Soft power in Turkish foreign policy, part 4

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Turkish foreign policy and the soft power of persuasion

Turkey’s inclination to rely on diplomatic tools on the one hand and the particular ‘order-creator’ discourse adopted by the ruling JDP governments till the middle of the second decade of the twenty first century on the other attest to the fact Turkey has increasingly invested in the soft power of persuasion in its foreign policy. The process-oriented foreign policy understanding, the penchant for contributing to the solution of regional and global security problems through the engagement of conflicting parties, the predisposition to rely on diplomatic tools and mechanisms in this process and the growing determination to offer a particular regional/global political order are of value in this context. Increasing diplomatic activities as well as conflict resolution attempts attest to the growing salience of soft power of persuasion in Turkish foreign policy. 

Turkey has opened new embassies across the globe, particularly in Africa. Besides, the number of international organizations where Turkey holds the status of either full membership or observer has also increased in recent years. Turkey acted as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council during 2009-2010 period; one Turkish national was twice elected to the General Secretariat of the Organization of the Islamic Conference; high-level Turkish diplomats were appointed to the key positions within the United Nations and NATO; one Turkish MP was elected to the Chairmanship of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Turkey was also admitted to the G-20. Turkey hosted the fourth UN conference of the Least Developed Countries in Istanbul in May, 2011. 

Turkey’s involvement in the solution process of regional conflicts has also increased in recent years. For example, Turkey has not only played a facilitative role during the negotiations between Israel and Syria but also helped mediate the conflict between Israel and Palestinians. During the first decade of the twenty first century. Turkey’s efforts to help reconcile the differences between the two blocks of the Palestinian community, Hamas and Fatah, intensified following the ouster of the Palestinian Authority from the Gaza Strip by Hamas in July 2007. Turkish diplomats worked hard for the incorporation of Hamas into the Peace Process as a legitimate party. Turkey also involved in the Afghanistan-Pakistan negotiations and brought the leaders of both countries together in Turkey. 

Turkey’s role in diffusing the nuclear tension between Iran and the western international community is also another example of Turkey investing in its soft power of persuasion during the JDP era. The historic agreement that the P5 plus Germany signed with Iran in 2015 owes its existence in part to Turkey’s co-efforts with Brazil to offer a solution proposal in the summer of 2010. The point is that if Iran and the international community had not believed in Turkey’s good intentions, they would not have asked Turkey to play such a rule. Turkey’s involvement in Iraq with a view to bringing the conflicting parties together and helping diffuse the ethnic and sectarian tension was also noteworthy. Participation of Sunnis in the new political structuring in Iraq as a legitimate and invested part was made possible by Turkey’s efforts. For example, Turkey played a key role in the composition of the Iraqi government after the elections held in both 2005 and 2010. 

In the Balkans, too, Turkish leaders helped organize trilateral meetings among Bosnian, Serbian and Turkish representatives and such efforts have contributed to the amelioration of relations between Belgrade and Sarajevo. Turkey also proposed the Caucasia Cooperation and Stability Platform in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war in August 2008, with a particular view to helping contribute to regional stability. Turkey’s efforts to engage its neighbors through bilateral, trilateral and multilateral platforms are other indications of the soft power of persuasion. All such efforts appear to reflect the idea that Turkey tries to come up with solutions to regional insecurity and instability through regional cooperation and collaboration, rather than imposing its will onto others. 

A novel development in this context is that Turkey established high level strategic cooperation councils with neighboring countries, such as Syria, Iraq, Iran, Russia, Greece and Lebanon. The bilateral meetings were held under the chairmanship of two prime ministers and attended by particular cabinet members depending on the issue under consideration. The main idea behind such meetings was that Turkey in cooperation with its neighbors tried to develop a regional consciousness in the solution of perennial regional problems. Similarly, lifting of the visa restrictions before travel and other transactional activities became a vital component of Turkey’s regional policies. Another notable development worth mentioning in this context is that Turkish decision makers paid an utmost care to help secure internal, regional and international legitimacy before letting Turkish military units chase after PKK terrorists outside national borders. 

The messages given by high level Turkish statesmen in the wake of the people protests across the Middle East during the so-called Arab Spring are also noteworthy in this regard. Turkish leaders continuously advised and urged their counterparts in the region that they listen to the demands of the people, improve their life-standards and develop the institution of accountability. The idea that Turkey should act as an ‘order-creator’ country in its environment was an example of Turkish decision makers hoping to benefit from soft power of persuasion.  Explaining Turkey’s vision and polices at regional and global levels on normative and moral grounds constituted the backbone of Turkey’s soft power potential in this regard. The goal here was not that Turkey, due to a combination of some factors, was by default entitled to know the best and lead the community of nations in its neighborhood in a hegemonic way. Rather, Turkey’s efforts were mainly confined to attempts at helping bring into existence new structural environments at global and regional levels so that political entities, be they states or non-state actors, do no longer feel discriminated against. 

