The collapse of Davutoğlu’s Pan-Islamist foreign policy (Hurriyet Daily News)

Neo-Ottomanism has been a prominent issue in Turkish foreign policy debates over the past decade. However, contrary to the claims of certain journalists in the West and in Turkey, Ahmet Davutoğlu does not espouse a doctrine of neo-Ottomanism. Ottomanism emerged in the second half of the 19th century, aimed at preserving the Ottoman Empire by two methods: First, by Westernizing the country and becoming part of Europe; second, by abolishing the dominant status of Muslims as a “millet system,” thus integrating non-Muslim communities into the state, and preventing the emergence of nationalist movements. Davutoğlu opposes both Ottomanism’s tendency toward Westernization and its removal of the privileged position enjoyed by the Islamic identity. Stressing the failure of Ottomanism to prevent the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Davutoğlu idealizes and seeks to emulate the Islamism of the era of Abdülhamid II. In Davutoğlu’s view, just as the Islamism of Abdülhamid’s era forestalled the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, it is likewise the only ideology that will make Turkey a leader in the Middle East in the post-Cold War period.

Davutoğlu believes that the end of the Cold War also marked the end of a hiatus that began with the Ottomans’ withdrawal from the Middle East in 1918. In his view, this change represents a historic opportunity for Turkey to take up a leadership role in the Middle East. Turkey should put aside its “dream” of becoming part of Europe, and redefine its own identity in Islamic terms. As early as the 1990s, Davutoğlu wrote that the authoritarian regimes headed by Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, and Hosni Mubarak would not survive. Ankara needed to wait until circumstances favored the ascendancy of Islamist parties and movements over Arab nationalism in the Middle East, and then act when the time was right. Davutoğlu decided to seize this historic opportunity in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011. The rise to power of the Ennahda in Tunisia and the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria were to be the historic developments making Turkey the global power that Davutoğlu has dreamed of.

However, as recent events have shown, things have not gone as Davutoğlu expected: Libya is in chaos, a military junta is in power in Egypt, and Syria is experiencing a civil war in which hundreds of thousands have died. There are two important reasons why Davutoğlu’s predictions have not come true, and why Turkish foreign policy during the Arab Spring has been unsuccessful, to say the least. The first is the fact that Davutoğlu’s Pan-Islamist foreign policy is ideologically ill-suited to the realities of today’s Middle East. The Islamism practiced under Abdülhamid II was a defensive reaction aimed at averting the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire; Davutoğlu’s Pan-Islamist foreign policy, on the other hand, is based on principles of expansionism, seeking to create a new political order in the Middle East under the hegemony of Turkey. Moreover, in the pursuit of this aim, proponents of Pan-Islamism assume that it will be possible to wipe out movements like secular Arab nationalism and socialism in one stroke, and set the Middle Eastern clock back to 1914.

The second serious problem with Davutoğlu’s foreign policy strategy stems from the theoretical underpinnings of Strategic Depth. Theories that sought to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945 are taken as a reference point in this book, and in Davutoğlu’s foreign policy in general. In laying out a strategy for Turkey’s future hegemony over the Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus, Davutoğlu refers to proponents of British colonialism such as Mackinder, as well as strategists of American and German expansionism such as Mahan and Haushofer. In a sense, Davutoğlu bases his Pan-Islamic ideology on theories of Western imperialism. One should note that terms such as “Lebensraum” and the “Hinterland,” which are frequently employed in Strategic Depth, were also repeatedly used by Haushofer, the architect of German expansionism in the 1920s and 30s, and the notion of a “central state” was inspired by the concept of the Mittellage, which exerted a great influence on German foreign policy during the same period. While it may be packaged together with concepts such as the “foundational actor” or a “proactive foreign policy,” Davutoğlu’s foreign policy is a synthesis of Pan-Islamic ideology with archaic, long-outdated Western expansionist theories.

The foreign policy of the Republican era steered clear of adventurism and partisanship; it succeeded, even if only to a limited extent, in upholding Turkey’s position of respect. However, Davutoğlu regards this as insufficient. He has claimed that if Turkey insists on remaining on the level of a nation-state – within its national borders – in its foreign policy, it will be erased from history. Either Turkey will become a regional leader and a global power, or it will disappear entirely. According to Davutoğlu, the Middle East is an indispensable Lebensraum for Turkey, which has no choice but to dominate the region.

Although Davutoğlu claims to have a local’s knowledge of Cairo and Damascus, under his aegis Turkey has lost its way, so to speak, in Egypt and Syria. With its partisan foreign policy, which takes no heed of the historical experience of the Turkish Republic, the Davutoğlu era represents a serious break with the past. The latest crisis at the consulate in Mosul shows that this era has now come to an end.