Turkey’s foreign minister was the first intellectual to devise a rationalistic and pragmatic Islamist foreign policy. Five years in office have exposed a huge gap between his ambitions and the country’s ability to achieve them.

Over the past decade, Turkey’s foreign policy has been synonymous with Ahmet Davutoglu and his doctrine of ‘stratejik derinlik’ (strategic depth). In 2010–11 he was on Foreign Policy’s list of the ‘Top 100 Global Thinkers’. Yet, despite this popular interest in Davutoglu, there are few academic studies of his foreign policy. He devised Turkey’s current, pan-Islamist approach in his work as an academic during 1986–2002, detailing his vision in hundreds of articles published in that period. Davutoglu consistently argued that the end of the Cold War provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to become a global power, as long as it followed an expansionist foreign policy based on Islamist ideology. According to Davutoglu, Turkey was to dominate its hinterland – the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus – and thereby create a new Lebensraum (he uses the Turkish words ‘hayat alani’, which is a direct translation of the German Lebensraum, or ‘living space’). He began to turn his pan-Islamist vision into reality after 2002, following his appointment as foreign-policy adviser to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), a position he held until he was made foreign minister in 2009.

Turkish foreign policy has had a troubled relationship with Islamist politics since 1970, the year in which Necmettin Erbakan established the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party), the first Islamist party in the history of modern Turkey. At the time, Erbakan criticised other mainstream parties for striving to be part of the ‘Western club’, and opposed close links with Europe, instead idealising his country as a part of a future ‘Islamic Common Market’. Islamist intellectual Necip Fazil Kisakürek similarly imagined Turkey as the leader of an awakening Islamic world. Sezai Karakoç, an influential poet and thinker, claimed that the political borders of existing nation-states caused the partitioning of the ummah (Islamic community); in his view, a ‘Great Islamic Federation’ ought to be established in place of ‘artificial’ nation-states. These claims remained rhetorical, however, and were not taken seriously by Turkish elites, as Islamist politicians and intellectuals did not provide a feasible strategy for realising their ambitions. Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (Welfare Party) led Turkey’s 1995 elections (with 21% of the vote) by promising a ‘just order’ as a way out of the country’s political and economic crisis, but failed to deliver an equally appealing foreign-policy vision. Indeed, appointed in 1996 as the first Islamist prime minister of Turkey, Erbakan was unable to make significant changes to the country’s pro-Western foreign policy. Not only were the Islamist elites unskilled in diplomacy and unable to offer a credible alternative to Western orientation, they also had to contend with the long-standing domination of foreign policy by the country’s army and bureaucracy.

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Behlül Ozkan is the author of From the Abode of Islam to the Turkish Vatan (Yale University Press, 2012) and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Marmara University, Istanbul.

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Survival: Global Politics and Strategy

August–September 2014

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