Has the West really "lost" Turkey? With Ankara showing a new cordiality to countries like Syria and Iran, foreign-policy analysts are scrambling to assess whether Turkey has shrugged off Europe and the United States in favor of its Muslim neighbors. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu sat down with NEWSWEEK's Owen Matthews, Yenal Belgici, and Semin Gumusel in Ankara recently to discuss NATO, Iran, Barack Obama, and the thinking behind Turkey's new diplomacy. Excerpts:
Matthews: Many of Turkey's allies are wondering, after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's recent visit to Iran, whose side is Turkey on?
Davutoglu: In order to answer this question, you have to understand the geography and the history of Turkey. We are a European country and we are an Asian country. We have direct access to the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. So Turkish foreign policy has to be multiregional, multidimensional. We are also part of European history. But at the same time, the history of more than 20 [Middle Eastern and Balkan] countries could be written only using Turkish archives. We have more Bosnians in Turkey than in Bosnia itself, more Albanians than in Albania, as well as Kurds and Arabs. Because of these historic connections, all these countries have certain expectations from us.
Matthews: Isn't friendship with Iran mutually exclusive with membership in NATO?
Our relations with Iran are not something new. The Turkish-Iranian border has been stable for 370 years. We have been implementing a policy of "zero problems with our neighbors," not just with Iran, but also Iraq and Syria and also with non-Muslim countries such as Georgia, Bulgaria, Greece, Russia, Romania, and with all of our other neighbors. All our [regional] relations improved. Today Russia is our biggest trade partner; our relationship with Greece and Georgia are excellent. So it's a consistent policy across the board. You can't say that Turkey is giving special priority to Iran. The question should be: is having zero problems with our neighbors compatible with being a candidate for the EU and a member of NATO? From our perspective, yes, they are compatible. This is the whole philosophy of the EU itself, which emerged through minimizing political problems with its neighbors. Similarly, we want to have a zone of security and stability around us. And this is exactly the European approach, based on European philosophy and European values. If you study Germany's Ostpolitik [of détente with the Soviet bloc] in the 1960s, you can understand Turkey's Eastern politics in 2009.
Matthews: Turkey is now in a position of influence that it hasn't had in long time. Does that not mean that Turkey has emerged as one of the winners of the Iraq War?
We would have the same foreign policy toward the Middle East even if there had been no war in Iraq. Our foreign policy toward the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the Balkans is not opportunistic but based on firm principles. In order to have a new prosperous, stable, secure Middle East, we have been implementing a proactive peace diplomacy. That's why we initiated direct Syrian-Israeli talks; that's how we were able to unite Sunni groups [in Iraq] and convince them to participate in politics in 2005. We have been very active in Lebanese politics to resolve disputes between Sunnis and Shias, and active in Gaza trying to achieve a ceasefire. We have also been trying to resolve issues regarding the Iranian nuclear program and signed agreements with Armenia and moved forward in resolving the Armenian-Azerbaijan dispute. During the Georgian crisis we initiated the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, and we have mediated in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia.
Matthews: But the Iraq War created a power vacuum that you are now filling.
The same war in Iraq also created big risks for Turkey. This type of international issue creates risks and advantages at the same time. How this new context will be interpreted and be responded to depends on the political will of a country. Turkey implemented a consistent foreign policy; therefore, now we have excellent relations in the region. But it is because of our foreign policy, not because of the war in Iraq. We have been sincere, we have been active, and we did not change our policy because of some very conjectural short-term interests.
Gumusel: Is Turkey's success at regional problem-solving inspired by Europe?
Europe is a beautiful example to follow—I mean, the generation that fought [World War II] and caused millions of deaths in Europe was the same generation that established the European Union. We want to be a part of this beautiful example and to reflect this experience onto other regions.
Matthews: Are relations between Turkey and the U.S. better than during the Bush administration?
Much better. Obama's style is to encourage more multilateralism, more consultation, more interaction with allies, instead of preparing policy and implementing it before consulting with other allies.
Matthews: What does the U.S. want from Turkey?
If you permit me, that question is typical Cold War logic. It assumes that there is one power, the United States, who always wants something from us. But being an ally means sharing, being inclusive. If you ask Secretary [Hillary] Clinton what are the 10 most important issues facing American foreign policy today, and ask me the same question [about Turkey], we will come up with the same list. Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, energy security, the Caucasus, the Balkans. We share the problems, and we are therefore trying to solve these problems together.
Gumusel: Where do you see yourself and Turkey in 10 years?
I see a country that has managed to start economic integration and has solid relations with all its neighbors. Also, a country that has become a member of the EU. I see a Turkey which keeps an effective role within NATO and which is also a key player not only in security-related fields but also in economic organizations such as G20. I do not think these objectives are unreachable by the year 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic, 14 years from now.
Bilgici: You emphasize that you criticize Israel on a moral basis. Doesn't it damage Turkish foreign policy not to criticize Sudan for what has happened in Darfur?
We have been working on to provide a better dialogue between the parties in Darfur and the Sudanese government. When President [Omar] al-Bashir came to Turkey, our president criticized him in a most sincere and open way. We think that we have managed to develop a morally responsible relationship with Sudan.