Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu's visit to Washington this week comes at a pivotal time in U.S.-Turkish relations. The importance of Turkey to the U.S. administration can be traced by the number of high-level visits by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in July 2011, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in December 2011 while this is Davutoğlu's first reciprocal visit since his last trip to Washington in November 2010. While there is a sense of deja vu given the frenetic pace of meetings, speaking and awards including his selection for the second time to Foreign Policy's top 100 Global Thinkers list for "imagining a new role for Turkey in the world - and making it happen," there is much that has changed since the last time Dr. Minister came to Washington.
The volatility of U.S.-Turkish relations, which ranged from the low points of 2010 with the Mavi Marmara Gaza flotilla and UN Iran sanction incidents quickly followed by the developments of 2011 including the Arab awakenings and Eurozone crisis, reemphasized Ankara's transatlantic value to Washington. Prime Minister Erdoğan's personal involvement and interest in foreign affairs throughout 2011 transformed him into the most popular leader in the region. During Erdoğan's tour of the "Arab Spring Capitals", observers marveled at a leader who could lead Friday prayers with the faithful in Libya one day and on the very next day lecture the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt on the merits of secularism. Traveling with large business entourages across the globe there has never been a more successful Turkish champion selling Turkey to every available market around the world, signifying Turkey's unique global role.
Davutoğlu's own role as the architect of Erdoğan's foreign policy has been acknowledged and appreciated for close to a decade, first as the principle advisor to the Prime Minister, then as Foreign Minister, and now as an elected member of the Turkish Parliament. The transformation of this cerebral professor of international relations into one of the nation's most recognizable politicians mirrors Turkey's own transformations and has come with its own intrigue about the role of a possible Prime Minister Davutoğlu in a post-Erdoğan Ankara. Precisely because of this domestic interest in Davutoğlu, his relations with world leaders and trips abroad have been intensely scrutinized within Turkey. Given the importance of the United States for Turkey, Davutoğlu's visit this time to Washington during an election year amidst a deteriorating situation in Iran, Iraq, and Syria may be his most critical.
The personal chemistry developed between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu mirrors that of President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Davutoglu's last visit was shortly after the Wikileaks group launched Iraq War Logs, which included over a 1,000 damaging cables about Turkey. As the first foreign minister that Secretary Clinton met in person after the release of Wikileaks, Davutoglu's message was clear "We have excellent relations with Hillary. These documents won't affect our foreign policy. ... We don't take these observations seriously."
Yet this personal chemistry has not been shared uniformly by the Washington establishment particularly because of the continuing tensions in Turkish-Israeli relations, the approaching 100 year anniversary of the events of 1915 that many members of Congress believe constitute a genocide, and skepticism about the integrity of Turkey's civil-military relations, democracy, and free press. In December, these feelings suddenly found public expression in the form of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's impromptu response at the start of his remarks at this month's Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Istanbul.
Furthermore, Washington's domestic politics in Washington make Ankara one of the administration's biggest political targets which has emerged throughout the Republican primary process. At a moment in which the role of American global leadership is being questioned, Ankara's newfound swagger and emergence as an international leader should be a welcomed sign of a more responsible partner in regional stability and long-term democratization that are in the American national interest.
Having spent the last decade strengthening regional ties through Davutoğlu's principles of "strategic depth" without placing preconditions on democratic conditionality, Ankara has emerged as a power player in the emerging realities of both the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Davutoğlu has been largely reactive in his foreign policy since the beginning of the Arab protests claiming that Ankara worked with all actors even as his oft-repeated goal of "zero problems with neighbors" has become "zero neighbors without problems" given the precipitous deterioration of relations with Iran, Iraq, and Syria over last few months. Yet precisely because of these changed dynamics the importance of Washington has only increased for Ankara as much as the inverse has been true and emphasized by Turkish leadership.
Instead of viewing Turkish foreign policy in "Cold War" terms of alignment or drift on specific tactical issues, Washington has an opportunity to recast a long-term vision that these democratic allies share and encourage a more active role for Turkey. The evolution of Davutoğlu's career and foreign policy beyond principles of international relations theory should be realistically assessed in the context of Iran's destabilizing nuclear weapon's regime, Iraq's sectarian tensions, and Syria's ongoing oppressive crackdown. The switch from "strategic depth," which has largely been accomplished in the last decade, to a "democratic depth" that focuses on the interlinkages between domestic and foreign challenges ahead that start with a new Turkish constitution are critical for both Ankara and Washington. Revitalizing the critical US-Turkish six-decades-old alliance that has primarily relied on converged geostrategic realities into a partnership of shared values and visions in the midst of global and regional transformation is the best long-term outcome of Dr. Minister's visit to Washington.
Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States based in Washington, D.C.
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