The Long Fall of Turkey's 'Zero Problems' Mastermind

Ahmet Davutoğlu’s ruined foreign-policy legacy.

Politics is a messy business. Ahmet Davutoğlu learned this the hard way when he announced on May 5, 2016, that he would step down both as Prime Minister of Turkey and as chair of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Until recently, Davutoğlu was one of the symbols of Turkish politics. During the 2014 election, the AKP campaign song by Turkish singer Erhan Güleryüz referred to Davutoğlu as “the brave, righteous and honest” man who is “the true grandson of the Ottomans,” and who “linked arms with reis,” a Turkish word for a leader that connotes hierarchy and loyalty. However, Davutoğlu’s political position has gradually declined over the years, alongside the Turkish foreign policy that he intellectually and strategically formulated. All this only to meet his ultimate political demise domestically as the result of parting ways with Erdoğan, who has been consolidating his personal political power.

Although Davutoğlu resents the term “neo-Ottomanism,” he and Erdoğan have been the most visible faces of this popular term. In terms of foreign policy, “neo-Ottomanism” refers to the idea of Turkey becoming a major geopolitical player once again in the territories of the former Ottoman Empire—primarily the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus. In domestic politics, the term refers to the restoration of Ottoman political and cultural heritage in Turkish society. In that context, Davutoğlu has primarily been associated with the former, and Erdoğan with the latter. Behlül Özkan, Davutoğlu’s former student and now his critic, even claimed that foreign policy was one area of the political spectrum that was dominated not by Erdoğan but rather by Davutoğlu, given his intellectual aptitude and other skill sets, such as his mastery of foreign languages.

Davutoğlu began his career as an academic, teaching as a professor of political science and international relations at Marmara University and Beykent University in Istanbul, as well as at International Islamic University in Kuala Lumpur. Davutoğlu has been an admirer of American academics who turned to foreign policy advisors and strategists like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Thus, when Davutoğlu left academia and subsequently joined policy circles, it was fitting that he earned the nickname of “Turkey’s Kissinger.” Similar to how Kissinger’s academic fascination with nineteenth-century European balance-of-power statesmanship influenced his later policies, Davutoğlu’s earlier academic works were also an inspiration for him. Davutoğlu’s writings combined Islamic social and political thought with Western geopolitical classics.

This combination of Islamic and Western thought is especially apparent when it comes to Davutoğlu’s most well-known work from 2001, Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiye’nın Uluslararası Konumu (translated as Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Position). This book has never been officially translated into English, but has nevertheless served as an ideological foundation for what Davutoğlu thought should be Turkey’s new foreign policy. Davutoğlu argued that with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet threat on the Turkish border, Turkey should cease to be a Western/NATO outpost. Rather, it should become an independent geopolitical player with an ambitious foreign policy. Instead of being a NATO wing state or an eternal candidate for EU membership, Davutoğlu argued that Turkey should rely on its “strategic depth” in order to become an influential geopolitical force in Eurasia.

For Davutoğlu, Turkish “strategic depth” comprises two elements: geographic depth and historical depth. In his subsequent appearances as foreign minister, Davutoğlu summed up the logic of Turkish geopolitics, making clear his notion of geographic depth: “What is the uniqueness of Turkey? . . . Turkey is right at the centre of Afro-Euro-Asia, having multidimensional characters of geopolitics. Turkey is a European country, an Asian country, a Middle Eastern country, Balkan country, Caucasian country, neighbor to Africa, Black Sea country, Caspian Sea, all these.”

At the same time, historical depth referred to Turkey’s historic legacy in former Ottoman territories. As Davutoğlu has noted, “We are. . . 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.”