Turkey: Zero Chances for "Zero Problems"

Since the election of Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2002, Turkey followed a different foreign policy orientation. The man behind this foreign policy shift was Ahmet Davutoglu, today’s Foreign Minister. Davutoglu had a whole new idea about how the goals of Turkish foreign policy should be pursued and in his book “Strategic Depth” (Stratejik Derinlik) (2001) he brilliantly drafts a strategic doctrine for Turkey’s new foreign policy. Despite its relative success, this doctrine is seriously challenged by many regional developments, which are making it hard to believe that its implementation could ever be possible.

“Zero Problems”

A central theme of Davutoglu’s, and Turkey’s, foreign policy doctrine is the “zero problems with neighbors” principle. In brief, this suggests that Turkey wants to re-engage with the Arab world and the broader region more generally, by playing the role of the peace broker and mediator for regional disputes and conflicts. Based on “zero problems” Turkey is willing to abandon its crisis prone attitude and resort to “soft power”, cultural and historical bonds with its neighbors, and create economic and political relations of interdependence between the states of the Middle East and beyond, in order to resolve any bilateral or regional problems. At the same time Turkey is not neglecting the good relations that it should maintain with international actors like the US, EU and Russia. However, the last few months Turkish foreign policy has been facing quite a few problems not only in its region but also internationally. This has led many analysts to reconsider the feasibility of the “zero problems” principles and the goals of the Turkish foreign policy themselves.


The dead-ends that Ankara is facing extend, mainly, to three fronts; namely, the Middle East, Eastern Mediterranean and the International Level.

Middle East: The root of most of Turkey’s problems on its borders with its neighbors (Iran, Syria, and Iraq) is the Kurdish separatist movement which consists of Kurds militants from Syria, Northern Iraq, Iran and of course PKK in Turkey. Apart from a short period of relative peace between the Turkish government and the Kurds in the early 2000s, the Kurdish issue kept posing an important threat to Turkey’s security. In the midst of the Arab Spring the Kurdish problem has escalated while the attacks of the Kurdish militants have become more efficient since Israel has stopped providing intelligence to Turkey – regarding the Kurdish movements – due to the significant decline of the relations between the two countries. Turkey is now undertaking military operations in Northern Iraq against the militant Kurds and is trying to cooperate with Iraq to contain the Kurdish insurgency. But, as noted, N. Iraq is not Turkey’s only problem. Despite Turkey’s need for Iran’s help in the conflict against the Kurdish secessionists, Ankara’s latest decision to install NATO antimissile systems in its soil raised concerns in Iran and put the fragile relations of the two countries in danger. In addition, the emerging civil war in Syria, and the violent crackdown of the regime on the protesters thus far, have been very important destabilizing factors that create even more insecurities to Turkey. Faced with this deteriorating situation, Turkey has already threatened Syria twice: the first time in August and the second time in October. And Turkey has done so after Davudoglu himself, a little more than a year ago, wrote that “[a]lthough Turkey maintains a powerful military due to its insecure neighborhood, we do not make threats”. In the same spirit he wrote that “Turkey can use its unique understanding of the Middle East, and its diplomatic assets, to operate effectively on the ground. Turkey’s Lebanon policy, its attempts to mediate between Syria and Israel and achieve Palestinian reconciliation […] are integral parts of Turkey’s foreign-policy vision for the Middle East” (Ibid.). Today, Turkey uses the Palestinian quest for statehood to gain the support of the Arab states and diplomatically pressure Tel Aviv in order to win the diplomatic battle that it has been having with Israel. It is worth noting that in September Turkey also threatened Israel that it would send humanitarian aid to Gaza Strip accompanied by warships to make sure for its safety. Moreover, a few weeks ago it was said that Lebanon’s decision to dispute its marine borders with Israel and Cyprus was influenced by Turkey.

