Originally posted: September, 2010


In January 2010, I came face-to-face with my nation’s complicated and deep-rooted relationship with the Arab world. As my non-Turkish friends and I left the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s memorial in downtown Beirut, we saw a large egg-shaped building that could have been a spaceship. Since the building was not in our guidebook, one of my friends asked a nearby guard what it was. After the guard explained that the building was an abandoned IMAX movie theater, my friend introduced himself, his wife, and then paused before finally introducing me. As he did so, I saw the guard’s nametag and the root of my friend’s anxiety: the guard was Armenian and it was not clear how he would react to my being a Turk. But the guard smiled broadly, and spoke to me in Turkish instead of Arabic: “Ben de Adanaliyim. Beyrut’a hoşgeldiniz.” (I am from Adana, [Turkey]. Welcome to Beirut.) Although he had never visited Turkey and his family had left Turkey over a century ago, he spoke Turkish fluently and explained that it was his native tongue. He easily could have passed for a native-born Turk from the southeast. He told me about his grandparents and parents — how they spoke Turkish and ate Turkish food, how they still watched Turkish television programs and listened to Turkish radio programs, and how they were still called “Turks.” He insisted that I have dinner with them or at least come back to have tea with him. We embraced each other as if we had met a long-lost relative.

The idea that I would either visit Lebanon or meet an Armenian who would speak my mother tongue would have been inconceivable a quarter century ago when I came of age. During the 1970s and the 1980s, Turkey viewed its strategic interests and its national identity as aligned with the United States and Western Europe. Being unquestionably and totally pro-American (and hence anti-communist) was synonymous with Turkish nationalism. People who spoke of Turks’ ethnic and cultural ties with people beyond Turkey’s national borders were labeled ultra-nationalists or pan-Turks. Anyone who had interest in the Arab world or even Arabic as a language was a potential radical Islamist, whose loyalty was at best questionable. After all, the Arabs had plotted with the British and the French against the Ottoman Turks during World War I. Their revolt (1916–18) was perceived as a “stab in the back” by Turks, who had defended Mecca and Medina, the Muslim holy cities, from the British Empire. Arabs also exported radical Islam to Turkey, maintained claims to Turkish territory, allied with the Soviet Union, and could seemingly undermine Turkey’s stability at any time. By contrast, Turkey was a member of the Western alliance and had rightly rejected its Islamic, Arab, and regional ties — ties that had weakened the Turkish people and had contributed to decline of the Ottoman Empire.

This vision, however, was not just limited to Arabs. It applied to all of Turkey’s other neighbors and was symptomatic of Turks’ deep-rooted fear that the country was surrounded by enemies. These fears also reflected Turks’ collective psychological “trauma” of having inherited a collapsed empire. Turks were certain that the Greeks wanted to divide Turkey, sought to reverse their losses from the war over Cyprus in 1974, and received substantial support from Europe and America. Relations were also poor with Bulgaria. Turks viewed the Soviet Union, which dominated the north, as ready to devour the country, while the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) threatened it from the East. In addition, Turks worried that the Western powers were waiting to divide the country, as they had done after World War I.

Given all of these potential enemies, we always had to be watchful and alert to new threats. And in many respects, our vigilance was justified. But the constant vigilance also created a political environment in which Turkey’s leaders on both the left and the right could postpone addressing national challenges indefinitely and blame any problem on foreign scapegoats. Externalizing the enemy thus had the effect of minimizing inherent structural and political weaknesses and deferring action aimed at improving Turkey’s domestic situation.

Turkish perceptions of its neighbors, however, began to change after the collapse of the Soviet Union, fostered by globalization. Various Turkish politicians and leaders of the right, the left, and the center-right parties decided that Turkey needed to shift its foreign policy and to revise the principle that the nation was threatened by all of its neighbors. This new vision for Turkish foreign policy embraced globalization and emphasized the role of trade in foreign relations as never before. This vision also sought to harness Turkey’s “soft” power to promote new cultural and trade relations, especially with its immediate neighbors. In addition, Turkish leaders aimed to transform their nation into a regional power but not — as some have argued — to revive a neo-Ottoman worldview or the Ottoman Empire. This new framework rejected the fearful mindset of the past and regarded Turkey’s neighbors as having the potential to help the country address its pressing domestic problems. Over the last decade, we have seen the benefits of these new approaches, as Turkey’s per capita income has increased and its trade with its neighbors has expanded greatly.

Equally importantly, Turks, Arabs, and others in the region have benefited from the passage of time. The events of World War I in particular no longer carry the same ideological and historical significance today as they did for past generations. With this new perspective, people can re-embrace familial and cultural ties that transcend the national borders established in the early 20th century. Especially after visa restrictions were relaxed by Turkey and several Arab countries in 2009 and 2010, Turkey has become a tourist destination for millions of Syrians, Lebanese, and Jordanians. Arab tourists flock not only to the Turkish cities across the Syrian border, Istanbul, and Mediterranean holiday resorts, but also to the remote highlands of Turkey’s eastern Black Sea Coast. Stores that directly appeal to Arab customers have multiplied in Turkey. Turkish soap operas and Turkish singers have found large audiences in the Arab world. In addition, Turkish consumer items are found widely in Arab households. All of these promote Turkey’s image as a Westernized, secular, democratic, economically-developed country.

While Turkey’s engagement with the Arab world and its neighbors is associated with the rise of the AKP and the ideas of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoĝlu, we should not lose sight of the fact that Turkey’s current engagement with its neighbors dates back to the presidency of Turgut Özal. From 1983 until his death in 1993, Özal built commercial, cultural, and political ties with Turkey’s neighbors in Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. During the era of coalition governments in the mid- and late-1990s, Turkish Prime Ministers Tansu Çiller and M. Bülent Ecevit worked to increase Turkish ties with the Middle East. Although the Ecevit government (1999–2002) developed warm relations with Israel, it nonetheless denounced Israeli attacks on a Palestinian refugee camp in 2002 as “genocide.”

Still, there is little question that Turkey’s engagement with the Arab world and the wider Middle East accelerated when the AKP was elected to power in 2002 and especially when Davutoĝlu became Turkey’s Foreign Minister in 2009. He has won support throughout Turkey for his approach to foreign affairs in the Middle East and Central Asia, a policy approach that he calls the “zero problems with neighbors policy.” Even Turks who vigorously oppose the AKP policies domestically hail Davutoĝlu’s foreign policy as a rousing success. It is likely that future Turkish governments, including those that might be led by the AKP’s opponents, will continue to follow this approach. In the long run, Turkey’s relations with its Arab and non-Arab neighbors look bright and mutually beneficial.

Nevertheless, as the May 2010 crisis over the Turkish aid flotilla for Gaza reveals, Turkey’s embrace of its neighbors entails risks. If Turkish leaders fail to grasp a vision that goes beyond man-made boundaries and permit their emotions to override other considerations, Turkey could find itself even worse off than it was during its most difficult moments in the Cold War. It is worth considering what value an Eastern-oriented policy holds for Turkey, if adopting such an approach leads the country to disregard its two-centuries-old Westernization policy, the core principles of the Republic, and alienates Turkey’s strategic partners in the West. While trade with its neighbors has grown, half of Turkey’s total trade is with the European Union. Nor has Turkey’s engagement with its neighbors erased previous disagreements on territorial borders or the place of Islam in the modern world. Without careful guidance and balance, the “zero problems policy” could become a “problems with all neighbors policy.”