Recep Erdogan has succeeded in re-energizing Turkey’s role in the world. His re-election, in June 2011, to a third term as Prime Minister after retaining the AKP’s majority in Parliament marked the transformation of Turkey from a state shaped largely in the legacy of Ataturk to one now guided by the AKP and its brand of moderate Islam mixed with secularism and democracy.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has undergone a renaissance in the past decade. It is now the seventeenth largest economy in the world (and hopes to be in the top 10 by 2023), has a strong growth economic rate of 4.62 percent, public debt now is only 42 percent of GDP, exports surged from 35 billion US dollars in 2000 to 134 billion in 2010, and Foreign Direct Investment went from 1 billion per annum in the 1990s to 10 billion per annum in 2010. Politically, the AKP has implemented a number of political reforms that include limiting the power of the military and increasing the independence of the judiciary.
Erdogan’s revival of Turkey has made Ankara, importantly, a power that engages both the West and the East. Turkey has shifted from its Kemalist policy of tilting to the West and remaining disinterested in the Middle East except for strong bilateral ties with Israel, while at times, sparring with its neighbors particularly on the issue of Cyprus to a new concept, which re-engages Turkey’s geopolitical space. Emphasizing zero-problems with its neighbors and strategic depth, Davutoglu has re-positioned Turkey to tilt more East than West philosophically, but continue to have strong ties with the West.
The people’s choce for Time Magazine’s personality of the year 2011 was Recep ErdoganPrior to the Arab Spring, this new foreign policy has largely paid off, and Turkey now is an active regional power. It reset its relations with its neighbors, gaining strong links with both Tehran and Damascus, while improving its relations with Moscow. In terms of strategic depth, Ankara has played a consequential role in acting as a regional mediator—negotiating the fragile peace since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and mediating several tracks of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Israel-Syrian negotiations up until 2008 and Hamas and Fatah unity talks. Erdogan even attempted to wade into the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program with a proposal, in May 2010, on nuclear fuel sharing, but this proposal met strong opposition from the United States. Establishing relationships as well with both those in power and at the same time, engaging Islamist opposition movements across the region, notably Hamas and Hezbollah, has made Ankara a friend of many in the Middle East.
Erdogan’s divorce with Israel as a result of the Israeli war with Gaza in 2009 and the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010 has made the Turkish Prime Minister quite popular on the street in the Middle East even though Turkey still counts on Israel as one of its largest trading partners. This falling out has complicated relations with the United States, but Obama has resisted Republican calls to distance the US from Turkey. Notably, Obama made Ankara the first capital he visited in the region after his re-election and the US President recognizes Turkey’s strategic importance in the region.
Up until the Arab Spring, Turkey had successfully repositioned itself without any significant casualties in its core alliances except for the deterioration of relations with Israel. While Erdogan’s critics refer to his foreign policy as “Neo-Ottomanism,” on the whole both the West and the East have welcomed Turkey’s new role and its strategic flexibility has made it possible for Erdogan to be received with open arms in both Tehran and Washington.
But, the Arab Spring has changed Turkey’s geopolitical space and has presented it once again with a number of challenges. Relations with its neighbors have become problematic once again with the straining and deterioration of its relations with Syria, Iran, and Russia. A critical report by Chatham House’s Fadi Hakura argues that Turkey will now have to choose sides in the Middle East, where once it could remain on decent terms with all of its neighbors; it now no longer has that luxury. This may result in Ankara losing some of its influence in the region depending on how the events unfold in the region.
Ankara’s strategic depth has been complicated by the rising number of new voices in the region. The old Middle East, where Turkey was the only democratic state that had an Islamic and secular identity, made Ankara stand out in a region dominated by authoritarian nationalist secular regimes. But, while the Turkish model of democracy has made Ankara very popular amongst the youth and Islamist movements from Sana’a to Tunis—who see Turkey’s democratic success as a potential path they wish to take—Turkey could soon be one of many voices in the region, notably Cairo, promoting different models of local democracy and their soft power will be tied to how many states adopt their model.
Despite these larger strategic issues, Erdogan’s popularity throughout the Middle East has not been harmed at the moment by the Arab Spring. He was one of the first leaders to call for Mubarak to go, and subsequently called for the resignation of Qadhafi and Assad. His visits to Cairo and Tunis in September were welcomed by large crowds. While he did not secure the editor’s choice for Time’s Person of the Year, the people’s choice in 2011 was Recep Erdogan.
Erdogan has also benefited from the Arab Spring in terms of relations with the United States. His support of the NATO operation in Libya, his emphasis on democracy, Islam, and secularism, and his pressure on Syria has made Erdogan an indispensable leader in the region for the United States. Few foreign leaders have had as much face time with President Obama as Erdogan and earlier this month, Vice President Joseph Biden visited Turkey.
The Arab League has also found Erdogan an important ally in their attempts to bring an end to the violence in Syria. Hamas has recently been in talks with Ankara as they seek an alternative to residency in Damascus if the Syria continues to deteriorate.
At the moment, then, Ankara still is poised to be influential in the Middle East and has a lot of popular support to sustain such a role even if it has strained relations with its neighbors. But, Ankara is also grasping with a changing Middle East that will not always guarantee a central role for Turkey, which despite its history and current popularity has been largely on the periphery both politically and geographically since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
It is inevitable then that both Erdogan and Davutoglu will have to fine tune their foreign policy for this new environment. Economically, Turkey’s strong trading links will keep it tied to the Levant and Iran, but politically it depends on what success Ankara achieves in building and shaping this new political order. Ankara has a good start and is critically important, but its future power in the Middle East will rest on how much success it has in remaining relevant.