Turkey’s Soft Power Successes

Turkey’s Soft Power Successes

Turkey wants to expand its influence throughout its surrounding region, creating a peaceful, stable environment in which its economy can prosper. And as the country struggles internally to demilitarize and democratize, there is broad support for the AKP government’s bold aims abroad, says Wendy Kristianasen.


Ahmet Davutoglu’s vision is wide. He wants peace and security for the wider region around Turkey and believes Ankara is well-placed as a member of the G20 and NATO to make it happen. He is the architect of Turkey’s new policy, which relies on zero problems with neighboors, and soft power. He was chief foreign policy adviser to the prime minister from the start of the Justice and Development (AK) Party government, which came to power in a landslide general election on 3 November 2002. In May 2009 he became foreign minister.

He says Turkey is well-poised to play a mediating role in various conflicts, with strong ties with different religious and ethnic groups where there are Turkish speakers. That means the Balkans, the Caucasus, Russia, Cyprus, the Middle East. His vision of security for all and peace means more than mediation; it means “high-level political dialogue, economic interdependency and a multicultural character.”

Davutoglu is not a politician, but an academic, and not even a member of parliament, so free of ties to constituents. And he has not just thought out an innovative foreign policy, he has implemented it. His achievements: “Sixty one agreements signed with Syria; 48 with Iraq; visa requirements lifted with eight neighbors; resolution of Lebanon’s problem with Syria [over presidential succession]; two protocols signed with Armenia.” He has also attempted mediation between Israel and the Palestinians. He conducted the talks between Syria and Israel in 2007-8: “We came close, not to peace, but to agreement; but then Israel’s attack on Gaza [in December 2008] put an end to all that work. Gaza wasn’t an issue in our negotiations but it was a negative context… When Israel has a vision of peace we will be ready to listen: this is an issue of principle.”

This new foreign policy has won widespread popular support among a population divided internally by unresolved questions of identity: Secular Turks worry about Islamization and resent AKP patronage that excludes them (especially in the state sector).

At the same time, this is a crucial moment as Turkey sends its military back to the barracks and exposes the dark secrets of its “deep state” — in particular shadowy elements within the military (which toppled four governments between 1960 and 1998) that are accused, inter alia, of coup attempts against the AKP government. These include a plot to assassinate the deputy prime minister, Bulent Arinc, on 19 December 2009. The findings promise for the first time to “touch the untouchables” within the army. This has been happening within the framework of the ongoing Ergenekon trial. In January a flood of media revelations provided yet greater details of coup attempts (including a document exposing the so-called Balyoz or Sledgehammer operation).

There’s a new dynamic

As the shades are lifted from Turkey’s recent history, and the country demilitarizes, the way is now open to real democratization. Much needs to be done, including constitutional and other reform (not least to allow the military to be prosecuted in civilian courts). But the pace of change is undeniable; new elites are emerging, with a growing, vibrant middle class (even if disparity in income levels has widened). The energy is echoed abroad. Rising above a core divide over identity and internal direction, Turks can agree on a foreign policy that is coherent and promises economic gain and security, and expresses a clear sense of how Turkey sees itself in the world.

As Ihsan Bal, professor at the Police Academy, pointed out: “There’s a new dynamic, and it’s driven by the people. The West is missing that point.” It started in 2003, when the United States had wanted to use Turkey as a front for its invasion of Iraq. “And it was the people — the MPs and their constituents — who said no.”

You would expect Turks to worry about the effects of the global financial crisis, and unemployment (near to 15%; probably 30% among the young) but they discuss Gaza instead. A year ago 5,000 waved flags to greet their prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on his return from the World Economic Forum in Davos. He had just stormed out of a televised debate, on 29 January 2009, with Shimon Peres, the Israeli president. Erdogan told Peres: “You are killing people,” and the moderator refused to allow him to rebut Peres’ justification of the war on Gaza. Turks care about Palestine. They appreciate that Erdogan’s feelings are genuine and respond to his charisma, ordinary origins, and the always present family of this populist prime minister.

The Davos incident made Erdogan an instant hero among Arabs and Muslims. The United States seemed not too unhappy about the outburst, although it wishes that Turkey would show sympathy for Fatah, and not just Hamas, to help unblock the frozen peace process. A number of Turks feel that government support of Hamas (including inviting its leader Khalid Mesha’al to Ankara) should have paid a dividend — say the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, captured on 25 June 2006 and held under Hamas authority in the Gaza Strip. Davutoglu’s people reply that this misses the point.

