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Turkey's Vision for 2012 and Beyond: Davutoglu's Washington Visit

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Co-authored with Ece Ozcelik

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's visit to Washington this week came at a pivotal juncture of bilateral and international affairs. Dr. Davutoğlu was enthusiastically welcomed by an audience in Washington eager to engage on a host of topics including Turkey's new foreign policy vision, the Arab Awakenings, nuclear Iran, Palestinian-Israeli conflict and most pertinently the Syrian uprising. The visit, considered as a great success by most commentators, revealed the paradox of Turkey: A global aspirant with a bold new vision for global governance in the post-Cold War era yet internally driven with questions about a new constitution, its Kurdish population, and freedom of expression. Furthermore among Washington policy circles the visit served to reinforce a quietly circulating critique that Turkey's leadership has crossed the line of self-confidence in bilateral and international relations.

The venues and array of important Congressional and Cabinet Secretaries individuals (including Secretary of State, Defense, and National Security Council Director in one single-day) that the Foreign Minister met with showcased the importance that Washington affords to Ankara and Davutoğlu personally these days. As a former academic, Dr. Davutoğlu chose to follow a "process view" of history where he used the metaphor of an "earthquake" to define three fundamental changes occurring in the last 20 years. The first was the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union which he described as a "geopolitical" earthquake. According to the foreign minister, Turkey at this time was on the right side of history but it wasn't able to take full advantage of its own position. The second earthquake came with the 9/11 Attacks on America, which ultimately changed the logic of international security. Turkey transformed its mind-set by applying Davutoğlu's principles of "zero problems with neighbors" finding a balance between security and freedom. The last earthquake as Davutoğlu sees it happened last year, with the Arab Awakening and the Euro-zone crisis. According to Dr. Davutoğlu what we are witnessing today in the Middle East is the overthrowing of the "abnormal and artificial structures" of Cold War divisions in the region. Emphasizing his point by proclaiming, "We wanted Assad to be Syria's Gorbachev, but he chose to be Syria's Milošević."

Throughout Davutoğlu's five days in Washington from interviews, private meetings, and public speeches, he emphasized Turkey's vision for a new set of values and principles in the international system of governance that reflects realities of the post-Cold War era. Davutoğlu hinted that the G-20 be the next forum for international cooperation, as Turkey's preferred mechanism for multilateral cooperation in order to reform the international financial and economic system on a more democratic and equitable basis. Turkey's approach to Syria is a showcase of Dr. Davutoğlu's message. After Russia and China blocked the United Nation Security Council resolution that called on Assad's resignation, Turkey is looking for new ways to pressure Assad. Turkey's growing frustration with the United Nations only strengthens Turkey's hopes for the G-20 particularly as it seeks to assume presidency in 2015.

Dr. Davutoğlu's Washington visit also laid bare Turkey's own internal dilemmas namely, the Kurdish question and freedom of expression. During his address at the George Washington University, the Foreign Minister encountered emotional questions and comments about Turkey's Kurdish issue and the growing number of journalists in Turkish prisons. Echoing concerns heard throughout Washington, Davutoğlu faced questions about internal developments even as he sought to deliver Turkey's self-confident message to the rest of the world.

Despite Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's unexpected apology for the killing of thousands of people in the Kurdish-Alevi region of Dersim in the 1930s, an airstrike in December 2011 erased any hopes that the tensions would soothe any time soon. At the heart of the "Kurdish Question" is an urgent need for Turkey to put its house in order and project hope to the region. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been held up as a regional model and now can learn from its own past by re-launching the stalled rapprochement process of the mid-2000s aimed at Turkey's Kurdish citizens in which they proved willing and able to name the problem and flag enhanced cultural rights as a solution (e.g. by launching public broadcasting in Kurdish and allowing for Kurdish-language instruction in some state educational institutions).

Turkey, the "clear winner" of the Arab Spring and the European Fall has come a long way. Sensitive topics including the Kurdish issue, minority rights and the Armenian issue are being debated in the media and public openly. However, in 2011 Turkey moved down from 138th to 148th among 179 countries in the Reporters without Borders Index of Press Freedom, deterioration for the fifth consecutive year. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan's rhetoric on the French Senate Bill about the 1915 Events as a massacre of freedom of expression has less resonance when 100 journalists sit in jail regardless of reason. As seen from Washington, Turkey should be heeding Davutoğlu's own rhetoric that, "We are in favor of freedom of the press in the Middle East."

Dr. Davutoğlu's 2012 visit to Washington once again showcased Turkey's self-confidence as a rising regional power and vision for its neighborhood. Dr. Minister reiterated the importance of the U.S.-Turkish alliance, Turkey's commitment to finding peaceful solutions to regional problems ranging from nuclear Iran, Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Syrian uprisings. Yet the subtext of this visit clearly shows that Turkey faces serious challenges to its primary strategic objectives in 2012: namely advancing regional stability while enhancing its own influence. Turkey's laudable objective of serving as an honest broker in some of the Middle East's most intractable conflicts inevitably collides with the reality of having to deal with internal challenges. It is too soon to tell whether Davutoğlu's promising rhetoric may become a reality, but at least Washington has experienced first-hand Turkey's approach and vision for 2012 and beyond.

Ece Ozcelik and Joshua W. Walker work on the Turkey Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States based in Washington, D.C.