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.

Win McNamee/Getty Images


Nice Speech, Mr. President

Obama said all the right things in Jerusalem. Now what?

Something odd happened during Wednesday's press conference between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu. When asked to address the Palestinian issue, the U.S. president on three occasions said that he would have more to say when he spoke directly to the Israeli people. The apparent takeaway is that for Obama, spending (wasting?) too much time trying to make progress with the Israeli prime minister on the Palestinian question is an exercise in futility -- a recognition that the politics would have to change first and that the Israeli public would be key to any political shift.

When Obama finally did get around to addressing that Israeli public in Thursday's speech in Jerusalem, the president made the point unequivocally: "Political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see." Some might say Obama was following his own domestic playbook, as he has on issues from taxes to budget cuts to gun control. It's as if he sees Bibi as an obstacle to change on par with the House Republicans or the Tea Party.

Obama made his appeal to the Israeli public in an interesting way. He hit all the buttons in endorsing Israel's own narrative -- as one would expect from a visit that has resembled a schmooze-a-thon -- but he added a surprising twist. Obama essentially offered Israelis a blank check while attaching a health warning: "Use with Caution."

If misused, like a kid inheriting a fortune, such blank checks can have devastating self-destructive consequences. Obama's basic message -- Israel has America's unconditional support in perpetuity -- could be interpreted as having told Israelis that even as you abandon recognizable democracy in favour of apartheid, the United States will still have your back. "Israel is the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world," he noted.

Having handed over the blank check, he added the advisory note to user: If used badly, all that support would still not be enough to save Israel from the inevitable fallout from its current path.

First, over time you will have less security, as the other side is catching up technologically.

Second, you will not realize your full economic potential (Obama made a smart pivot from his visit highlighting Israel's technology hot-houses to telling Israelis they were nonetheless underachieving because absent peace and security they could not become a true regional hub and global magnet).

Third, that while the United States will support Israel no matter what, the rest of the world will not, and you will become isolated.

Finally, you will ultimately feel bad about yourselves because you will not be a democracy. You will not live up to your own traditions, your own standards, and your own humanity (a demographic and moral argument). In this respect, Obama's powerful message that peace is also about justice and his humanizing of the Palestinians, including his off-the-cuff anecdote about meeting young people in Ramallah, really tried to drive home this point.

Obama's speech may have abandoned objectivity and made for uneasy listening for any Palestinian or even neutral observer, but he nonetheless made a powerful case to his mainstream, Zionist audience. It is a case Israelis seldom hear, even from their own supposedly liberal politicians.

Obama couched his peace argument in support of a two-state deal on three axes: that it is necessary, just, and possible. He was on familiar terrain when making his first point -- having made most of the arguments in his AIPAC speech of May 22nd 2011, on the challenges of demography, security, and looming diplomatic isolation. The second and third arguments he made on the case for peace constituted Obama's new pitch to the Israeli public. He appealed to morality (it's just) and to hope (it's possible) -- precisely the themes that have been missing from the internal Israeli debate for many years. Many politicians (albeit not Netanyahu or most of his ministers) make the necessity argument, but almost none including the centrist leader Yair Lapid and opposition Labor leader Shelly Yachimovitch dare make the argument that peace is a just and possible path.

So far so good, Mr. President. Great speech, but what next? The visit has offered nothing new on the programmatic side, no plan for going forward. My hunch is that Obama knows that putting Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas back in a room together will achieve nothing, and that he is in no great hurry or places no great faith in those talks. Obama will also be very aware that while Netanyahu repeated his two-state message in their press conference, he nonetheless did not incorporate that language or anything approximating it in the coalition guidelines and agreements for his new government. Less than half of Netanyahu's cabinet is on record supporting a two-state deal, and many coalition ministers, deputy ministers, and Knesset members openly advocate the annexation of the West Bank. Obama presumably also knows that making one speech and then hoping that the Israeli public will do the rest of the work is not serious.

If Obama does decide to prioritize a peace deal during his second term, and that is a big if, an admittedly optimistic take could look like this: Secretary of State John Kerry might shuttle between the parties to discuss the parameters and even convene direct or trilateral talks. He will also court support from Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Obama in his Ramallah press conference with Abbas seemed to rule out a focus on incremental steps for their own sake (he might be tempted by the idea of a Palestinian state with interim borders, but on that too Netanyahu's best offer will fall short of providing an opening). Progress will be elusive; Netanyahu will offer little.

Eventually, if Kerry makes a convincing case, the president might conclude that a moment of choice has arrived and put forward his own terms of reference for convening an international conference or something similar. He mentioned his previous parameters during the Jerusalem speech, which included borders based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps. Obama would then draw on the credit accrued during this visit to appeal directly to the Israeli public in the face of predictable recalcitrance from Netanyahu. The Israeli center might be impressed and might even generate a little pressure. Like I said, optimistic stuff.

And sadly, even this would be insufficient if several other pieces are not put in place. Key among those is that there will be consequences for Israel if it chooses rejectionism, if not from the United States then from Europe and others; that there is a politically empowered Palestinian side no longer weakened by its current divisions; and that a detailed and nuanced plan exists for engaging with Israel's myriad tribal political leaders, including those who were not in the room on this visit and in whom Obama has yet to take an interest, such as the Haredi and Palestinian-Arab parties. Big ifs indeed.

Still, nice speech, Mr. President.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images