“Turkey as a Rising Power” Put to the Test-Turkish Review

Ahmet Özcan, “Turkey as a Rising Power Put to the Test”, Turkish Review, Vol. 3/1, February 2013, pp. 97-100.

We live in a time when the distinction between domestic and foreign realms of politics has not merely blurred, but abolished altogether. While Turkey’s Prime Minister’s harsh critique of Israel on her existential Palestinian issue in a global platform led to an immediate rise in the domestic support-base of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey’s explicit support for the oppositional groups in the ongoing Syrian civil war has directly intensified the attacks of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) inside Turkey. No other political actor might be better aware of this direct correlation between domestic and foreign realms of politics than the ruling party AKP – which craftily legitimizes its domestic political power through its foreign policy discourse of “Turkey as a rising global power”. In other words, this new foreign policy discourse, notwithstanding it’s realistic or not, has the spontaneous function of legitimizing the domestic power of the ruling party. As Yüksel Taşkın wrote in 2011, the opposition parties have been far from grasping this overlapping of Turkey’s domestic and foreign realms of politics, as they could not yet present any alternative foreign policy discourses.[1] It seems that the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), only recently realized the organic linkage between AKP’s domestic and foreign policies, so that it begins to try to develop its own discourse on Turkey’s foreign policy on the Syrian civil war. Still, the alternative discourse (“Peace at home, peace in the world.”) it has developed remains a mere repetition of Turkey’s traditional foreign policy behavior that had remained, in general, pro-status quo and one (Western) dimensional during the Cold War era. Whether we will designate this discursive repetition as “impotence” or “prudence” will directly be the result of the success or failure of AKP’s foreign policy discourse. Now, in order to envision the prospect of this discourse, the collective book “Another Empire?” – which is recently published by the Istanbul Bilgi University Press – precisely analyzes through various angles the decade of Turkey’s foreign policy under the leadership of AKP between 2002 and 2012.

Simply because predicting the prospect of this currently hegemonic discourse is an attempt to grasp its meaning, i.e. its promise along with its limitations, for Turkey’s future, it is indispensible to contextualize the discourse of “Turkey as a rising global power”. In the most basic level of analysis, this is clearly a post-Cold War discourse. As a firm and strategically vital ally of the Western bloc in the Cold War, Turkey had pursued, in general, one (Western) dimensional and pro-status quo foreign policy behavior. Despite sporadic crises with the US and her neighboring allies, like those with Greece in the Cyprus issue, the ruling bureaucratic elite authoritatively defined the so-called “national interests” of Turkey as lying exclusively in the Western direction and in the continuation of the present status quo in her region. In practice, this policy meant an alliance with the authoritative regimes of the Middle East, as it was the case in the Baghdad Pact through which Iran, Iraq, and Turkey took a firm stand against their common Kurdish problem. Therefore, Turkey, next to Israel, had become the true representative of Western interests in her region to such an extent that she, without hesitation, took her side with the colonial powers between 1950 – 60 at several sessions on the rights of self-determination of the North African countries in the General Assembly of the United Nations while Greece was with the non-aligned countries of Africa and Asia.[2] Now, as the end of the Cold War has provided Turkey the ability and the space to maneuver and the geo-strategic reasons to diversify her interests without giving up her Western orientation, AKP’s political power has become the climax of a new active and multi-dimensional foreign policy period. The deadlock in Turkey’s European Union membership has, therefore, been mitigated by her active presence in all her neighboring regions, from North Africa and Middle East to Caucasus and Eastern Europe. In stark contrast to the preceding ages, Turkey overtly supported the Arab revolutions that destructed the authoritative regimes, several of which were Western allies, in the Middle East.

The second level of analysis is related with the agency of the Turkish foreign policy. In the preceding decades, Turkish foreign policy had been determined by the traditional Kemalist civil and military bureaucratic elite in such a manner that it had become the true national taboo, sacred and above political debate. As Kerem Öktem in “Another Empire?” argues, this domain is now populated by a multitude of actors – who range from non-governmental organizations (e.g. ORDAF) and religious networks (e.g. Gülen Movement) to governmental organizations (e.g. TİKA).[3] This process of de-militarization in the decision-making mechanisms and of the diversification of state elite is not, however, equivalent to the total dissolution of the traditional Kemalist elite. In her recent study “Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement”, Berna Turam justly argued that the distinctive feature of the moderate political Islam, i.e. Gülen movement and AKP, is its ability to transcend the conflictual attitude of the previous Islamist actors towards the state structure and its will and capability to apply a non-confrontational, however mutually transformative, relationship with the Kemalist military and civil bureaucratic elite.[4]