Yet when the AKP came to power in 2002, it continued Turkey’s previous close relations with Israel, as the mediating effort with Syria showed. The context changed with the invasion of Gaza. Later the next year, in October 2009, Turkey excluded Israel from scheduled military exercises and postponed them indefinitely. This January, Israel was forced to apologize for its deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon’s treatment of the Turkish ambassador to Tel Aviv. Ahmet Oguz Celikkol, summoned to hear complaints about a Turkish TV drama seen as anti-semitic, was forced to sit on a low sofa without a handshake or the ritual Turkish flag while Ayalon explained to local TV stations that the humiliation was intentional.

What does this mean for future relations between the two countries? Meliha Altunisik, professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University, said that after the Gaza war “any government would have had to moderate its policy. Plus, Israel is growing more isolated under its present government and with Obama in power: its strategic position is declining.” Many Turks point out that Turkey is now more important to Israel than vice versa, even economically. However, they do not foresee more than a downscaling of relations: Neither Turks nor Arabs want Turkey to burn its bridges.

‘One of us has made it’

Altunisik said of the Arab world: “People in the region look to Turkey to play a constructive role. The economy is key. But Erdogan is personally popular: I even found women in Damascus who are learning Turkish on his account.” It started in 2003 when Turkey stood up to the US and refused to allow the country to be used as a launchpad for the Iraq war. “There was the feeling that one of us has made it.” She says that with Iran there is still competition. “Turkey has been trying to steal its thunder by its open support of Gaza, engagement of Syria with Israel, and resolving Lebanon’s presidential crisis.” With the new aim of solving problems through cooperation, the benefits are multiple. “Just in the Middle East, there is the straight benefit of developing relations with the Arabs; plus the extra benefit that brings over Iran; plus the economic benefit; plus stability. This provides a win-win possibility. It’s a new language. And it’s important.”

Iran is one of the few foreign-policy topics on which Turks disagree. Yavuz Baydar, political correspondent at the pro-government English language daily Today’s Zaman, said: “No cause for concern; what goes on between Erdogan and Ahmadinejad is just two men of the street with the same body language. They are cautious of each other.” But many feel attempts to mediate on Iran’s nuclear capability are dangerous, pointless, or naïve. The disagreement reflects the difficulty of deciphering Iranian ambitions. There is also the fear of an explosive situation on the doorstep.

Among Arab countries, Syria has captured the Turkish imagination: In university foreign affairs departments the staff talk of their latest trips to Damascus. Considering the old, bad relations — Syrian support for the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), its claim to Hatay (Alexandretta) cross-water problems — today’s social and economic relations seem miraculous. In Iraq, economic and social relations, and Turkish help in bringing Sunni groups to the negotiating table, have created a stable environment that contrasts with the instability of recent years in the Kurdish north, marked by PKK separatist activity and Turkish incursions. Business is booming in Africa, especially Libya and Sudan (scene of another prime ministerial gaffe); Turkey’s non-combatant role in Afghanistan (with 1,750 troops) is approved of.

It is not just the Muslim world: there’s Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Greece, Cyprus, Armenia, with two protocols signed on 10 October 2009 calling for diplomatic ties and the opening of borders.

What about the suggestion in the western press that Turkey’s turn to the east and south is a symptom of renewed Ottoman longings? The idea doesn’t register among Turks today. Temel Iskit, a former diplomat and Turkey’s first director general for EU affairs in the 1980s, says that the idea is a “way of saying Turkey has lost interest in joining Europe and is going Islamic. These criticisms come from countries that don’t want Turkey inside the EU and the pro-Israel US press. I think they are neither true nor sincere.” Iskit is one of the many disaffected who supported the CHP (Republican People’s Party, the secular center-left party that goes back to Ataturk’s single party state) but have lost confidence in the party under its current leader, Deniz Baykal. “After a lifetime of having publicly to defend all the old taboos on Armenia, Cyprus, the Kurds, I revised my opinions, and decided to speak out.”

Turkey has always had a central geopolitical place, explained Iskit. But because of its youth and struggle for independence, and then the cold war, it was always on the defensive. “What has changed is that Turkey has begun to democratize. That happened with agreement to fulfill the Copenhagen criteria, engaged before the AKP came to power, and the army’s agreement to stop meddling in politics. This democratization has led to a new spirit of co-operation and compromise.”

Kadri Gursel, a columnist on the secularist daily Milliyet, thinks that Turkey’s present foreign policy stance would have come about under any government. “Our foreign policy assets multiplied with the economic boom in 2002-3, the process of EU accession, and the end of a major security concern with the capture of [the PKK leader Abdullah] Ocalan.” Turkey is seeing a natural adjustment to new realities of the post-cold war and globalization, which have created a new dynamic. “But a secular party could not have profited so well: The AKP feels at home in the Middle East, especially with the Sunnis.” Many in and around the government speak Arabic. But that does not mean an “eastern axis.”

