Vol. 1, No. 7 (May 1, 2008)

Think tanks and the future of cooperation among Turkey, Israel, and Azerbaijan

Alexander Murinson, D.Phil
University of London

Think tanks played a key role in the development of cooperation between Western Europe and the United States after World War II, not only surviving as incubators of new ideas but places in which people from the various countries involved could meet and discuss the nature of their relationships.  Now, many people believe that think tanks in Turkey, Israel, and Azerbaijan, despite all the differences in the epistemic communities in these three countries could play a similar role in promoting a strategic partnership among them.

On the one hand, none of these countries has the depth or breadth of experience with think tanks that the United States and the Europeans had, a situation that casts doubt on such an expectation.  But on the other, each of them has at least some researchers and politicians who recognize the role that think tanks can play and who are committed to making use of them now and in the future.

Until Turgut Ozal liberalized Turkey in the 1980s, that country did not have a significant non-governmental sector.  Indeed, a senior member of one of the leading think tanks in Turkey has written that "the think tank sector is a rather new phenomenon in Turkey." [1] As recently as 2000, there was only one influential research center, the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara, which was closely tied to the foreign ministry.  In that year, Umit Ozdat created the Center for Eurasian Strategic Studies, or ASAM by its initials in Turkish.  And since then, other smaller think tanks have proliferated.  But even as a group, they have not had a significant impact on the government's policies.

ASAM, however, did make some important contributions to the policy process.  Not only did it conduct ground-breaking research on the South Caucasus and Central Asia, but it spearheaded links with Israel.  Because of that effort, many in Turkey and some elsewhere believe that in the future, ASAM, and possibly some of the other think tanks in Turkey, could play a similar role in developing ties with Azerbaijan as well.

Israel has a longer history with think tanks, but as in Turkey, they play a far less significant role than they have historically done in Europe let alone the United States, although they are often the source of innovative ideas that are then developed by members of the media or government officials.  The most influential Israeli think tank is the Inter-Disciplinary Center (IDC), which not only serves as the base of operation for the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) program but also attracts some of the most senior Israeli government officials to its meetings.

Now rivaling IDC is the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies (BESA), which is led by one of the most vocal proponents of cooperation between Israel and Turkey, Efraim Inbar, a member of Israel's National Security Council.  Inbar was directly involved in negotiations between Jerusalem and Ankara concerning military technology transfer agreements and arms sales.  And he has visited Azerbaijan on several occasions as well. 

Compared to Turkey and Israel, Azerbaijan's think tank community started later and is smaller.  But there are some indications that this may soon change.  Not only did Baku open a Diplomatic Academy in March 2006 to train young members of its foreign service and generate new knowledge on Azerbaijan’s foreign policy and the broader region, but there are now several genuine think tanks, the most notable of which is probably the Peace and Conflict Resolution Center founded by Elhan Mehdiyev, which has held a number of conferences and issued various publications.

Over the last five years, scholars and former officials from each of these countries have attended meetings hosted by think tanks in the other states.  As that develops, just as such exchanges developed between the US and Europe a half century ago, there is the very real possibility that think tanks in Turkey, Israel and Azerbaijan will contribute to the growth of the strategic partnership of the two.  At the very least, a regular examination of who is visiting and citing whom in the three countries is something those concerned about the future of this relationship cannot afford to ignore.  

[1] Kiniklioglu, Suat (2005). "Turkey's Think Tank Scene," Turkish Daily News, December 27.