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“Neo-Ottoman” Turkey?

ANKARA – Nowadays, the international media are obsessed with the question of who “lost” Turkey and what that supposed loss means for Europe and the West. More alarmingly, some commentators liken Turkey’s neighborhood policy to a revival of Ottoman imperialism. Recently, a senior Turkish columnist went so far as to quote Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu as saying that “we are indeed neo-Ottoman.”

As someone who was present when Davutoğlu made his presentation to the parliamentary faction of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), I can attest to the fact that he did not use such terminology. In fact, Davutoğlu and all of us in the AKP foreign-policy community never use this term, because it is simply a mispresentation of our position.

Turkey’s neighborhood policy is devised to reintegrate Turkey into its immediate neighborhoods, including the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean. We aim to deepen our political dialogue, increase our trade, and multiply our people-to-people contacts with our neighbors in the form of sports, tourism, and cultural actvities. When Egon Bahr formulated his Ostpolitik in the 1960’s, no one asked Will Brandt whether Germany was lost.

God bestowed upon Turkey a geographical position that fundamentally requires for us to engage with East and West, North and South. This is neither a choice nor a luxury – it is a necessity.

The symbol of the Byzantine and the Selçuk Empires, which occupied roughly the same geography that Turkey does today, was a double-headed eagle looking both east and west. It should be no wonder that Turkey is also seeking to engage both ends of its territories and feels that its security is best consolidated by minimizing risks together with its neighbors.

So we find the current debate on Turkey’s orientation rather superflous, and in some cases ill-intentioned. Our neighborhood policy needs support, not criticism. Turkey has become an invaluable asset in the make-up of our surrounding regions, and is already changing the status quo in favor of more stability and predictability. Our efforts at normalization with Armenia, for example, are destined to bring change to the entire South Caucasus. We are doing our part in terms of burden-sharing. Sensible Europeans understand that.

To be sure, some of our neighbors are difficult. But no country has the luxury of choosing its neighbors. Turkey’s neighborhood policy is very realistic, based on genuine interests, not some romantic neo-Ottoman nostagia, as more than a few international commentators have suggested.

True, there is a neo-Ottoman revival in the cultural field, and our citizens are eager to rediscover Ottoman life, culture, and practices. As Turkey is normalizing domestically, it is also reinterpreting its national historical narrative. This is a natural byproduct of consolidating our democracy. However, trying to paint our carefully constructed foreign-policy initiatives with imperialist overtones is not only a stark mispresentation, but also does gross injustice to our well-intentioned efforts to stabilize our region.

In Roman mythology, Janus was the god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings. Turkey today is a Janus-like geography that offers gates and doorways to the East and West. It offers beginnings and endings to the Caucasus, the Black Sea, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean.

In this capacity, Turkey complements and contributes to a unique transitional passage between otherwise difficult regions, for it signifies centuries-old co-existence and adjustment. Turkish foreign policy contributes to that coming together and helps its immeditate neighborhoods to connect with one another.

Contrary to recent charges, Turkey’s foreign policymakers are not seeking to revive the Ottoman Empire. Instead, we seek Turkey’s historic reintegration into its immediate neighborhoods, thereby correcting an anomaly of the Cold War years. Such re-integration would only benefit the European Union and our other Western, NATO allies. None of them, therefore, has any reason to express discomfort with Turkey.