Insurance policy

Gursel thinks it’s about the economy. “Turkey is condemned to economic growth based on export because there’s no domestic saving structure.” So it has to find new markets, and that means the Middle East. “Overall, this has worked,” he says. “The government has run the economy properly and they’re business minded, even if they behave in a rather tribal way and keep the benefits for themselves. Indirectly it helps their Anatolian base to form a new middle class and this is an insurance policy towards a stable democracy.”

Soli Ozel, professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, said: “The eastern axis fuss is about the West’s inability to digest a Turkey that is calling its own shots.” He pointed out that the AKP has very good relations with the United States. “Turkey wants stability, a zone of prosperity, security aimed at peace. In contrast to Israel and Iran.” He, too, talked of the continuity in foreign policy: “The AKP have conceptualized this better than others.” He thinks the question of Turkey’s “Westness” is less about its strategic orientation than about whether it will become a real western country. “If the EU takes itself out of the equation through its inadequate understanding of what Turkey does, even though this is in the West’s interest, then most of our foreign relations will be conducted through the US.” In that case, Ozel wonders, will Washington push the EU harder to move ahead on Turkey’s membership? “That would mean that it rightly sees Turkey as a member of the western alliance with particular strengths in the Middle East, rather than a Middle East country allied to the West.”

Turks hope that Barack Obama will be better able to do this than George W. Bush. On Obama himself, Yasemin Congar, managing editor of the Istanbul daily Taraf says: “There is a lot to be said for his bi-racial, multi-cultural background and knowledge of the Muslim world. His middle name is Hussein and Turks keep that in mind.” The Obama message of a new dialogue with the Muslim world and respect for human rights is in tune with Turkey’s efforts to democratize and to find an equitable solution to its Kurdish problem. But his failure to pressure Israel over the Palestinians, and particularly settlement activity, and his decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, have disappointed people. At the same time, they note that Turkey’s own outspoken stance on Israel has gone without criticism, and may not be unwelcome given Obama’s poor relations with the current Israeli government. However, if Obama is to dispel the anti-Americanism of recent years, he will need to secure real progress on the Palestinians.

There is deep bitterness about Europe that underlies all talk on foreign policy. And the opposition’s complaint that the government has failed to pursue EU membership with sufficient enthusiasm has grown unconvincing since President Sarkozy’s rejection of Turkey. Rather, Turks believe that the country’s enhanced standing in the region means that it will be able to deliver more to the EU party. And if Turkey is not invited in? Its role in the world will in any case have been boosted.

Zafar Yavan, secretary-general of Tusiad (Turkish Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association), the association for big business, traditionally in the hands of the old secular Istanbul families, complains that the government has not moved fast enough on the EU, especially on public procurement and other economic chapters, creating doubts about its enthusiasm. But he admits that maybe the slowing down of the pace of convergence is to do with Sarkozy, not Turkey. “The direction is right, as long as they stay on track. Turkey will make progress with or without this government. But the AKP’s democratic attempts will remain: it’s a one-way process. And the pace of the AKP and its perseverance is not to be compared with that of any previous government.”

Ayse Celikel, a former CHP minister of justice, has every reason to oppose the government; she heads an association (Cagdas Yasam Dernegi) that offers secular education to girls, now under pressure from the government, with 14 employees detained without charges being made known. She calls herself “a Kemalist, but an open-minded one.” On foreign policy she recognizes that, “with EU adhesion on the back burner, the government is engaged in a balancing act with openings to the east and south. And as long as it doesn’t go any further away from Europe, or closer to Iran, okay.”

Armagan Kuloglu, a retired general and adviser at a new Ankara think-tank ORSAM (Centre for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies), is a self-proclaimed “Ataturkcu” (Ataturk devotee), “though not a Kemalist, which means defending the Turkish nation as an ethnic base.” He defends the old taboos, and condemns the government initiatives on Cyprus, the Kurds and Armenia. Yet he too agrees that there has been no change of axis: “The government just wants good relations with neighboring countries, and this is the first opportunity for this.” (He doesn’t criticize the government’s EU policy either, since he would be happy not to enter.)

Some Turks worry that the AKP government is juggling too much and may drop something. And is it in danger of overstating Turkey’s soft power potential? Meliha Altunisik says the question is premature and misses the point. “How foreign policy is conducted is as important as the end results. We used to be peripheral to all our neighbors. Now you can’t discuss many regions without talking about Turkey.”