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Turkey as Test Case of U.S. Approach to Regionalism

Thursday, Sept. 23, 2010

The theory behind Turkey's foreign policy, as summed up by Turkish academic-turned-Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, is the "zero problems with neighbors" policy. As such, Turkey has put increasing effort into resolving longstanding tensions in its regional relations. The results have admittedly been spotty. Bilateral ties with Syria, Iran and Kurdish Iraq are notable successes. The rapprochement with Armenia is still a work in progress. The historic friendship with Israel has suffered dramatically from Turkey's decision to take a more vocal position on the question of Gaza. But in theory, it's a great approach to 21st century foreign policy, which is going to put an increasing premium on regionalism, whereby a Middle Power can be a big fish in a medium-size pond.

But this quote from Turkish President Abdullah Gul, from a N.Y. Times piece on Turkey's moves at the U.N. General Assembly, also caught my eye: "If you look at all the issues that are of importance to the world today," Mr. Gul said in an interview on Tuesday, "they have put Turkey in a rather more advantageous position."

Gul was referring in part to geography, but the geography really doesn't do much without the "zero problems" approach. Together, the two ideas highlight how being in a position to help resolve problems is going to be an increasingly better measure of power and influence in the global arena moving forward.

That regional field will be harder for the U.S. to play on, given its size and its distance from the action, especially if local powers occupy more space, as in the case of Turkey. But the U.S. can leverage its own strengths with those of its regional friends to put these dynamics to better use, both for regional outcomes and U.S. interests. The challenge will be accepting that the two will not always converge.

As Thomas P.M. Barnett argued two weeks ago in his WPR column, Turkey, as a friend and ally, should be a test case for U.S. policymakers in terms of how to do so. For now, though, the U.S. reaction to Turkey's emergence as a regional power center is not encouraging.