Steven A. Cook

From the Potomac to the Euphrates

Cook examines developments in the Middle East and their resonance in Washington.

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Turkey: From Zero Problems to Cok Problems

by Steven A. Cook
November 17, 2011


Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks to the media during a news conference in Ankara.

Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu talks to the media during a news conference in Ankara (Umit Bektas/Courtesy Reuters).

INSTANBUL — With the sharp deterioration of Turkish-Syrian relations over the last two days, some Turkish and Western observers have declared Ankara’s “zero-problems” foreign policy dead and buried.  This sentiment has been building for some time, especially among critics of the ruling Justice and Development Party, but the denouement of the Erdogan/Davutoglu investment in Bashar al Assad—a signature policy—seems to have signaled the end of what has been billed as Turkey’s transformative diplomacy.  The facts are hard to ignore.  In an era when Ankara aspired to know problems with its neighbors, it actually has cok problems: Syria, Israel, Armenia, Iran, Cyprus, and the EU to name just a few.

To be fair, Ankara’s neighbors have not exactly cooperated, but at the same time, it is not all that much of a surprise that zero problems has not delivered as promised.  For all of Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s many talents, his signature policy was not all that visionary.  In fact, it was downright conventional.  Stripped of all the romance about Turkey being a role model, zero problems was based on the central hunch that drives economic determinism: If people are getting richer and happier, they will accept the status quo because they will develop an economic interest in said status quo, in turn, providing incentive to avoid any problems for fear it might undermine people’s newfound wealth and ipso facto, presto—zero problems.

In ways, this was a potentially genius way of dealing with Turkey’s Kurdish problem. Drop trade barriers, visa requirements, and invest in Syria and Iraq and the economic and political benefits to Turkey’s southeast would be enormous. By making Kurds richer and happier, Davutoglu assumed they would be less inclined to make cultural and national demands on the Turkish state.  It hasn’t exactly worked out that way.  Regionally, the weakness at the heart of zero problems was that it  had no commitment to any particular kind of government.  As a result, it was bound up in the Middle East’s old political order.

While AKP was driving democratic changes at home, the prime minister and foreign minister were courting nasty Middle Eastern leaders.  Assad, to take an example, is the opposite of Erdogan.  The Turkish prime minister owes his power and success to an appealing vision for Turkish society, the ability to deliver socio-economic benefits to Turks, and a whole lot of charisma.  These factors have consistently returned him to office with ever-larger percentages of the popular vote. The Syrian president is the son of a brutal dictator who remains in power through his willingness to spill the blood of his own people.  The same stunning irony was clear in Turkey’s relations with Qadhafi’s Libya.  Once these regimes faltered, which, again in all fairness to Ankara hardly seemed inevitable, zero problems was likely to look like a bad bet.  Once the game was up, revealing Turkey to be no different from any other major power in the region all too willing to do business with unseemly characters, Erdogan and Davutoglu were forced to tack hard against their own policies.  Zero problems is now dead because it became unsustainable as Qadhafi massed forces against Tripoli or Bashar al Assad cranks up the violence to save his regime.

The combination of deft public relations, the help of some parts of the national press all too willing to engage in national self-aggrandizement, and an emerging consensus among international foreign policy elites about the benefits of the “Turkish model,” has rescued the AKP’s foreign policy from the gap between Ankara’s principles and its actual conduct in the region.  There are exceptions to this, of course.  Erdogan has been consistent in his position on Gaza, which has won him widespread admiration in the Arab world.  Still, for those who bother to look critically, zero problems and its demise reveal that like the United States, the EU, and other global powers, Turkey only became a champion of human rights and democracy in the Middle East world after Arabs took matters into their own hands and began bringing down Ankara’s friends.

Post a Comment 8 Comments

  • Posted by Fake Herzog


    You say, “The Turkish prime minister owes his power and success to an appealing vision for Turkish society, the ability to deliver socio-economic benefits to Turks, and a whole lot of charisma.”

    I won’t deny Erdogan’s charisma as well as the fact that he has delivered economic growth for Turkey over the past decade (but will it last?) But surely you can’t ignore the fact that he throws his critics and enemies into jail helps Erdogan stay in power and silence his opposition, can you?

