Throughout the twentieth century, geography had proved a liability for Turkey. It found itself beset on all sides by former Ottoman lands which held grudges against the successor state. The magic trick the AKP performed was to transform this liability into an asset. Turkey in the twenty-first century turned on the charm. Like China, it discovered the advantages of soft power and the inescapable virtues of a "soft rise" during an era of American military and economic dominance.
Led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, a former academic who provided a blueprint for the country's new good-neighbor policy in his 2001 book Strategic Depth, Turkey pledged "zero problems with neighbors." In foreign policy terminology, Davutoglu proposed the carving out of a Turkish sphere of influence via canny balance-of-power politics. Like China, it promised not to interfere in the domestic affairs of its partners. It also made a major effort to repair relations with those near at hand and struck new friendships with those far away. Indeed, like Beijing, Ankara has global aspirations.
Perhaps the most dramatic reversal in Turkish policy involves the Kurdish region of Iraq. The détente orchestrated by the AKP could be compared to President Richard Nixon's startling policy of rapprochement with China in the 1970s, which rapidly turned an enemy into something like an ally. In March, Turkey sent its first diplomat to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, to staff a new consulate there. Today, as journalist Jonathan Head has written, "70% of investment and 80% of the products sold in the Kurdish region [of Iraq] are Turkish." Realizing that when US troops leave Iraq, its Kurdish regions are bound to feel vulnerable and thus open to economic and political influence, Ankara established a "strategic cooperation council" to sort things out with the Iraqis in 2009, and this has served as a model for similar arrangements with Syria, Bulgaria, Greece, and Russia.
Détente with Iraqi Kurdistan has gone hand in hand with a relaxation of tensions between Ankara and its own Kurdish population with which it had been warring for decades. Until the early 1990s, the Turkish government pretended that the Kurdish language didn't exist. Now, there is a new twenty-four-hour Kurdish-language national TV station, and new faculty at Mardin Artuklu University will teach Kurdish. The government began to accept returning Kurdish refugees from northern Iraq, as well as a handful of Kurdish guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
This hasn't been an easy sell for Turkish nationalists. In December, a Turkish court banned the main Kurdish political party, and this spring the military launched repeated attacks against PKK targets inside Iraq. But the AKP is continuing to push reforms, including proposed changes in the country's constitution that would allow military commanders for the first time to be tried in civilian court for any crimes they commit.
The elimination of this demonizing of "internal enemies" is crucial to the AKP's project, helping as it does to reduce the military's power in internal affairs. Reining in the military is a top objective for party leaders who believe it will strengthen political stability, improve prospects for future integration into the European Union (EU), and remove a powerful opponent to domestic reforms—and to the party itself.
Only a little less startling than the government's gestures toward the Kurds has been its program to transform Turkish-Greek relations. The two countries have long been at each other's throats, their conflict over the divided island of Cyprus being only the most visible of their disagreements. The current Greek economic crisis, however, may prove a blessing in disguise when it comes to bilateral relations.
The Greek government—its finances disastrous and economic pressure from the European Union mounting—needs a way to make military budget reductions defensible. In May, Turkish president Erdogan visited Greece and, while signing twenty-one agreements on migration, environment, culture and the like, began to explore the previously inconceivable possibility of mutual military reductions. "Both countries have huge defense expenses," Erdogan told Greek television, "and they will achieve a lot of savings this way."
If Turkey manages a rapprochement with Armenia, it will achieve a diplomatic trifecta. The two countries disagree over the fate of the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave, which is also at the center of a dispute between Armenia and Turkish ally Azerbaijan. Complicating this territorial issue is a long-standing historical controversy. Armenia wants acknowledgment of the Ottoman Empire's 1915 extermination campaign that killed more than a million Armenians. The Turkish government today disputes the numbers and refuses to recognize the killings as "genocide." Nevertheless, Turkey and Armenia began direct negotiations last year to reopen their border and establish diplomatic relations. Although officially stalled, secret talks between the two are continuing.
Other diplomatic efforts are no less dramatic. When Bashar Assad arrived in Ankara in 2004, it was the first visit by a Syrian leader in fifty-seven years. Meanwhile, Turkey has cemented its relations with Russia, remains close to Iran, and has reconnected to the Balkans. This charm offensive makes Chinese efforts in Asia look bumbling.
A friend to all sides, Turkey is offering its services as a diplomatic middleman, even in places where it was persona non grata not long ago. "Not many people would imagine that the Serbians would ask for the mediation of Turkey between different Bosniak groups in the Sandjak region of Serbia," observes Sule Kut, a Balkans expert at Bilge University in Istanbul. "Turks were the bad guys in Serbian history. So what is happening? Turkey has established itself as a credible and powerful player in the region."
It's not just the Balkans. The new Turkey is establishing itself as Mediation Central. Teaming up with Brazil, Turkey fashioned a surprise compromise meant to head off confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program (which the Obama administration managed to shoot down). Along with Spain, it initiated the Alliance of Civilizations, a UN effort to bridge the divide between Islam and the West. It also tried to work its magic in negotiating an end to the blockade of Gaza, removing obstacles to the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, bringing Syria and Israel together, resolving the brouhaha around the cartoon depiction of Mohammed and hosting UN meetings on Somalia.
"Zero problems with neighbors" is a great slogan. But it's also a logical impossibility. Turkey can't embrace Hamas without angering Egypt and Israel. It can move closer to Russia only at the potential expense of good relations with Georgia. Rapprochement with Armenia angers Azerbaijan.
Nor was Ankara's attempt to transcend zero-sum thinking an easy task during the "with us or against us" years of the Bush administration. In addition, there are the periodic tensions that arise around US Congressional resolutions on the Armenian genocide, still a touchy issue in Turkey. Washington has indicated its growing unhappiness with Turkey's increasingly active role in the Middle East, particularly its overtures to Syria. As a result, Turkey has had to finesse its relationship with the US in order to remain a key NATO ally and a challenger to American power in the region.
As with China, the United States is willing to work with Turkey on some diplomatic issues even as it finds the country's growing influence in the region a problem. In turn, Ankara, like Beijing, is trying to figure out how it can best take advantage of the relative decline in US global influence even as it works closely with Washington on an issue-by-issue basis.
The greatest challenge to Turkey's zero-problems paradigm, however, is its ever more troubled relationship with Israel. The US-Turkey-Israel troika was once a solid verity of Middle Eastern politics. A considerable amount of bilateral trade, including military deals, has linked Turkey and Israel, and that trade increased dramatically during the AKP era.
But Israel's 2008 invasion of Gaza—and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's subsequent excoriation of then-Israeli president Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos—began a process that is tearing these former allies apart, while boosting support for Turkey in the Arab world. In October, Turkey cancelled Israel's participation in a military exercise, throwing lucrative military contracts between the two countries in jeopardy. In the wake of the recent Gaza-aid debacle in international waters, the rift threatens to become irreparable. When Israeli commandos seized a flotilla of ships attempting to break the Gaza embargo, killing nine Turkish citizens, Turkey spoke of severing diplomatic relations.
With Israel increasingly isolated and American mediation efforts seriously compromised, only Turkey is emerging stronger from what can now only be seen as the beginning of a regional realignment of power. Once viewed with suspicion throughout the area where the Ottomans ruled, Turkey may now be the only power that has even a remote chance of one day brokering peace in the Middle East.