Zero Problems in a New Era
Realpolitik is no answer to the challenges posed by the Arab Spring.
Following its electoral victory in 2002, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AK Party) embarked on an ambitious reform program in both domestic and foreign policy. The Middle East has changed dramatically over the past decade, but our government’s foreign policy philosophy remains the same. In particular, our "zero problem with neighbors" principle remains alive and well — and more relevant than ever to resolving the challenges facing our region.
From the moment the AK Party government was formed, it faced enormous foreign-policy challenges. On the one hand, Turkey was confronted with an immediate crisis, as the ill-fated U.S. war on Iraq was fast impending. On the other hand, Turkey was plagued by chronic foreign-policy disputes with nearly all of its neighbors — disputes that served as tremendous barriers to the normalization of regional relations.
In many ways, Turkey’s diplomacy during the Iraq war and beyond, where it sought to mediate between all major political groups, foretold the efforts we, the AK Party, were going to undertake in the coming years. It was our goal to liberate Turkey from its problematic relations with neighboring countries, address the persistent fault lines and tensions in its vicinity through regional cooperation, and act with a clear foreign-policy vision underpinned by proactive rather than reactive policies. This forward-looking foreign policy led to a redefinition of Turkey’s policy toward its neighbors.
As a scholar of international relations, I have long asserted that a major reason for Turkey’s relative isolation from its neighborhood had to do with the framework that dominated the mindset of Turkish foreign-policy elites for decades — a mindset that erected obstacles between Turkey and its neighbors physically, mentally, and politically. The new AK Party government hoped to reintegrate Turkey with its surroundings, and this new strategy necessitated a major break with the old foreign-policy culture. In its electoral platform, the AK Party resolved to improve relations with Turkey’s neighbors and pursue a more dynamic and multidimensional foreign policy. This was a foreign-policy vision I had been advocating in academia, and was thus more than happy to make my own contribution toward the realization of that new approach.
When I became Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s chief foreign-policy advisor, I not only worked to advise him on the practical handling of Turkey’s external affairs, but also endeavored to set forth new ideas that would guide my country’s foreign policy in the new era. I proposed that our foreign policy would be based upon six core principles: a balance between security and freedom, zero problems with neighbors, a multidimensional foreign policy, a pro-active regional foreign policy, an altogether new diplomatic style, and rhythmic diplomacy.
Though these principles were by no means static, they have since inspired our institutional foreign policy approach. Together, they formed an internally coherent set of principles — a blueprint, so to speak — that both guides our approach to regional crises and helps Turkey reassert itself as a preeminent country in the international system.
It is with this fresh and innovative thinking that the AK Party government has also delivered numerous domestic reforms to expand the scope of democratic freedoms at home. Without a stable domestic order that meets its citizens’ demands for liberties, after all, Turkey cannot pursue a proactive foreign-policy agenda abroad.
As Turkey achieved greater domestic peace, my country became more capable of realizing its foreign-policy objectives. The government undertook numerous groundbreaking initiatives, including but not limited to efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue, end enmity with Syria, and normalize relations with Armenia. Similarly, we expanded our efforts to bolster Turkey’s ties with emerging actors in Asia, Latin America, and Africa. We also adopted new foreign-policy instruments ranging from mediation to development assistance, which became cornerstones of the new pro-active Turkish diplomacy.
Particularly after I assumed the post of minister of foreign affairs, "zero problems with neighbors" became the most publicized of Turkey’s foreign-policy principles. Taken literally, this was obviously an idealistic model — however, it also represented a clear change of mentality in Turkish foreign policy. Under subsequent AK Party governments, we have broken ground in reconnecting with the Balkans, Black Sea region, Caucasus, and Middle East. Turkey’s foreign-policy agenda is no longer dominated by the chronic disputes with neighbors that used to consume its energy in regional and international affairs. Thus, Turkish people started to see their neighborhood not as a source of problems and potential threats, but as an arena of cooperation and partnership.
When the recent wave of democratic protests started to shake the Middle East, the validity of our new conceptual framework was once again confirmed. At the root of the regional turmoil was the Arab people’s genuine demand for good governance that respected their civil rights, honor, and integrity. Previously, the AK Party had argued on many occasions that just as we continuously reformed our economic and political systems, the rulers in the wider Middle East needed to initiate similar domestic reforms. Unfortunately, their failure to take timely steps to meet their citizens’ demands forced upon them a rapid transformation, which not only resulted in the death and misery of innocent people but also poses a risk to regional peace and stability.
