Soft power in Turkish foreign policy, Part 3

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu


Soft power in Turkish foreign policy

Since the ruling Justice and Development Part came to power in 2002, debates on whether Turkey has become a soft power-actor in its foreign policy has continued unabated. As for the instruments employed in achieving foreign policy interests during the first thirteen years of continuous JDP governments, Turkey’s soft power turn was quite evident. Compared to this period, recent years, particularly following the failed coup attempt in July in 2016, have witnessed a spectacular increase in the use of hard power instruments in Turkish foreign policy. 

The changing dynamics of politics at international, regional and domestic levels seem to have caused this partial reversal. The use of hard power instruments in Turkish foreign policy has certainly made a comeback over the last half-decade, as the erosion of western primacy in global politics has continued; as realpolitik considerations and geopolitical calculations have increasingly begun shaping global politics with the rise of non-western powers, notably China and Russia; as the European Union has lost its appeal in Turkish eyes; as the Middle East and North Africa regions have become more Hobbesian than Kantian; as the worsening security dynamics in Turkey’s neighborhood have begun threatening Turkey’s territorial integrity and societal cohesion; and as the struggle against the PPK and FETO terror organizations has put the survival logic at the center of Turkish domestic politics. 

Rising nationalism in Turkish politics, as well as the adoption of the presidential system, seem also to have created a fertile environment for hard power oriented thinking to experience a revival in recent years. Aiming to discuss the reasons of such a hard power oriented turn in Turkish foreign policy later, this short essay tries to demonstrate whether or not there has a been soft power turn in Turkish foreign policy during the first thirteen years of JDP-led governments. 

Yet, one needs to underline that it is really difficult, if not impossible, to show whether there has occurred a soft power relationship between Turkey and the countries with which it engaged. We can’t know for sure whether other countries at times toed Turkey’s line and cooperated with Turkey out of identity/legitimacy concerns, interest-oriented considerations or one fear/coercion factor. Probing into this question requires an in-depth analysis of the motivations shaping other countries’ engagements with Turkey. What we can do at this juncture is offer a modest analysis of to what extent Turkey has acted as a soft power oriented actor in its foreign relations.

Turkish foreign policy and the soft power of attraction (1)

To ascertain whether or not Turkey has had the soft power of attraction, one would be well advised to show the extent to which international community has begun talk about Turkey as a particular role model, or source of inspiration, for other counties to emulate in their efforts to resolve their internal problems as well as to integrate into the global system successfully. The more others mention Turkey as a success story or appropriate example, the more Turkey would have the soft power of attraction. The first observation to make in this context is that Turkey’s transformation over the last two decades might constitute the most important source, as well as the asset, of Turkey’s soft power. The reforms undertaken at home alongside the EU accession process appear to have contributed to Turkey’s soft power potential as well as led some to opine that Turkey represents the best example of a political community where a predominantly Muslim society could develop liberal-democratic institutions and establish cordial relations with the Western international community. Though Turkey’s relations with western powers have soured in recent years, its transformation alongside the EU membership process since it was declared as a candidate country in late 1999 has constituted the number one reason why it ranked in first in many public opinion polls undertaken across the Muslim world. 

Second, Turkey’s economic and military power capabilities have increased impressively in recent years. Turkey is now the seventeenth largest economy in the world and its national economy has performed quite well till a reversal in Turkey’s economic fortune began five years ago. Turkey’s growing international visibility in global politics cannot be dissociated from its spectacular economic successes until quite recently as well as the development of a robust defense industry. Turkey is now a member of the G-20, an international platform that brings together the most developed 20 economies all over the word. Turkey’s inclusion in the United Nations-led Alliance of Civilization Project together with Spain was another indication of Turkey’s rising power of attraction. Turkey worked with Spain to help create the most appropriate global structural conditions for different civilizations to coexist peacefully.

Third, the 9/11 attacks and the geopolitical dynamics they produced appear to have led many Turkey observers to contend that Turkey’s significance in global and regional politics first and foremost emanated from its identity. Turkey has become too important a country in global politics because of who it is, rather than what it does. The fact that increasing number of international observers, both western and regional, pointed out to Turkey as a potential role-model confirms this.

The strengthening of liberal democratization process, the de-securitization of long-time traditional security problems, the civilianization of decision making process in foreign and security policy, the galloping development of Turkish economy, Turkey’s growing determination to look after diplomatic solutions to regional security problems, the growing scale of her representation in international organizations, the continuation of EU membership process and her success in demonstrating the peaceful existence of Islam with secular democracy have all added up to Turkey’s soft power during the first thirteen years of JDP governments. Fourth, Turkey’s particular identity also became an important source of its soft power potential at the early stages of the co-called Arab Spring. Many circles increasingly pointed out to Turkey as a potential role model to be emulated.

Turkish foreign policy and the soft power of attraction (2)

Equally important is to examine whether Turkey has taken any specific initiatives to help manufacture a positive image about itself across the world and the Middle East. Notable examples in this regard are the followings: Turkey has opened many new embassies across the world, particularly in the least developed parts of the world like Africa. Turkey has increased its development aid to needy countries and the Agency of Turkish Cooperation and Development (TIKA) has opened many new branches across the world. Turkish Radio and Television Organization began broadcasting in non-Turkish languages targeting the nationals of other countries. Compared to the long Cold War years and the first decade of the post-Cold War era, the fact that TRT is now broadcasting in English, Arabic and Kurdish languages is quite revolutionary and imaginary. Turkish Airlines has extended its destination points towards new locations, eclipsing all other national carriers in terms of the number of international flights. Many international events, ranging from civil society activities, sport events to international governmental conferences were organized in Turkey. Turkey has adopted the idea of internationalization in its higher education practices and many Turkish universities established institutional academic cooperation with their counterparts abroad. Turkey has also invested a lot to become a hub for international students. A public diplomacy branch was established within the Prime Ministry with a view to help coordinating all such activities addressing the international audience.