A Broad View of the “Broader Middle East”
No. 3 2004 July/September
Recep Tayyip Erdogan

12th and current president of the Republic of Turkey. He previously served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and as Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998.

Today, an important defining character of our regional and international problems is complexity. Indeed, the most acute problems that the global community faces today defy simplistic explanations and solutions, and demand that all countries join together in a united effort. Such a collective approach will certainly do more than any single country can achieve on its own. Therefore, Turkey believes in the merits of a multilateral approach that benefits from the collective wisdom of the international community. Turkey and the Russian Federation are two countries that can contribute to and benefit from such an approach in their region and beyond.

The situation in the Middle East is proving to be a waste of valuable human and material resources that are necessary for the development of the region. Excessive expectations, and a sense of deprivation, coupled with longstanding political conflicts, have cast a pessimistic mood across the region, not to mention among the observers from outside the region. Ironically, what the region requires is exactly the opposite – simple hope.

Today the region seems to be experiencing one of its worst periods in recent history. The Arab-Israeli conflict seems far from being resolved, while the situation in Iraq has not improved enough to give the Iraqis or the international community real hope. But there is a promising dynamic emerging. The peoples and governments of the region recognize the need for reform, which will be assisted by the declared willingness of the international community.
There are various interpretations regarding the ‘Broader Middle East’ initiative, which has been on the regional and international agenda in recent months. Given the ambitious nature of the initiative, the scale of problems and the traditionally skeptical perception of the peoples of the region toward Western policies, it is not surprising that the Broader Middle East initiative was questioned from the very beginning. However, we need to avoid mystified descriptions and assess the initiative basing on its own merits, whether these are positive or negative. As a country that is directly influenced by the developments in the Middle East, Turkey necessarily approaches the initiative both realistically and constructively.

It has to be said from the outset that, long before the Broader Middle East initiative became the subject of every other newspaper article or televised debate, Turkey had been articulating its ideas and vision for the Middle East in various forums, including the meetings of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC). Turkey wants to see a more democratic, free, and peaceful Middle East that is well governed and has an efficiently functioning economy. This should not be mistaken as idealism. Turkey’s own interests require peaceful and stable neighbors that it can interact with positively at all levels. Turkey’s aspirations for the region, therefore, are harmonious with the positive objectives of the Broader Middle East initiative.

Terrorism is one of the complex issues that are increasingly being associated with the region, as well as with the religious beliefs of its people. Unfortunately, the phenomena of radicalism and extremism will probably always exist in human society. Thus, terrorism is likely to threaten various parts of the world in the foreseeable future, as well. Yet, conflict, violence and terrorism are products of man’s political ambitions, however misguided. As we reject the rationale of terrorist methods used to gain political ends, we should also reject claims to act in the name of any religion.

In fact, as different social groups start breathing the air of democracy they gradually become shareholders and eventually protectors of the democratic system. What is important is to facilitate the mechanisms that will eventually deliver to the people not only economic rewards, but also the political and social benefits of this system. Participatory and non-discriminatory structures enhance democratic socialization and create a sense of ownership and responsibility toward the political system. In such an environment, economic activity becomes more rational and public services become more efficient. This is not an easy task, for it is also related to state-society relations. However, the Middle East can ill afford not to address this problem.

In trying to find solutions to their problems, the countries of the Middle East must benefit from the intellectual wealth of their people. This human potential prospers when free and democratic structures begin to establish themselves within society. Similarly, the rule of law, transparency and accountability contribute to societies’ common good and make regimes stronger in the long run.

It is therefore encouraging to observe that the call for reform has been gaining ground in the region both at the popular and official levels. When Turkey began to underline the need to “put our house in order” at the OIC meetings, it struck a very important chord. Indeed, if the region longs for political, economic and social development it should work to accomplish that task itself. This basic point is now clearly recognized and plans to address it are already in the making. Most recently, various governmental and non-governmental gatherings in the region debated the issue of reform and development, culminating in the relevant declaration of the Arab League Summit which met in Tunis in May 2004.

Regional efforts can and must be supported by assistance from the international community. However, one needs to keep sight of the peculiarities of the region and avoid the temptation of formulating quick fixes that are bound to fail. Regional initiatives, however well-intentioned, might lead to new problems if they are not well planned.

By virtue of its historical links and affinity with the region, Turkey has a perspective on this issue which it has shared with others from the very beginning. In this respect, local ownership, voluntarism and gradualism are key principles. Any excessive imposition will be counterproductive, while the cultural and political sensitivities of the region should not be overlooked. At the same time, generalizations should be avoided. The multi-cultural and multi-ethnic texture of Turkish and Russian societies helps us recognize these sensitivities more easily.