This role model ascribed Turkey a particular mission to work for the emergence of a new regional/international political order that would be more inclusive, just and participatory than ever. Turkish rulers incessantly argued that the emerging world order should not be based on polarizations and binary oppositions. A successful regional and global order would take place if the feeling of legitimacy prevailed and parties considered themselves as responsible stakeholders of the current system. Turkey’s soft power of persuasion would be positively affected by its unique identity of bridging different civilizations and carrying the banner of democratic modernity in the sea of non-democratic authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. 

Looking from Turkey’s perspective, the international system that took place in the aftermath of the Second World War had been designed in order to reflect and help maintain the interests of the victorious western nations. This system came to an end first with the fall of the Berlin Wall and then the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, a new system had not been established in its stead. On the contrary, with the defeat of communism the victorious westerners, particularly the successive American administrations, appear to have rushed to the conclusion that history finally came to an end. It was believed that the projection of the liberal-capitalist-democratic norms of the western international community to other parts of the globe under the under the leadership of the United States would pave the way for global peace, stability and development. 

However, such expectations did not come true, as the world was struck by another event on Sep. 11, 2001, when the United States, the most powerful actor of global politics was hit by transnational terrorists. These attacks produced revolutionary consequences in the sense that great powers are no longer immune from territorial attacks; globalization process did not result in the emergence of a global village; nationalism and anti-globalization are now the most powerful dynamics in international politics; great power competitions have come back; that non-traditional actors, such as transnational terrorist organizations or other non-state actors, are now more difficult to deter through traditional methods; that cultural and civilizational attributed do now divide the international community into alternative camps and opposing blocks; that the continuation of non-settlement of traditional political problems, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict, fuel worldwide polarization along ideational faultiness. The global economic crisis in 2008 and Covid-19 disease seem to have perpetuated such trends in global politics. Recent years have also witnessed that the overwhelming power of the United States has come under challenge by the rise of China, Russia, India, Brazil, South Africa and many other non-western countries. 

All such developments combined seem to have underlined the point that a new world order needs to be established as soon as possible so that the emerging century would be less prone to global conflicts and wars. It is within such a context that attempts at reorganizing the existing international organizations, such as the United Nations, World Bank, International Monetary Fund and G- 7, have radically increased over the last decade. Against this background, the architects of Turkey’s ‘order-creator’ role model argued (and still argue) that the existing international order has contributed to the perpetuation of perennial security problems across the globe. Even though, today’s world is very much different from the world of early 1990s, we are still far away from the resolution of the Arab-Israeli dispute, the specter of peaceful coexistence of different civilizations and a long-term cooperative mood in inter-great power relations. 

The role model Turkey ascribes to itself is visionary in that Turkey should act with others to help midwife a new international order that would be more inclusionary and just. Turkey should come up with an articulate global vision that could potentially help the international community move on to a more prosperous, peaceful and stable environment. One of the key aspects of such a role on the part of Turkey is that Turkey should be seen as one of those wise-counties across the globe whose opinion really matters in international politics and whose involvement in any particular conflict could lead the way to the solution. The mood of the country before the onset of the second half of the 2010s was so self-congratulatory that Turkish decision makers believed that Turkish statesmen and diplomats should be consulted and respected whenever and wherever there was a need for someone to offer a visionary perspective for the solution of perennial problems the world over. 

Remaining complacent in the world order created by others and simply reacting to developments instigated by outsiders would not allow Turkey to play the order creator role. Turkish soldiers and diplomats should not solely act as ‘fire-fighters’, when the duty called. They had better act as ‘city planners’ in that Turkey acts as a strong agent of global politics, rather than as a tool or issue in the context of the materialization of others’ interests. Turkey’s vision should be to help bring alternative identities and civilizations together, rather than acting as the spokesperson of any particular identity group. Turkey should not only prove that it is a melting pot of a plurality of identities at home but also act as the glue sticking different civilizations to each other beyond its borders. 

Turkey’s soft power of persuasion would also emanate from the way how it acts within international organizations of which she is already a member.  Simple stated Turkey should play ‘connecting’ roles within such multilateral platforms. Turkey should not solely be seen as an insulator country that shields the Kantian security environment in the West against the security dangers emanating from the Hobbesian security environment in the so-called ‘greater Middle East’. 

Turkey’s vision, reflecting its soft power of persuasion, does not challenge the fundamental premises of the exiting led liberal international order/society, but aims at helping reconstruct it so that it becomes more inclusive, fair and representative of emerging geopolitical realties on the ground. 

It is beyond doubts that Turkey’s soft of persuasion was at its high before the outbreak of the Arab Spring and when Turkey was fully engaged in the project of European Union membership. The last decade has caused some deterioration in Turkey’s soft power of persuasion. There are domestic, regional and international causes of this outcome. The next piece will discuss such factors.