Soft power in Turkish foreign policy, part 1

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Recent years have witnessed an increase in the number of scholarly studies on the idea of soft power in foreign policy. Though Joseph Nye popularized this concept in the early years of the post-Cold war era in the context of the American foreign policy, the late 1990s saw scholars begin to use this concept frequently in relation to the European Union. It has been argued that the European Union has been a distinctive international actor repudiating hard power in the materialization of European security and foreign policy interests. Early literature mainly compared the United States, a traditional hard power actor, with the soft power of the European Union. Discussions on soft power gained a new dimension at the turn of the new century. Following the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number of scholars began to examine the growing salience of the so-called ‘rising powers’ in international politics.

While uncovering the differences between the foreign policy strategies of the well-established existing powers on the one hand and the rising powers on the other, the concept of soft-power has been increasingly mentioned in the context of explaining China’s ‘peaceful rise/peaceful development’ strategy. 

As a prominent rising power, China has invested heavily in soft-power strategies in an attempt to challenge the primacy of the US and West in the international community. 

Chinese leadership has taken great pains to improve China’s material power and capitalized on projects which radiate a positive Chinese image across the globe. Today many believe China offers a non-western model of economic development and international order. Similarly, many have concluded that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on the one hand and the particular foreign policies understanding of the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations on the other have eaten away the soft power potential of the United States.

Discussions on soft power have adopted a new dimension as the relationship between the United States and China has increasingly begun reflecting the elements of a normative contestation as to how the new international order should be designed in the post Covid-19 era. The adoption of sharp power instruments alongside this process seems to have led some to argue that the innocence of soft power has now been increasingly replaced by wickedness of sharp power. 

Turkey is one of those countries coming under limelight over the last two decades in part owing to its foreign policy understanding. Many have argued that the soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy during the first ten years of the JDP government has gradually witnessed hard power practices come back since the onset of the Arab Spring. Referring to Turkey’s increasing soft power capabilities during the first decade of the twenty-first century, analysts have underlined that Turkish foreign and security policies practices, particularly in the Middle East, demonstrated a radical shift in the conceptualization and implementation of Turkey’s national interests. It was believed that Turkey had become a soft power foreign policy actor in its region that prioritized the adoption of a transformative, trade-based, civilian, normative and diplomatic foreign policy understanding. The continuation of the EU accession process and the concomitant demand on Turkey to prove that it has good relations with its neighbors; and the need to lessen the negative consequences of the growing instability in the Middle East on Turkey’s economic development and political maturation processes were some of the factors that accounted for such a soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy. Many believed that Turkey would be able to deal with the challenges to its security and assert its primacy only through the adoption of soft power tools and strategies.

As opposed to such descriptions of Turkish foreign policy, the last decade has seen many air the view that the hard power practices have gradually come back to haunt Turkish foreign policy practices. The onset of Arab Spring, Turkey’s growing penchant to help midwife a Turkey-friendly Middle East, the use of brute military power to defend territorial borders and shape the internal developments in neighboring countries and the adoption of a survival-first mentality in shaping national interests in the aftermath of the infamous coup attempt in July 2016 can all be seen as the factors that could partially explain the revival of hard power thinking in Turkish foreign policy. 

Despite a surge in the number of studies on the idea and implementation of soft power strategies, the ambiguity still persists as to how to define soft power. While some analysts assert that power is the ability to get what one wants from others, they are still far away from offering a non-contested definition of this particular phenomenon. While some scholars define soft power in the context of foreign policy instruments and capabilities. By highlighting the nature of tools used in the implementation of foreign policy interests, some others point out to the fact that soft power, as well as hard power, denotes the existence of a power relationship between two particular countries. The latter argue that ascertaining whether or not there exists a soft power relationship requires a more detailed analysis than merely examining the tools employed in the process of implementation. A country might possess a great sum of hard and soft power capabilities, yet it might be unable to have an influence on the foreign policy strategies and behaviors of other actors. Capabilities do not automatically translate into influence. 

Soft power defined as relationship suggests that power is relational and contextual. An implicit assumption of the scholars who are predisposed to define soft power as relationship is that for a state to be recognized as soft power, analysts need to answer if other states, being the target of the state that claims to act as a soft power, change their behaviors in line with the expectations of the first state out of fear, interests or identity related motivations. Without uncovering the motivations of the countries at the receiving end of this relationship, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to claim that the particular country at the sending end of this relationship holds soft power. That said, the conceptual difference between ‘soft power as the sum of capabilities’ or ‘soft power as a particular relationship’ should be underlined as unambiguously as possible.

The issue of whether or not Turkey has become a soft power actor is boiled down to two questions. First, to what extent is Turkey relying on soft power tools and capabilities to influence the identity, preferences and behaviors of other states? Second, is it possible to discuss the existence of a soft power-based relationship between Turkey on the one hand and the countries that stand at the receiving end of Turkey’s messages on the other? Answering the second question is a far more complicated business than handling the first question because it requires an extensive study of the main reasons as to why other states might want to change their preferences and behaviors in line with Turkey’s priorities. Would they act out of fear, profit/interest or identity/legitimacy concerns? 

For a pure soft power-based relationship to exist between two particular countries, two preconditions need to be fulfilled simultaneously. First, the country that stands at the sending end of the spectrum should utilize soft power strategies and tools, meaning ‘power of persuasion’ and ‘power of attraction’. The goal on the part of this state should be to convince the target country through offering a source of aspiration and engaging in deliberate argumentation and persuasion. Second, the state that stands at the receiving end of this relationship should change its strategies and behaviors mainly out of identity related considerations, rather than fear or pure cost-benefit calculations. Complying with the terms of the sending state should be found legitimate and appropriate. Stated somewhat differently, an ideal soft power-based relationship would arise if the sending state got what it wants from the receiving state through ‘power of attraction’ and ‘power of persuasion’, rather than ‘power of coercion’ or ‘power of temptation’.