Turkey’s “Zero Problems” Problem

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.

Turkey was thus confronted with a fundamental conflict between its cherished policy of uncritical engagement with regional political rulers and the imperative to support the Libyan people’s democratic aspirations. Eventually, the government decided to support the latter over the former, thus effectively ending its “zero problems with neighbors” policy. Turkey became the last NATO member to give its backing to the Libyan rebels.