Revitalizing Turkey’s Future with its Ottoman Past

Since the inception of its protracted European Union bid in 2005, Turkey has scrambled to fulfill the requirements dictated by current E.U. member states, including human rights reform and far-reaching economic legislation.

These talks have recently ground to a halt, with dozens of issues left unresolved. While there is evident desire within certain parts of the E.U. (especially by Cyprus and France) to exclude Turkey, the reverse is also true – many domestic public opinion polls show a diminished Turkish desire to participate in the E.U.  This backlash against E.U. membership has increased since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AK party, has entered its third term.  But without the European Union, what is the future of Turkey’s foreign policy?

Ahmet Davutoglu, Erdogan’s Foreign Minister, is the author of Turkey’s distinctive and popular “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which has formed the backbone of its foreign relations for the last decade.  True to its name, the policy has sought to minimize conflicts with the nations surrounding Turkey, referring to all of them as “neighbors” rather than “allies” and “enemies.”  Though many doubt the ultimate durability of this doctrine, it has expanded to the mediation-based efforts that Turkey made on behalf of Israel and Palestine, coming near to brokering a peace agreement in 2008.

In some ways, this regional role is reminiscent of how the Ottoman Empire bridged the gap between East and West, reconciling its client states from both spheres.  This new role as a mediator could serve as the basis for a coherent foreign policy without the military hegemony of Ottoman times.  Davutoglu himself provides major clues to the new roles Turkish foreign policy will take on in his 2001 book Strategic Depth. He defines “strategic depth” as a toolkit of fallback plans, with which a nation can rely on both internal (geographical) and external (diplomatic) resources in a moment of need. Adding to more familiar Western constructs, Davutoglu’s understanding of strategic depth encompasses historical relationships between peoples, not only current politics.

As a strategic concept, it proves much more valuable than a definition limited to geography.  This new understanding is what underpins and explains Turkey’s re-emergence as a regional power. If “depth” is to be understood in terms of the Ottoman Empire’s illustrious and powerful past, it provides a near carte blanche for the regional growth of Turkish power.  Turkey’s powerful re-entry has brought it into conflict with more established regional powers like Iran.

This doctrine means that Turkey will creatively seek — and find — allies everywhere. The historical relationship between Turkey and its neighbors is likely to also have economic implications. Turkey’s remarkable economic success makes it poised to serve as a shining example for the region.  Other nations’ future emulation of Turkey’s free market system could also allow Turkey to assert its leadership in regional economic organization. Its implicit role as a powerful economic model has begun to cause friction with other powers, as when Iran’s Ayatollah recently called the exportation of its economic system “unexpected and unimaginable.”

Turkey has already begun to establish regional trading blocs as far away as Central Asia, focusing on Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.  In its overtures to these countries, Turkey has made efforts to appeal to a common Ottoman history, underscoring the longevity of its influence in the region and signaling a legitimate return to its status as a regional great power.

Many of Turkey’s recent actions indicate an impending break with the West, including its feud with Israel and refusal to host U.S. troops overseas.  But at the same time, these policies seem necessary to preserve Turkey’s positive regional reputation among nations that are virulently anti-Israel and ambivalent toward the West.  Turkey wants to be a leader in the Middle East, and it recognizes that to do so it must align itself politically with prevailing regional opinion – and, perhaps, away from the European Union.

It remains to be seen in what specific ways Turkey will influence the Middle East, but its adherence to the doctrine of “strategic depth” and its sense of continuity with the powerful Ottoman tradition promises Turkey a bright future.  But despite all the hoops it has jumped through in the past for E.U. membership, its future will probably be outside of that body.


Published by Allison Lazarus

Allison Lazarus is a contributor to The Politic from Cincinnati, Ohio. Contact her at

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