Eastern Mediterranean: The last point brings us to the challenges that the “zero problems” principle of Davutoglu’s doctrine is facing in the Eastern Mediterranean. The drillings for the extraction of natural gas and oil in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) by “Noble Energy” – a company of American interests – was an unexpected development for Turkey. Cyprus, which shares marine borders with Greece and Israel, is closely cooperating with both of these countries, and especially with Israel since their undersea energy reserves are adjoined. Turkey, since summer months, has been threatening Greece, Cyprus and Israel in order to convince them to stop the drillings. It even mobilized warships, frigates and military airplanes, both near Cyprus and Greece, to make the threats more plausible. The threatened countries responded with cooperation agreements or solidarity statements. The Aegean Sea has been a disputed area between Greece and Turkey for decades and a cause that brought the two counties to the brink of war in the past. It is important that Greece and Cyprus, unlike Turkey, have signed and ratified the Law of the Sea Treaty (1982). Whereas Greece wants a legal settlement of the problem, Turkey wants a political one. In Cyprus the problem regards the Turkish illegal occupation of 37% of the Island. Turkey uses the rights of the Turkish-Cypriots, which have been secured from the Republic of Cyprus, as an excuse to dispute the Republic of Cyprus’ right to operate in its EEZ. The Republic of Cyprus has already stated that Turkish-Cypriots are citizens of the Republic of Cyprus and are entitled to any possible profits that will occur from the drillings in the future, especially if a settlement unifies the island under a federal system. Furthermore, it has been lately made known that 100.000 Turkish Cypriots own a passport of the Republic of Cyprus and are therefore European citizens. Consequently it becomes clear that Turkey has not abolished its crisis prone orientation and that it is willing to put aside the “zero problems” or “soft power” rhetoric if geopolitical or economic interests are considered more important. Turkey’s threats for example, on the one hand, and its decision to delimitate its contiental shelf with Northern Cyprus (“TRNC”) – a legally (de jure) nonexistent state, recognized only by Turkey – on the other, do not present willingness for “zero problems”.

International Level: Turkey’s latest behavior both in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean has been troubling for International actors like the EU, US and Russia. To begin with, the bad relations between Israel and Turkey and Turkey’s threats towards Cyprus – given that the drillings in Cyprus are being made by an American company – do not please the US at all, and the State Department made that very clear to Ankara. At the same time, the EU, especially France and Germany, is constantly asking Turkey to restrain itself and refrain from provocative actions, as that would not help its EU candidacy. France in particular sent a warship close to Cyprus’ marine boarders to show its opposition to the Turkish threats. Similarly, Russia sent ships and submarines, since it has many interests in, and very good diplomatic and economic relations with, the Republic of Cyprus. The diplomatic fronts that Turkey has opened with these actors, through its actions, contradict its foreign policy aim of finding the balance between its regional interests and the interests of its international and western allies.


It is evident that despite its successes, the new Turkish foreign policy doctrine is not working. In order for such a doctrine to work real changes need to be made in the political culture of the state’s elite and real concessions have to be made on a diplomatic and political level in different cases of the Turkish foreign policy. Making peace, let alone being a peace broker, with the region and the world comes with the appreciation of certain realities and the abandonment of some others. Even though Turkey has come a long way since 2002, especially in terms of democracy and domestic reforms, it seems that the results of those reforms, along with previous historical processes, have been twofold. Apart from democratizing the different levels of the state and civil society they have also allowed for a “revisionist political culture paradigm” to exploit the previous “status quo paradigm” and thus create an evolved paradigm that enjoys the support of the civil-society (exactly because it combines both political culture paradigms) and allows to the elites to apply a “soft power” rhetoric on the one hand and a “soft revisionism” practice, on the other. This last assumption needs to be thoroughly researched as the domestic, cultural and historical dynamics that lead to the Turkish foreign policy-making are very complicated. Turkey is indeed positioned in a very sensitive geopolitical location, which defines to a great extent its foreign and security policies. However, there are always more than one option and the management of the threats, the timely bilateral disputes and the relics of revisionism lie in the hands of the policy makers.

Published on The Globalized World Post (http://www.thegwpost.com/), 20/10/2011.


