Turkey’s “Zero Problems” Problem

Until the onset of the Arab Spring, Turkey's “zero problems with neighbors” policy meant zero problems with the established autocratic regimes of the Middle East. But, in an increasingly unpredictable environment, Turkey will have to redefine what it means to be a good neighbor.

ISTANBUL – It was good while it lasted. Designed by Turkey’s newly elected government in 2002, the country’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy helped it to climb into the league of influential regional powers. The policy’s goal – to build strong economic, political, and social ties with the country’s immediate neighbors while decreasing its dependency on the United States – seemed to be within sight. But the Arab Spring exposed the policy’s vulnerabilities, and Turkey must now seek a new guiding principle for regional engagement.

Until the onset of the Arab uprisings, “zero problems with neighbors” meant zero problems with the Middle East’s established autocratic regimes. But, when Arab political opposition began to gain traction this year, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government faced an unavoidable choice: whether to maintain its policy of engagement with authoritarian Arab leaders, or acknowledge that their countries’ citizens were not having “zero problems.”

The revolt in Libya provided the first concrete challenge to Turkey’s policy. Though Turkey’s Western partners swiftly broke with Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in support of the opposition, the “zero problems” principle dictated that the Turkish government maintain relations with the old regime. After initially adopting a neutral stance, Turkey soon recognized that its indecisiveness was damaging its image.

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