  • Posted by Imran Riffat

    While Turkey may have fumbled in making a grand success of its Davutoğlu led policy this commentary is a rather harsh indictment of the “zero-problems” foreign policy. It is only fair to allow a longer gestation period to see the results. The comment that “the prime minister and foreign minister were courting nasty Middle Eastern leaders” may be true. But then how does it differ from our own foreign policy of molly-coddling the nasty House of Saud which is an emblem of total disregard for all principles of basic human rights? Just as the policies of the western powers towards dictatorial regimes are driven by their own economic interests Turkey’s flexibility of approach is no different. The “Turkish model” should not be discarded in haste; with some tweaking it has a better chance of finding traction in the Middle East, and any illusions of planting the Westminster model are totally misplaced.

  • Posted by ifran seyyid

    A total misunderstanding of the zero policy: Turks tried to gain the hearts of the people in the middle east streets without putting them in pressure from their governments. Opening borders and creating a middle eastern Schengen-like union would benefit the people in the region, and was indeed harmed the Syrian intelligence. In short, Turks were trying to help the people by raising their life standards instead of a foreign intervention.

  • Posted by Omer Karasapan

    Fully agree with Mr. Imran Riffat that this is an unnecessarily harsh evaluation which will undoubtedly be revised as events in the region develop. The rather boisterous welcome given PM Erdogan in his visits to Egypt, Libya and Tunisia do demonstrate that Turkey’s quick about face in calling for the ouster of Mubarak, Qaddafi and now Assad is well received by Arab public opinion. As apparently is the support given to those countries during and the wake of their revolutions. I also do think that tying the whole zero-problem policy solely to a strategy of placating the Kurds is short-sighted. Clearly, economic well-being will help in that regard but everyone in Turkey realizes that the solutions needs to be political and the real debate is on those parameters. Turkey does still represent a good role model for the region, especially in terms of reconciling Islam, democracy and a modern competitive economy. Is it perfect, no, but does it show promise and a positive vision ahead for the region? I would think so and that is what much of the Arab public opinion seems to be saying.

  • Posted by Eylem Polat

    As long as turkey don’t sort out of its own domestic ethical problems. The country cannot improve zero problem relations with its neigbours. Its own minority issues always would be used against Turkey as it used. And also its own democracy must be Eropean Standart

  • Posted by Norman

    Turkey is often seen an enigma? Why? Turkey is home to many Christians and Jews. During the persecution of the Roman Catholic church and the Holy Roman empire, Jews and Christians found solace in Turkey. Nobody ever thought of an Eastern Diaspora. The prophet Daniel spoke of it (Dan 12:11). The seven churches in Revelation spread throughout from Turkey. Turkey was one of first countries who recognized Israel as a nation. Whatever Turkey finds itself now, it cannot escape from manifest destiny.

  • Posted by Jossef Perl

    Turkey under Edrogen has lead the most opportunistic and self-aggrandizing foreign policy under the name of “zero problems.” Prior to the Syrian crisis, the “zero problems” policy was an activist cynical policy aimed at gaining prestige in the Arab World, through PR stunts and harsh speaches critical of the West and Israel. While criticising Israel’s operation in Gaza and its blockade on Gaza in the harshest language possible, rejecting UN Commission findings on the Gaza blockade and threatening to provide military escorts to break the blockad, it sent 10000 troops across the border into Iraq in pursuing of the PKK, receiving no international criticism for violating Iraqi sovreignty. With the Arab Spring and particularily after the uprising in Syria, Turkey is now paying the price for its short-sighted cynical adventuristic foreign policy. After alienating the West it has now lost everything it was hoping to gain in its realtionships with its neighboors Iran and Syria.

  • Posted by Wael Berjaoui

    I want to add 2 comments. It is clear that Erdogan,s vision and secret love has all along been the MUslim brotherhood. Seeing a coalition extending from TUrkey to Syria to gaza and north Africa is now within reach. Erdogan will seize this once in millennium oppurtunity even if Assad concedes to the opposition demands.
    The other goal of zero problem policy was to remove an alibi the military may use. The smartness of AKP is that they minimized the security threat making the military less relevant.

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