things from preventing democratic backslide, to moving from electoral to liberal democracy, to improving democratic quality in even highly advanced democracies, but at its heart it implies reaching some sort of democratic threshold that puts a country’s democratic status and liberal qualities beyond reproach. I think that few people outside of Turkey, and certainly no democracy experts, would describe Turkish democracy as consolidated. Turkish democracy has made strides in some places and been abysmal in others, and in fact Turkey appears to be closer to Thomas Carothers’ grey zone than it does to achieving liberal democratic status. Certainly no serious argument can be made that Turkey is a consolidated democracy when it has over one hundred journalists in jail, editors and reporters talk of a climate of fear surrounding criticism of the government, and students who throw eggs at politicians risk being imprisoned for five years. Turkish democracy has improved in many ways, but the consolidation talk is extremely premature.
Davutoğlu also does an interesting about-face that will be apparent only to those who read his doctoral dissertation (which was turned into the book Alternative Paradigms) when he talks about his categorical refutation of the Huntingtonian clash of civilizations thesis. The foreign minister used to sing a different tune, and in fact before Huntington even wrote his seminal 1993 article Davutoğlu argued that the divisions between the Western and Islamic world stem from an irreconcilable chasm between the philosophical and political traditions of the two civilizations, and that both sides can justifiably view the other as being ideologically intransigent. In the Cairo Review interview, he adds the interesting modifier “with the advantage of hindsight,” but I’d be interested to hear a first-hand account of when and why he changed his mind.
Finally, the subject of the Arab Spring makes for some fascinating reading. Davutoğlu claims that Turkey expected the Arab Spring, which is interesting in light of Turkey’s heavy reliance on ties with Syria under Assad and its seemingly being taken by surprise on Tunisia and Libya, and so there seems to be some serious revisionist history taking place. On the question of whether Turkey is an appropriate model for Arab countries, the foreign minister gives a surprising yet cogently insightful answer, which is that Turkey does not want to hold itself forth or be seen as a role model given every state’s unique history and sociopolitical legacy. He says that Turkey is happy to share its democratic experience with other countries, but that anyone looking solely at the evolution of civilian-military relations is missing the big picture and that it took Turkey decades to arrive at where it is now. Anyone who has ever studied democratization and knows just how difficult and rocky the path to democracy is will greatly appreciate that answer, and it is unusual to see Davutoğlu go out of his way not to promote Turkey as a model in that manner (I cannot imagine a similar level of restraint from Erdoğan).
For more thoughts, there is a good roundup of the interview by Steven Cook, Marc Lynch, and others.