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Ahmet Davutoglu, between two worlds

Can Turkey reconcile its European orientation with an ambition to play a more active role in the Muslim world? The answer to this question will be largely determined by one man: Turkey's current Minister for Foreign Affairs, an increasingly influential neo-Ottoman academic.

Published on 14 May 2010 at 12:51
Influential neo-Ottoman academic Ahmet Davutoglu is Turkey's minister of foreign affairs walking a tightrope between Europe and the Islamic world.

One year ago, against a backdrop of falling public support for Turkish inclusion in the European union, 50-year-old Ahmet Davutoglu, a noted academic, diplomat and foreign affairs adviser to Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdogan took over as Turkey's Minister for Foreign Affairs.

His rise to power had been facilitated by one of his books, Stratejik Derinlik (Strategic depth, 2001), which had a considerable impact in Turkish academic and political circles. In it Davutoglu presented a foreign policy analysis founded on a respect for his country's imperial past, which he maintains should not be viewed as a burden, but on the contrary, utilised to develop Turkey's regional and global importance.

Euro-optimism replaced by pragmatism

In proposing a geopolitical construct which he termed "self-confidence as a nation" — while his critics dubbed it neo-Ottomanism — Davutoglu's goal was to define a strategy to counter what he saw as the decline of his country in the 20th century. According to his vision, Ankara ought to do more to take advantage of the end of the Cold War and the East-West opposition. To this end, he advocated leveraging Turkey's political and cultural profile as a secular, democratic, Muslim state, its critically important geo-strategic position as a bridge between the West and the Islamic world, and its role as a hub for the transport of hydrocarbons to Europe.

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Davutoglu's appointment to replace Ali Babacan was a message in itself. The euro-optimism of his predecessor was to be replaced by a more pragmatic approach. When he took office, Davutoglu immediately suggested that the current policy of "zero problems with Turkey's neighbours," should be updated and reinforced to promote "maximum cooperation with all interested countries." This was not merely a change in the rhetoric of official discourse, but a genuinely new paradigm. Exasperated by French and German equivocation on the issue of its accession to the EU, which had been rendered all the more irksome by the accession of Cyprus in 2004, Turkey was to adopt a multi-directional foreign affairs policy that would be more attentive to the neighbouring Muslim world and marked by a renewed focus on a region extending from the Balkans to the Middle East, which corresponds to the former territory of the Ottoman Empire.

A hard line with Israel

On 4 May, 2009, in a highly symbolic first meeting after his appointment to Erdogan's cabinet, Davutoglu received Azerbaijan's Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs to prepare the ground for an end to Turkey's enduring diplomatic conflict with Armenia. In the months that followed, he espoused a hard line on Israel, which enabled him to develop Ankara's ties with the Muslim world. At the same time, he sought to establish and develop links in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Montenegro.

And on missions to the Lebanon, Russia, Romania, Iraq, Georgia, Iran, and Syria, in short wherever he went, the new minister was keen to highlight his enthusiasm for a Turkish hinterland. As it stands, Ahmet Davutoglu is possibly the only member of the 72.5-million strong Turkish population who is now in a position to judge whether the new policy to develop Turkey's power in the Muslim world can be sustained in tandem with his country's traditional secular and pro-Western position.

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