The third level of analysis is on the promise and the limitations of the discourse of “Turkey as a rising global power” for the linkage between domestic and foreign realms of politics. This discourse by implying a new – active and multi-dimensional – kind of foreign policy behavior that has replaced the traditional – passive and one-dimensional – one was supposed to lead, in turn, to a new – civilizational (religious and cultural) – kind of nationalism in lieu of the traditional – ethnic and self-contained – nationalism of the preceding decades. This was the promise of this discourse, hence the promise of AKP’s political power, for possible solutions of the long standing problems of Turkey’s political regime; at the end of the decade, however, there clearly stands serious limitations for the realization of this promise. Let’s clarify this pivotal point without taking another step forward in our argumentation.

In his recent study “Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism”, Cihan Tuğal – by questioning the contradictory coexistence of the destructive results of neo-liberal policies for society and the mass demobilization and passivity – brilliantly argued that the absorption of radicalism led by the ruling party AKP, in addition to the Gülen movement, serves historically to the reconstitution of the capitalist hegemony.[5] In other words, Tuğal reads AKP’s political power as a passive revolution, a new hegemonic project through which the political and social challenges against the system are absorbed. Now, if this hegemonic project could be interpreted as successful for the absorption of the Islamic challenge by turning itself as a global model for displaying the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and capitalism, it is failed for the demobilization of the Kurdish resentment. This failure becomes all the more bitterly blatant as the discourse of the ruling party has turned from a religiously blended civilization discourse to the “single nation, single country, single state, single flag” discourse. Moreover, this domestic failure has turned into an international one, as Turkey’s support for the Free Syrian Army led not only to an immense increase in the attacks of PKK, but also to a de facto Kurdish autonomous territory in Northern Syria, just like that in Northern Iraq. The boomerang effect, the relationship between domestic and foreign policies of Turkey that had, thus far, worked in favor of AKP’s political power has begun to undermine it.

There stand serious challenges, therefore, for the realization of the discourse of “Turkey as a rising global power”. Without any doubt, Turkey has emerged as a pivotal regional power due to the rise of her economy and her middle classes and to her proactive, multi-faceted, and dynamic foreign policy.[6] The decision to involve in any crisis in her region as a mediating power – especially when the present catastrophic state of the Middle East is taken into account – can be read, by itself, as a true achievement. As Baskın Oran argues in the preface of “Another Empire?”, this proactive foreign policy can be interpreted neither as a change of axis nor as a new kind of Ottomanism.[7] The relative autonomy that Turkey tries to acquire in the international arena naturally necessitates a certain kind of deviation from Western interests, as the present tension between Turkey and Israel illustrates, and a historical reference to the Ottoman past remains merely discursive. Indeed, the main problem is related with the discourse of “Turkish model”. The question is not only whether Turkey’s soft power is adequate, or the international dynamics are suitable, for the accomplishment of her goal of being a regional medium power, but most importantly whether he could become a model for the compatibility of Islam, democracy, and capitalism in her region, in Oran’s words, with all those historical hunches on her back? “Another Empire”, in this respect, could be read as an attempt to address this vital question thoroughly by analyzing the last decade of Turkey’s foreign policy under AKP through different angles and conceptualizations.

[1] Yüksel Taşkın, “Yükselen Küresel Güç Türkiye Söyleminin İşlevleri” (“The Functions of the Discourse of Turkey as a Rising Global Power”), Radikal, October 25, 2011, p. 21.

[2] Baskın Oran (ed.), Türk Dış Politikası (Turkish Foreign Policy), Istanbul: İletişim Yay., Vol. 1, 2003, pp. 634 – 635.

[3] Kerem Öktem, “Projecting Power: Non-Conventional Policy Actors in Turkey’s International Relations”, in Kerem Öktem, Ayşe Kadıoğlu, and Mehmet Karlı (eds.), Another Empire: A Decade of Turkey’s Foreign Policy under the Justice and Development Party, Istanbul: Istanbul Bilgi University Press, 2012, pp. 77 – 108.

[4] See: Berna Turam, Between Islam and the State: The Politics of Engagement, California: Stanford University Press, 2007.

[5] See: Cihan Tugal, Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism, California: Stanford University Press, 2009.

[6] Kerem Öktem and Ayşe Kadıoğlu, “Introduction”, in Öktem et al. (eds.), p. 1.

[7] Baskın Oran, “A Proactive Policy with Many Hunches on the Back”, in Öktem et al. (eds.), pp. xv – xxiii.


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