In its first eight years under Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey seemed to be confidently reaching out to both East and West.
In 2005, three years after the party came to power, Turkey achieved candidate status to join the European Union. At the same time, the country was forging stronger ties in the Middle East and Africa, regions previous administrations had ignored.
Ankara’s philosophy was “zero problems with neighbors” – fostering friendly ties even with traditional adversaries such as the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. With the help of a burgeoning economy, trade with the Middle East grew from 6 percent of total volume in 2002 to 16 percent in 2010, rising from $3.9 billion to $23.6 billion.
The architect of this expansive foreign policy was Ahmet Davutoglu, first as a special adviser to Mr. Erdogan, then as foreign minister from 2009 until becoming prime minister in August of last year.
A former international relations professor at Istanbul’s Marmara University, Mr. Davutoglu had written prolifically on foreign affairs. Despite the pragmatism he displayed in government, his earlier scholarly works suggested an ideology radically at odds with the state of affairs in the region. He had argued that Turkey should eschew deeper integration with the West and instead become a leader of the Islamic world. He viewed the Arab nationalist regimes and Gulf monarchies that dominated the Middle East as destined to fail because of their lack of legitimacy.
Their natural successors, he reasoned, were Muslim Brotherhood movements, with which the Islamist-rooted AKP had fostered longstanding ties.
“He wants Turkey to be the leader of the Middle East,” says Behlul Ozkan, a former student of Davutoglu who is now himself an assistant professor at Marmara University. “He wants to unite these nations from Morocco to Turkey under an Islamist identity."
The AKP’s engagement with regimes such as Mr. Assad’s, says Mr. Ozkan, was modeled on Ostpolitik, the doctrine espoused by West Germany’s leaders before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in which the country sought to engage its eastern counterpart in the belief that economic ties would ultimately do more to undermine Communism than isolation.
In the Arab uprisings of late 2010, Davutoglu and Erdogan believed their “Berlin Wall moment” had arrived. They began to strongly back Muslim Brotherhood-linked movements in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia.
“When [Egyptian dictator Hosni] Mubarak fell, Davutoglu thought now was the right time, and his pragmatic policy of creating zero problems with neighbors stopped,” Ozkan says. “Turkey turned 180 degrees and began practicing a genuinely ideological foreign policy.”