The Arab awakening arguably represents the most important transformation of Middle Eastern politics since the end of colonialism. How will the regional powers adjust their foreign policies to the new regional environment is however still extremely uncertain. This uncertainty is partially due to the well-known inability of international relations scholars to make assured predictions, but also to the fact that the dynamics of foreign policy shifts are still widely overlooked and generally misunderstood in the scientific literature.
Is ‘foreign policy change’ a mere adaptation to changes taking place in the domestic arena, as argued by most IR liberals? Or is foreign policy behaviour wholly dependent on the international distribution of power, as argued by realists? Or is there room for autonomous decisions that are not only reactions to exogenous sources of change, but are purposive and proactive actions in their own right?
The Arab awakening will most likely be a crucial case study to test each of these hypotheses.
In this post, I will try to analyse the recent foreign policy dynamics of Qatar and Turkey, widely recognised as the two countries with the most proactive foreign policies in the Middle East. My goal here is to shed some light and formulate some preliminary hypotheses on the complex issue of foreign policy change.
As we shall see, the foreign policy trajectories of Turkey and Qatar are similar in many respects. For both of them the fundamental departing point is a close alliance with the US and the West. Turkey is an important member of NATO and a candidate EU member, while Qatar hosts the strategic American military base, Al Udeid. In recent times, however, both countries have pursued an independent foreign policy, seeking for themselves a pivotal role as mediators between the West and the Arab world.
The policies were indeed very similar — both based on a substantial amount of soft power, which Turkey owed to its status of a successful Islamic democracy and Qatar to its enormous wealth and being the headquarters of al Jazeera. Such soft power was employed in a policy of regional mediation and “zero problems in the neighbourhood”, which, in turn, had the objective of securing a certain degree of regional leadership. This ambitious strategy required a careful balancing act in a region divided between a “moderation front” led by Saudi Arabia and supported by the West, and a “radical front” led by Iran and Syria. The mediation efforts undertaken by Turkey between Israel and Hamas, and by Qatar between the different Lebanese factions in 2008, probably represented the highest points of what can be considered an overall successful foreign policy course.
Tracing the roots of this newfound political activism by Turkey and Qatar is not easy. A liberal would probably point to the fact that the so-called “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy in Turkey is a direct result of the electoral victory of the AK government, with its Anatolian roots and its Islamic ideology. A realist, on the other hand, would certainly point out that what allowed the two countries to play such a big role was the regional vacuum created by the weakness of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the two traditional leaders of the Sunni block.
Having shared a similar path before the Arab awakening of 2011, Turkey and Qatar also reacted in similar ways. In particular, they both understood that they could not afford to sit on the fence and wait for the dust to settle, or else the political capital they had accumulated in previous years would have vanished. Instead, they decided to invest their capital in the attempt to shape the events and to lead the process of regional change.
Qatar immediately embraced the cause of the Arab revolt with all the instruments it possessed: Al Jazeera, the pay-check diplomacy and even deploying its air force in Libya. While these decisions may seem in continuity with the previous foreign policy activism of Qatar, in reality there is a profound difference in its “national role conception”. Qatar has ceased to be a mediator and has become a hawk. The same country that in 2009 at the Arab Summit of Doha effectively sided with Syria and the axis of resistance against the moderate front led by Saudi Arabia, is now the most vocal proponent of military intervention against the Assad regime in Syria. While Turkey was initially more cautious than Qatar, it gradually went through a similar transformation, and finally repositioned itself at the forefront of the fight for a new democratic and Sunni-dominated Middle East.
This second shift in Turkish and Qatari foreign policy somehow seems to vindicate the realist position, as it is clearly linked to the changing conditions of the international environment rather than to any change in the domestic politics of the two countries. What must be noticed, however, is that both Turkey and Qatar are not merely “adapting” to their international environment, as a realist would predict, but are instead actively trying to shape it. Their foreign policy decisions are not mere reactions to external feedbacks, but are rather actions freely and consciously undertaken to shape the region and achieve political goals.
Is this strategy going to pay off? Realists, with their usual fuzziness between the analytic and normative dimensions, usually argue that foreign policies not only are generally adaptive but also that they should be.
Turkey and Qatar are indeed risking a lot in what so far can only be described as a foreign policy bet. The Qatari involvement in Libya, for instance, has so far brought very little results in terms of political influence. Doha’s clients have not fared well in the elections and Qatar’s interference has often angered other local and international actors. It could indeed be argued that a lower profile would have better served the perspectives of Qatari economic and political penetration in the new Libya. In Turkey, on the other hand, many are already questioning the wisdom of their government’s heavy involvement in Syria which, so far, has created a humanitarian emergency on its border, heightening tensions with the Kurds and contributing to a dangerous regional instability.
To sum up, both Turkey and Qatar have invested their considerable capital of soft power in an attempt to lead the Arab awakening. In doing so they abandoned their previous role of regional mediators in order to shape the emerging regional order. It was a bold move that showed the possibility of conducting innovative and proactive foreign policies but it was also a very risky investment. Will it pay off? Only time will tell us.
Rocco Pollin is a PhD student at the University of Florence. He holds a visiting studentship at the POLIS department at the University of Cambridge.