President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan gave a much awaited long speech on Sunday on the external relations of Turkey at the World Economic Forum conference held in Istanbul where symbolism played an important role. Since his "one minute" outburst in Davos, Erdoğan has sworn not to ever go back there. Never mind that he will not go to Davos ever again, Davos has been brought to him. This is mainly how some mainstream media outlets are likely to see the evolution of the situation. The anti-government press will certainly focus on the "strategic volte-face" of Turkey, so far as the president has repeatedly and unequivocally said that Turkey will not be part of the anti-Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) coalition but will be at the center of it.
But if we take perhaps a more objective look at the situation, the seemingly "international loneliness" of Turkey is mainly an erroneous statement. What Turkey has been doing for the Middle East, clumsily perhaps, however steadily, has proven to be the right stance. The regime of Bashar Assad in Syria could have been contained and overthrown two years ago if the Western alliance did not turn a blind eye on the massacres perpetrated by Assad's criminal acts supported by Russia and Iran. It was also obvious that former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's overtly sectarian, short-sighted governance was taking Iraq to the brink of a new civil war. It was also not less obvious that the continuous tragedy of Palestinians was radicalizing a desperate population more and more, not only in the occupied territories but all over Europe and the U.S.
What was needed, especially in the aftermath of the Arab Awakening, was steady support for democratically elected regimes, be it the Muslim Brotherhood or otherwise, to help these populations establish a minimal democratic functioning. That would have been a difficult task, and the elected governments both in Egypt or Gaza were not really ready to play the democratic game. Instead, the old conventional tactics were used to overthrow or coerce regimes that did not look presentable in the eyes of Western democracies. The result is once again a terrible quagmire with a disastrous humanitarian tragedy in addition.
Erdoğan wants to change it, and his slogan, already used and forgotten but now reactivated, is "the world is bigger than five," referencing the veto power of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and how it is blocking international cooperation. That is the truth. However, whether it is a good idea to become the standard bearer of a new world order is much debatable. The last time such a challenge emerged was under the Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow period as director-general of UNESCO from 1974 to 1987. He wanted, ahead of his time and very justly, the organization of an information agency to be mostly independent from developed countries and the existing very strong and largely organized news agencies like the Associated Press, United Press International or Agence France-Presse - a kind of more popular Al-Jazeera "avant la letter," or, before its time.
At the end of his term at UNESCO the U.S., followed by the U.K., left UNESCO after this attempt, arguing it was turning into a third world socialist propaganda machine. Leaving UNESCO, the U.S. and U.K. took away one-third of UNESCO's budget, crippling the international institution, which recovered only 30 years later. The whole thing happened in 1983 and the world has changed a lot since that time and the role of emerging countries, as well as their participation in world production and trade has immensely improved. Is it thus the correct moment to initiate a movement to render the U.N. system more democratic and participative? Does Turkey have enough strength to initiate an international movement capable to alter the present situation? The coming months and years will show all of us whether Erdoğan's move was a long lasting strategy or a tactical declaration to show his deep dissatisfaction over the bloodshed in Syria.