The New Davutoglu

The Next Prime Minister's Game Plan

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (C) and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan (R) are surrounded by security guards in Ankara
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (C) and Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan (R) are surrounded by security guards in Ankara, August 29 2014. (Umit Bektas / Courtesy Reuters)

Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s new prime minister, started his career as a professor of internattional relations in the 1990s. By 2003, he had worked his way into becoming an influential -- yet still relatively unknown -- advisor to Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul. When I met him in his small office in an old government building in downtown Ankara in 2005, he struck me as a scholar with deep knowledge of Ottoman history and a strong desire to transform Turkey into a regional powerhouse. If handed power, it seemed, Davutoglu would turn Turkey’s traditional Western-oriented and inward-looking foreign policy upside down. Eventually, as advisor to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister of Turkey at the time, and then as foreign minister, Davutoglu did exactly that. Now, as prime minister, he will need to figure out how to contain the damaging effects of his policies.

GO EAST

When we met in 2005, Davutoglu and I discussed a variety of foreign policy issues, including the role of Islam in Turkish politics and the legacy of Ottoman rule, including the responsibility it entailed regarding the people formally under its rule. I told him about my work in the 1990s, when I had organized international conferences in Ankara to publicize the suffering of the Bosnians. Davutoglu, for his part, emphasized the Middle East, suggesting that Turkey had a responsibility to actively cooperate with the Muslims states in the area. He added that only by reaching out to these Muslims nations and others in the Muslim world could Turkey become a great power. Davutoglu, it dawned on me, was an Ottoman revivalist, keen on eliminating the Kemalist legacy in Turkish foreign policy.

Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had a mantra: “Go West.” He and his successors, the Kemalists, wanted to turn Turkey into a European country, thinking that doing so would make it a great nation. To accomplish this goal, they needed to redefine the whole of Turkish civilization -- to jettison the Ottoman legacy in the Middle East and disavow the country’s Muslim heritage. In its place, Turkey would embrace a new secular national identity and an inward-looking foreign policy rooted in “non-interference” -- that is, avoiding intimate ties with the region’s states, especially Arab nations. They hoped that, one day, Europe would fully embrace their country.

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