2 thoughts on “Turkey: Zero Chances for "Zero Problems"

  1. Protesilaos Stavrou

    Spot on analysis dear Zenonas!

    Just allow me to add that another mistake of Turkey in its stance vis a vis the Republic of Cyprus. By challenging the sovereign right of Cyprus to exploit whatever resources might exist within its EEZ, Turkey has indirectly forced global players to publicly reaffirm the sovereignty of Cyprus. This has effectively annulled roughly four decades of rhetoric about the nonexistence of the Republic of Cyprus.

    Turkey has indeed a big army, yet its force is mainly continental. In naval warfare and especially in our region and the Aegean, Turkey does not have any comparative advantage, since it cannot deploy its forces effectively. There cannot possibly be a “blitzkrieg” in the area, thus any war will become a war of attrition which makes the cause self-defeating.

    Davutoglu's book is mostly ideological and though we can discuss the impact ideology has in shaping foreign policy, there are much broader issues and many other parameters that simply cannot fit within the context of his theory. In general, Davutoglu is trapped in the fallacy of treating the Arab world as a single entity. However once this “Arab World” is seen with as clear eye, detached from theories and dogmas, the picture naturally becomes much more complex and multifaceted. Egypt and Jordan are in effect friends of Israel. North African countries are already in pro-western transition. About Iran, Iraq, Syria and the rest you already made mention, so which “Arab world” are we really talking about?

    I know you are already studying Turkish foreign policy, but I would just like to ask you if you have conducted any research on Turkey's interior, since I am of the belief that social, economic and religious issues are also very important to fully appreciate the current position of Turkey and to better estimate its actual power.

    Great work. Keep it up!

  2. Zenonas Tziarras

    Thanks Protesilaos. You are right. I think though that the reaffirmation of the sovereignty of Cyprus was not the worst development for Ankara in Cyprus, but it was rather the revese effect of non (and even de-)legitimization of the TRNC and its diplomatic relations with Turkey(i.e. the delimitation of the EEZ between Turkey and N. Cyprus). You are making a good point though that the whole situation has worked against Turkey by solidifying the legal status of the RoC! Turkey's navy may not be capable to carry Ankara's threats at the moment but it has surely come a long way since the 90s and it is today a very important constant of Turkey's power. The thing is that, even so, if Turkey were to engage in a war it would face too many fronts both in the sea and land, which would be catastrophic. Also lets not forget that Turkey is now experiencing a rapid economic development (most probably a ballon) which give it a comparative advantage; thus I dont think it would compromise that to go to war, at least for the time being. The things with the arab world are more complex, and to some extent Davutoglu is right (in rational terms) to pursue a geocultural policy. Maybe Egypt for example is more friendly to Israel, but this applies manly to the Egyptian elites; what about the people? Egyptian protesters led the Israeli ambassador flee the country a few weeks ago and welcomed Erdogan as the leader of the Muslim world. The same think happend in Libya. Of course you are right about the western influence but we should remember that neither Egypt, nor Libya are in the same place as Iraq was 8 years ago. The western influence – at least in my opinion – will be more covert and rely more on economic interest rather than seek to institutionalize the interests of the interveners in the political system (which is still possible, nonetheless). Also it noteworthy that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is becoming stronger and stronger and is now more intrested in coming to power than before. So, on the one hand you are right, about the complexity of the arab world and that we shouldnt perceive it as a monolithic entity, but on the other there are certain dynamics that are there and could be exploited – of course both Egypt and LIbya are cases in progress and we'll see what happens. Regarding my research, if you are talking about fieldwork I havent done any yet, I am planning on doing some this summer. Other than that I very much agree with you and that is why the theoretical aspect of my research focuses on the role of domestic politics, historical, cultural and religious processes and experiences and the way they are expressed in political and security/strategic culture, both of the elites and the civic society. A very small example of my work is the “political culture” part of the above conclusion.

    Thanks for your comment! Always nice to exchange comments with you.


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