The Arab Spring, thus, presented us all with difficult decisions: We either could maintain ties with these oppressive rulers, or we could support the popular uprisings to secure basic democratic rights. More significantly, the uprisings also posed a challenge to the conceptual foundations of our new foreign policy, which we had carefully nurtured over the years. Turkey naturally opted for the second alternative with regard to Syria, leading many analysts to argue that we have abandoned the "zero problems with neighbors" policy, or claim that it had simply failed. Many critics of our foreign policy, it appears, have interpreted the "zero problems" principle in a simplistic way, as if it suggested we would continue to follow this ideal at all costs and condone regime-inflicted violence on innocent civilians.
Those criticizing Turkey’s foreign policy, however, fail to understand how our policy toward the Arab Spring was formulated. It was through a balanced consideration of our foreign-policy principles, and an acknowledgment of the fact that "zero problems with neighbors" made sense only when it was considered in conjunction with other principles. Notably, Turkey balanced the "zero problems" principle with our belief in achieving a balance between security and freedom, which formed the core of our policy toward the Arab Spring. Our key principles, together with the "zero problems" policy, have not failed — nor have they been rejected. Instead, they continue to guide our foreign policy in our neighborhood.
Those who narrowly focus on the "zero problems" principle miss Turkey’s greater foreign- policy vision. As we readjusted our policies in response to the new strategic situation in the Middle East, we also embarked on new initiatives. Turkey has drawn attention to the problems of the least-developed countries, led a campaign to mobilize the international community to assist famine victims in Somalia, sustained its engagement in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and reenergized its bid for European Union membership. More remarkably, these initiatives have been carried out while Turkey was working to address the humanitarian tragedy unfolding on its border with Syria.
When the revolutionary
events in the Middle East began, we were determined that we would not be passive bystanders, but active agents that impacted this historic transformation of the region. Our government, therefore, made an unequivocal decision from the very first day of the Arab Spring to extend our assistance to the people of the region, so that they could enjoy the same universally acknowledged rights as their peers do elsewhere in the world. We refused to stand idly by as the basic democratic rights enjoyed by the Turkish people were denied to others by violence and oppression.
We thus called for peaceful and gradual political transformation, such that the new regional governments could be shaped by the popular demands of their citizens. When some Arab regimes ignored such calls, we did not hesitate to support the people’s legitimate struggle for reinstituting popular sovereignty as the basis of political authority and regional stability.
Our emphasis on zero problems with neighbors neither prevented us from taking that bold position nor ceased to serve as a blueprint for our foreign policy in the region. When we initiated the "zero problems" policy, it was in no way meant to suggest that Turkey would pursue a values-free realpolitik agenda, solely focused on advancing its economic and security interests. Rather, it meant to eliminate the barriers preventing Turkey’s reintegration with its neighbors, irrespective of where those obstacles came from. Our main objective was to ensure deep inter-societal communication, notably between our people and the people of the region, which we called "maximum cooperation."
Today, the "zero problems" vision means that we cannot make a decision that will alienate us from the hearts and minds of our region’s people. If the main challenge to that vision of peace comes from those who deny the people’s basic rights by oppressive means, we cannot remain silent. If we don’t stand against oppression today, we cannot face the future generations with dignity. We also might erect new and lingering barriers between Turkey and the region, which would hinder our efforts at reintegration.
The "zero problems" principle, in the sense of friendly relations with regional states, still forms the basis of our policy in the region. We still pursue stronger ties with rulers who respect their people’s demands for freedom and offer a secure and stable domestic order. In the countries that are going through a political transition, we are doing our utmost to help reestablish a balance between freedom and security. Our "zero problems" initiatives in the Middle East in the years preceding the popular uprisings also enabled us to establish valuable ties not only with neighboring regimes, but also societal actors. The leverage we gained in this process put us in a better position to address the challenges of the current regional transformation.
The vision of cooperation and dialogue implied by the "zero problems" principle is still urgently needed to address the current challenges in the Middle East. As the future of regional peace and stability is threatened by deepened ethnic and sectarian conflict, Turkey has warned against a new Cold War. We must not allow new barriers to divide the societies of our region — such barriers are the biggest challenges to our search for cooperation and integration. Just as we tried to spread this notion through our "Countries Neighboring Iraq" initiative, we are again working to convince our neighbors to embrace a new language of inclusion, inspired by our common history and value system.
The current regional transformation will no doubt prove painful. Turkey, however, will continue to pursue its multidimensional foreign policy and draw on its new diplomatic assets to assist its neighbors undergoing this difficult phase. It is a historic responsibility for Turkey to assume that role: We believe that the regional order can be rebuilt only after people’s demands for honor, freedom, and good governance are expressed in their political systems.
Once the regional transition is completed, we will continue our work toward regional integration within the spirit of the "zero problems with neighbors" principle. It will shape our foreign policy as a responsible member of international community — and also serve as a guide for channeling a new collective conscience of solidarity into a spirit of regional integration.