Moreover, the effort should be comprehensive. It should include political, economic and cultural/educational considerations, as well as the various security dimensions.  However, too much emphasis on the security dimension will be unhelpful. The project should be inclusive, open to those who are willing to benefit from it.

Equally important is the political atmosphere prevalent in the region. Iraq, and the entire region, needs to feel that improvements are being made. This will greatly contribute to a better reception of international initiatives toward the region.

We also need to recognize that no regional project can succeed while the Palestinian issue remains unaddressed. This should not mean that reform is wholly dependent on the Arab-Israeli conflict. One has to accept that, even if this problem were solved today, the reforms needed in the region would not come automatically. Therefore, the work on reforms must start without delay. However, if negative developments can be reversed and the settlement of the Arab-Israeli problem is made an achievable objective in the eyes of the people, this will substantially reinforce the prospects for reform in the entire region.

These points were made clear not only by Turkey, but also by countries in the region and others, like the EU, who are willing to contribute. Gradually, the discussions on the Broader Middle East that have taken place at international levels, such as within the G-8, NATO and the EU, began to include various comments aimed at making this initiative workable. Countries in the region were able to provide their input as well. Statements from the U.S. also acknowledged the importance of these discussions and consultations. The end product of this multilateral approach, as exemplified in the G-8 plan of support for reform in the region, demonstrates the sincere will of the international community to assist in the region. The G-8 exercise, where the Russian Federation had an important role as well, heralds positive developments for the future, provided that the principles adopted therein are carefully implemented. In this context, Turkey co-chaired the Democracy Assistance Dialog, one of the G-8 mechanisms aimed at bringing together civil society and government representatives to share their experiences on democratization.

Similarly, other ways of helping the region have been discussed constructively within NATO over the last few months. The recent NATO Istanbul Summit offered modest, but useful, mechanisms for practical cooperation in the defense and security fields on a voluntary basis to the countries in the region.
International meetings addressing the Broader Middle East initiative demonstrated once again that, although differences do exist, dialog can produce converging positions. True, history provides scant reasons for the people of the region to be enthusiastic about what they perceive to be “outsider designs.”  However, this must not lead to the rejection of every foreign initiative. Trying to create conditions to benefit from the various international efforts in a rational way and direct them according to the region’s real needs should be the way forward. Countries in the region must show greater self-confidence and positively involve the international community.

We hope that the Broader Middle East initiative will live up to our expectations. However, in order for the initiative to produce positive results soon, both Turkey and the Russian Federation need to work together to help stability and peace in their region. One of the ways that Turkey contributes to a more congenial atmosphere in the region is through the very foreign policy approach it follows.

As an advocate and initiator of regional cooperation, Turkey strives to make use of interdependence as a confidence-building mechanism that helps form common interests favoring peaceful relations. Turkey and the Russian Federation are major actors in making regional cooperation a success story, especially in the Black Sea region. Increased international interest in the Black Sea region demonstrates the value of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC), as well as the timeliness of our efforts to further develop the BLACKSEAFOR capability. Most of the acute problems in our region are complex and transnational, but we have the power to check them if we join forces and act promptly.

Turkey believes in managing conflicts through a problem-solving approach. A static outlook in foreign policy which presents interacting parties as ultimate adversaries is bound to lose against a dynamic approach which offers to tackle problems through win-win solutions. This latter approach helps regimes in the region to feel more confident in interacting with the international community, while remaining within international law. Turkey’s affinity and historical ties with the regions surrounding it facilitate such a process. Most recently, Turkey’s credentials as a stability producer were proven again during the Cyprus issue.

We have to encourage the establishment of a culture of reconciliation as the basic working ethic among countries in our region. The frozen conflicts around us will not simply wither away with time. We have to face them openly, constructively and with renewed vigor.

Turkey’s multi-faceted orientation has assumed greater relevance as the defunct geopolitical divides of the Cold War era are being replaced with renewed dynamism at the regional and global levels. Turkey is uniquely situated to act as a political, economic and cultural interface between the regions it neighbors and the West at large. This role will be facilitated as Turkey’s accession process to the EU is advanced.

The shift in geopolitical priorities has put an additional emphasis on the Mediterranean region and the Middle East in its wider sense. The same dynamics has also brought Central Asia and the Caucasus to the forefront. Both Turkey and the Russian Federation recognize that, as a result of this dynamics, the West and the East have been brought closer together, not necessarily by choice, but by strategic exigencies. Both countries are located in the center of this reality. Therefore, both have an interest in contributing to a smooth transition of the geopolitical landscape, extending from the Atlantic to Central Asia and beyond.