The understandings reached between Israel and Turkey in efforts to normalize their relations raise a more fundamental issue about relations between states in today’s Middle East. Behind this reconciliation stands the growing concern of both countries about the rising tide of regional instability, emanating in particular from Syria, which could spill over into neighboring states, like Iraq.
While Turkey is tied to the West through multiple institutions, like NATO, it is still ruled by the AKP party, whose ideology was described in leaked American diplomatic cables appearing in WikiLeaks from a few years back as “neo-Ottoman” — meaning it aspires to carve out spheres of influence in the territories that were part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I.
In October 2009, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu presented an ideologically driven foreign policy during an appearance in Sarajevo when he argued that “the Balkans, Caucasus and Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence.” The same cables described AKP party members as having, in some cases, even more extremist views. A U.S. diplomat at an AKP think tank heard the widespread belief that a neo-Ottoman Turkey would want to “take back Andalusia [Spain] and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683.”
Yet there are indications that Turkey began to understand that it would have to temper any ativistic foreign policy that it might have originally sought to adopt. In a March 21 article in Foreign Policy, Davutoglu still indicated a preference for special ties with these areas, but this time he had dropped his neo-Ottoman rhetoric and set more moderate goals: “We have broken ground in reconnecting with the Balkans, Black Sea region, Caucasus and Middle East.”
True, this was written for an American audience, but had regional conditions in the Middle East prompted Turkey to adopt a more pragmatic foreign policy? Still even if this was the case, the question needs to be asked whether two states like Turkey and Israel, with such diverse points of view, can coordinate with each other for the purpose of safeguarding regional stability?
In his first book, which was originally written as a doctoral thesis at Harvard University, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrestled with exactly the same question when he examined the politics of Europe in the early 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. The diplomats at the time, like Austria’s Klemens von Metternich and British Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh, both recognized that the old international order in the 18th century, that had been protected by the royal families of Europe, had been shattered by new revolutionary forces that France had unleashed. They established that new order, which became known as the Concert of Europe following the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
The new regional order brought together states with diametrically opposed domestic political systems. Liberal Britain, which was sympathetic to the rising democratic demands of peoples on the European continent, nonetheless worked closely with conservative leaders from Austria and Russia to ensure European stability.
According to Kissinger, they shared a common insight that for any new order to be legitimate, it would have to be based on a common understanding about what were reasonable aims for European foreign policy and what were the acceptable methods states should employ to achieve them. They no longer argued over the justice of their positions. Actually, for them the goal of diplomacy was far more limited: ensuring the stability of Europe and preventing a major continental war erupting again on the scale of the Napoleonic Wars.
Kissinger published his thesis with the tile “A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace 1812-1822.” He wanted to understand the formula European diplomats used to carefully build political arrangements across Europe and how they sustained them for decades. He notes that the system these 19th century statesmen created protected stability by averting a major continental war in the heart of Europe that drew in the major European powers for 99 years from 1815 to 1914 — despite the outbreak of smaller conflicts, like the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). Kissinger wanted to apply the lessons of this period to the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but might they provide clues as to the necessary conditions for successful Middle East diplomacy today?
First, the statesmen that led the European states in the 19th century had to make an enormous ideological leap and adopt a pragmatic approach to the definition of their diplomatic goals. They needed to constrain the ideological drive that kept some of them in a permanent state of conflict with each other. A recent op-ed that ran on March 25 in the pro-Islamic Turkish newspaper Zaman noted that the Turkish government “does not see a permanent state of conflict with Israel as being advantageous for Turkey.”
Describing Israel as “a significant country in the region,” the columnist explained to his readers that what was going on with Syria, Iraq, and with the Kurds “required Turkey to open at least consultation channels with Israel.” If this approach is indeed adopted by the Turkish government, as well, then there is a chance that the reconciliation with Turkey can work.
Second, the European states that Kissinger studied were deeply aware of the dangers emanating from a revolutionary situation that threatened their collective stability. That was not always the case. He warns in his book that for “powers long accustomed to tranquillity and without experience with disaster, this is a hard lesson to come by. Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework.” It would appear that Turkey, which has absorbed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, has no illusions about the current dangers in the Middle East and their impact on its most vital interests.
Another lesson for Kissinger from the period of 19th century diplomacy is to have more realistic expectations about what diplomacy can deliver. He wanted to understand how peace might be achieved, but he wrote that states should make the achievement of stability their first priority, otherwise he felt that neither goal would be reached: “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquillity.”
For Kissinger, peace remains an important objective, but it can only come about through a process of regional stabilization and security, for he was aware that whenever peace was the “primary objective of a power or group of powers, then the international system has been at the mercy of the most ruthless member.” Whether the regional stabilization process is in fact adopted depends as much on the initiatives proposed in Washington as much as the policies of Ankara and Jerusalem. It also depends on whether the Obama administration and its local partners in the region effectively tackle the “most ruthless” power in the region — namely Iran.
Today, Iran is on Turkey’s doorstep. It has deployed its Revolutionary Guards on the ground in Syria and its cargo planes cross Iraqi airspace to Syria in order to resupply Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s besieged army. And yet, it is not exactly clear how Turkey views Iran. Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Ottomans fought bitter wars with the Shiite Safavid Empire; indeed the Turks believed that they were unable to successfully invade Europe to their west because the Safavids had stabbed them in the back from the east. If Ankara now understands that all its most vital interests in the Middle East will be completely compromised by Tehran the moment it crosses the nuclear threshold, then Turkey’s renewed ties with Israel might acquire a firmer basis in the future.