On June 12, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the most popular Turkish prime minister of the last half century, marked his third straight electoral win by averring his leadership over not only Turkey but the entire region. “Believe me,” he said in a victory speech, “Sarajevo won today as much as Istanbul; Beirut won as much as Izmir; Damascus won as much as Ankara; Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, the West Bank, Jerusalem won as much as Diyarbakir.” The speech reaffirmed the foreign policy that Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has pursued since it came to power in 2002. As the AKP’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, puts it, Turkey’s goal has been to have “zero problems” with its neighbors. And over the past decade, Davutoğlu has dramatically improved Ankara’s relationships with capitals across the region through constant diplomatic engagement, fostering mutual trade, and opening national borders.
Some in the West have seen Turkey’s new foreign policy as a shift Eastward. Indeed, Turkey has drawn closer to authoritarian governments in Iran and Syria. And Erdogan and his team’s Muslim identity have influenced some of their foreign policy rhetoric, such as their strong stance in support of Palestine. Accordingly, some, including the British historian Niall Ferguson, even suggest that Turkey might be heading toward “a revived Ottoman Empire” that would dominate the whole Middle East.
But warnings about Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism are more sensational than factual, and miss a broader point. Like any major power, Turkey bases its foreign policy on calculations of hard national interests, and coats it in value-laden rhetoric that reflects popular sentiments. Moreover, even as the AKP has supported friendly autocrats, it has positioned itself as a model democracy for the rest of the Muslim world. At a May 2003 summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference in Tehran, Abdullah Gül, who was then Turkey’s foreign minister and is now its president, argued for “a vision of accountability, transparency, fundamental rights and freedoms, and