Blake Hounshell: This year, one of the most dramatic events in world politics was when Turkey and Brazil joined up to cut a fuel-swap deal with Iran over its enriched uranium. And that was seen by many as a watershed moment: Here you have two rising powers taking matters into their own hands and trying to solve an important global problem. Obviously it hasn’t succeeded yet. Why not? And what is your response to critics who say that Turkey and Brazil were naive in thinking that Iran was willing to do a serious deal?
Ahmet Davutoglu: First of all, “taking matters into their own hands” — this phrase should be clarified. Turkey and Brazil, both of these countries are members of the United Nations Security Council. When we were being elected to the Security Council, our commitment to the world community who elected us was that we will be working hard, we will be doing everything possible in order to make sure that there is no tension in international relations, that there will be no threat of war, and we will be working for diplomatic solutions. This was our commitment, both for Turkey and Brazil. So it was not something we decided. It was our commitment.
Secondly, we did not decide alone. This idea of a swap deal was discussed between the P5+1 [the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany] and Iran before our initiative. And former IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei developed this formulation and approached us to ask whether Turkey could work with both sides in order to store Iran’s 3.5 percent enriched uranium in Turkey as a confidence-building [measure]. And we consulted with our allies. All of them agreed; Iran agreed; and so we started this initiative. And we worked very hard, together with Brazil, over eight months of hectic diplomacy from October to May. At the end of the day Iran accepted the swap deal, and we announced the agreement in Tehran.
And I always said this was not the success only of Turkey and Brazil, but this is the success of President Obama’s policy of engagement and multilateralism. If there was no policy of engagement and multilateralism, this agreement would not have been possible.
BH: Do you think President Obama is moving away from engagement and trying to build new relationships in the world?
AD: I don’t think President Obama has abandoned the policy of engagement. Even on the day when the U.N. sanctions were passed against Iran, President Obama declared that the diplomatic track is still on and they are ready to negotiate with Iran.
I always like Winston Churchill’s phrase: It is not the end. It is not the beginning. It is the end of the beginning. All these processes are ends of the beginning.
BH: Who would you say has had the biggest impact on your thinking as an intellectual and as a foreign-policy practitioner?
AD: Of course as intellectuals there are many people who really had an influence on me. For example, Plato in his dialogues has interesting things to say about ideals and practice.
BH: A Turkish foreign minister citing a Greek thinker.
AD: Yes, of course! For us, he is not only a Greek thinker; he is our thinker, because if you read the works of Ottoman scholars of the 16th century, all of these Greek scholars were addressed as “our masters.” So for us, they represent the history of all traditions, and theirs are the values of humanity.
And of course I’m influenced by many other leaders like Gandhi, as a practitioner and as a visionary trying to use unconventional new methods to achieve political objectives. In order to achieve peace, you have to be creative.
In 2003, when I became chief advisor [to the prime minister], in one of the first interviews I gave I said, “We have to have zero problems with our neighbors.” Many people thought, “Typical utopian academic. How, given the reality of Turkey’s relations with its neighbors, can you achieve this?” And, in the last eight years, under the leadership and political stability of Prime Minister Erdogan, it has been proven that it’s not a utopian idea. It is a reality today; nobody expects any crisis between Turkey and any neighbor.
BH: Are you using your book, Strategic Depth, as a kind of handbook for your time as foreign minister?
AD: When I wrote Strategic Depth, I was not minister or chief advisor. It was published in 2001, when I was a professor at the university, and the purpose of this book was to reinterpret Turkish geography and history in the new situation of post-Cold War politics. To be frank, I did not imagine at that time that I would be asked to implement these theories. But because of the political change in Turkey, I was asked to help first as an advisor, then as a minister. And now that I am in this position, it is like a test for me.
BH: Are there things you’ve learned as a practitioner that maybe you’d gotten wrong in the book?
AD: Not wrong. In general, I’m really surprised by how well theory and practice match up. But in practice, you learn even more than you do from books sometimes.
I can give you an example. In 2005, we were trying to help the political process in Iraq. At that time, we were trying to convince Sunni insurgent groups to participate in the elections and become a political party rather than just a resistance. In the last meeting, after they complained, they criticized each other — five, six different groups — I made a speech.
I talked about Baghdad in the 10th century, 16thcentury, 18th century, and how it has been the center of civilizations: “Now, Baghdad is in such a situation that it is not a center of civilizational activity anymore. Even the streets are being divided; the houses are being divided between Sunnis and Shiites. Your ancestors gave you Baghdad, and now which type of Baghdad are you planning to give to your grandsons?”
One of the leaders, very old, his response was a lesson for me. After an emotional response to my speech, he said to his colleagues in a different competing group, “We have to listen to this gentleman because he speaks like a Baghdadi.”
Empathy is important in politics. You learn that in order to solve a crisis or help a people, you have to behave as one of them.
Therefore, as a Turk, now I am European in Brussels, or Iraqi in Baghdad, Bosnian in Sarajevo, or Samarkandi in Central Asia. And these are not conflicting identities. If you want to contribute to regional and global peace, you have to speak from within. You should not impose. You should not dictate.
BH: Some people have criticized your conception of Turkey’s foreign policy, saying that it’s impossible to improve relations with one group of countries (for example, Syria and Iran) while maintaining good relations with, say, Israel and the United States. This year there’s been enormous friction in the relationship between Turkey and Israel specifically. Do you agree with people who see a long-term difference in views about the region?
AD: I still argue and I still insist that it is possible to have good relations with different conflicting parties if you implement a policy of values and principles.
For example, from December 2002 until December 2008 — six years of the same Turkish government — we had good relations with Israel. And for two years we held confidential indirect negotiations between Israel and Syria, followed by open negotiations for one year. That same year, we had excellent relations with Syria and Israel. We had good relations with Iran and Israel. And we were very close to starting direct talks. We had almost agreed on everything, to start direct talks on Monday. On Saturday of that same week in December, Israel attacked Gaza.
And that attack created a big crisis in our region. Around 1,500 people were killed. Civilians. Children. Women. We are trying to implement a policy of peace in our region; we could not be silent.
Similarly, this year they attacked a civilian convoy, and they killed nine civilians, eight of them Turkish, one an American citizen. Now, who can tolerate an attack against a civilian convoy in international waters? In international waters! And this civilian convoy did not violate Israeli territory, did not harm any Israeli citizen or anything. So this was the reason.
It is possible to have zero problems if the other actors respect our values. It doesn’t mean that we will be silent in order to have good relations with all parties.