New Turkey and the Arab Spring?

This commentary by Nuh YILMAZ was originally published on  OpenDemocracy on April 20, 2011 

Once Turkey considers and comes to terms with the challenge of formulating a new political language, it can rise to the level it aspires to as a new actor in a new region and in a new global order.

The Middle East saluted the New Year with revolts and political turmoil. Crises seem to be never-ending despite the earlier hopes that the wave of revolutions could be as smooth as they were in Tunisia and Egypt. How is Turkey supposed to respond to turmoil in the Middle East to remain a relevant voice? The current crisis derives from the need for democratization and restructuring of the entire regional order in the Middle East and North Africa. The Arab Spring has created new challenges for all the international and regional actors involved. The challenges facing Turkey today, however, are not about “management” of the crisis but about Turkey’s increased stature in the region over the past decade. In other words, how Turkey manages the status and reputation it has already achieved and looks set to achieve in the future in the arena of foreign policy activism. This will determine whether the country is up to the task of creating a new regional order. In this endeavour, Turkey will be challenged intellectually to create an authentic political language. And this new language needs to find a way to accommodate certain ‘inconsistencies.

The challenge

Three instances of crisis point to the main challenges of Turkish foreign policy. Confronted by a strong international liberal interventionist discourse in the case of Libya, Turkey had some difficulty in explaining itself cogently in its attempt to defend the Libyan people and their interests. While the AK Party government is used to dealing with the authoritarian republican language domestically, it found it harder to develop a sustained response to the domestic and foreign examples of liberal interventionist language. Liberal interventionism can be likened to authoritarian republicanism in Turkey in the way it claims to hold the moral high ground.

The Bahrain example carries with it risks in terms of relations with the Gulf countries and sectarian tensions. The chance for a Shiite majority hitherto politically under-represented to assume power is seriously feared in the Gulf due to gathering concern at growing Iranian influence. Turkey’s non-sectarian approach, exemplified in the Turkish Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq’s Shiite sites , following US-supported Saudi involvement in Bahraini affairs, was met with unease by the Gulf countries.

In the Syrian example, Turkey was forced to offer a concrete solution, as the crisis there was much closer to home in many ways. Turkey had to consider the crisis in Syria in the context of its close economic relationship with Syria, Sunni-Alawite tensions, democratization, regional balance, and also more urgently the Kurdish question.

Official web-site of Kurdistan Regional Government / Turkish Prime Minister’s visit to Iraq

Urgent need for a new language

Having to deal simultaneously with such disconnected and diverse issues will be Turkey’s greatest challenge. A range of problems with very different types of actors from Yemen to Syria, from Libya to Iran will knock on Turkey’s door. It will get more complicated in time, if not impossible, to deal with all these issues in a ‘consistent’ manner. While Turkey will have to pursue a consistent foreign policy, it will also have to produce ‘creative’ solutions simultaneously. The dilemma for Turkey will be the tension between challenging the authoritarian and universalist moral discourse of liberal interventionism and surrendering to an authoritarian, self-serving, utilitarian language. How will it be possible for Turkey to produce a position that takes an ethical stance consistent with values it shares with other political actors without being locked into phony moralising? The solution to this political dilemma will define the ‘middle’ position for Turkish foreign policy. It will give its name to the New Turkey’s language.

The biggest challenge for ‘mid-size powers’ such as Turkey, who attempt to determine their political position independently, is often the very urgency of problems too complicated to be brushed away with a moralising stance. Turkey will find it harder to explain its position as it refuses to pick one of the Yes/No choices on the ‘menu’ while questioning the ‘menu’ itself. Turkey, as an independent political subject, has been able to analyze the situation in its own terms to provide a genuine solution during previous crises. It was able to construct a genuinely independent political stance, for example, in its meeting with Hamas leaders in 2006, in the Davos crisis, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Russian-Georgian war of 2008, and the Mavi Marmara incident. But now multiple complex problems loom that require a coterminous response. Such a coordination is trying even for global powers such as the US.

Demotix / Tomasz Grzyb. Turkish flotilla ship, Mavi Marmara

Limits and opportunities

During previous crises, Turkey was somewhat familiar with the issues and actors involved as a result of its neighborhood experience, bi-lateral relations, and multilateral engagements. By contrast, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya pose unique and novel challenges, where the necessary experience and knowledge of the field has not yet been acquired. In the short term, this is a problem.

The current turmoil tends to be lumped together under the generalized heading, ‘democratization in the Middle East’. Domestic and foreign observers expect a consistent response. They can compare and contrast Turkey’s approach in multiple contexts, using the same terms to scrutinize each. This, after all, is what has made Turkey’s ‘soft power’ so reverberant in the region over recent times.

Turkey claims to find alternative solutions balancing the requirements of international law and its own international commitments. However, the ability to create authentic or custom-made solutions is not about the tools at one country’s disposal such as its military might and diplomatic maneuvering capabilities. Rather, that ability derives from its intellectual resources and political depth. Turkey has already consumed most of its intellectual resources in diplomatic and political initiatives in all the future of current developments. Now, it is time for Turkey to take a step back, assess the situation and look for ways to devise an authentic intellectual response for each fresh situation.

Even if these challenges are overcome, the prevalent liberal/moralist language widely utilized by activists in the region will continue to be an issue. The overwhelming welcome given to Libya’s bombing by the haphazardly put together international coalition proved that this language is popular among a generation of political actors and activists whose political knowledge and experience are often based on their virtual interactions. Such actors are not at a point where they can imagine a unified and creative solution coming from the indigenous dynamics of the region. Nor do they have a political stance based on a profound awareness of regional history. It will be difficult to debate such alternatives with these actors who are unwilling to question the Yes/No menu itself. This problem can be overcome only through the creation of an authentic political language, which would help diversify potential areas of cooperation and mark out alternative routes in the region.

Turkey will meanwhile continue to face domestic issues such as the Kurdish problem, democratization, and freedom of the press, all of which directly impact on Turkey’s foreign policy outlook. Turkey will have to mobilize and coordinate its economic, military, civil society, and human capital resources to extract concrete policies from the minimalist principles it favours – principles, for instance such as “not pointing guns at the indigenous peoples” or “opposition to foreign intervention” which will sooner rather than later have to be couched within a broader political language. What will this language look like? How effective will it be?

These are questions Turkish foreign policy has not encountered until now. But Turkey does not have the luxury to avoid these issues. The same danger looms for big powers such as the US, France, China, and Russia. None of these has the necessary resources or the human capital for such an enormous task. But if Turkey, by creating its own language, can help construct a new regional order in the Middle East, this would in return elevate Turkey to the place it aspires to in a new global order. If it fails, Turkey will have to continue to subsist as a regional actor in a game whose rules are set by others.

In the middle of making its move from an inward-turned country to a regional player, Turkey was caught unawares by the Arab spring. Turkey needed at least a couple more years to develop its economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural tools and capacities. Yet, history does not wait for anyone to catch up and it certainly won’t wait for Turkey either. So far, however, Turkey, as a stable, democratic force with a positive image is still ahead of the game.

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