On May 9, 2012, the Brookings Doha Center hosted a policy discussion with Birol Başkan, Assistant Professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Turan Kayaoğlu, BDC-QU Visiting Fellow, and Sinan Marufoğlu, Associate Professor of History at the Department of Humanities at Qatar University. The panel focused on the domestic and foreign policy components that have influenced Turkey’s actions in the Middle East. The discussion was moderated by Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, and attended by members of Qatar’s academic, business, media, and diplomatic communities.
Sinan Marufoğlu began the discussion by speaking about Turkey’s historical role in the region. The long history of Ottoman rule over the Arab world, he argued, had given the Turks a deeply rooted and detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern society and politics. For much of recent history, the Ottoman Empire had been the guarantor of regional security against threats from both the east and the west.
In the post-Ottoman era, Turkey has tended to look westward, distancing itself as much as possible from the Middle East, Marufoğlu continued. When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, however, a “Turkish Spring,” similar to today’s Arab Spring, emerged. That period witnessed fundamental changes in policies under Prime Minister Erdoğan, as his government reformulated relationships through its “zero problems” foreign policy.
Marufoğlu went on to say that the Middle East is still going through a transition and stressed that we have yet to see a new balanced Turkish foreign policy. He explained that a political cadre in Turkey has been working “to promote peace and strengthen economic, cultural, and political ties with the region.” This effort conflicted, however, with Turkey’s long-standing ties with certain authoritarian regimes. This was most clear in the case of Syria, where despite efforts develop a political relationship and expand trade ties, Ankara has now turned against the Asad regime. Ultimately, Marufoğlu explained, Turkish foreign policy seeks to keep a distance from crises, yet tension with Iran and Israel makes this impossible.
Birol Başkan spoke about the effect of Turkish domestic politics on its foreign policy. He began by talking about the structure of the Turkish government, remarking that Erdoğan had been blocked from assuming his role as prime minister in 2003 after winning the election. Başkan said this incident illustrated the strangeness of Turkey’s political environment, characterized by an often hostile division between the secular military and judiciary on the one hand and the elected officials on the other. Despite the antagonism of the military elite however, Erdoğan has become massively popular, winning two consecutive elections with an increasingly large proportion of the vote. The decreasing influence of the military had been demonstrated, Başkan said, in the court case raised against the plotters of a failed military coup – the first time such action had been taken.
As a result, Başkan explained, the military is demoralized and therefore less likely to support Erdoğan’s foreign policy on the ground through military means. Başkan dubbed Turkey a “toothless wolf” – a strong diplomatic player that cannot extend any real hard power. In Başkan’s view, Turkey “cannot flex its muscles to make its demands respected by others.” Though civil-military relations have improved, Turkey is still facing a principal agent problem: the main political player cannot rely on the military to institute his wishes. Compounding this problem, Erdoğan has made himself a global politician, creating a dangerous disconnect between person and country. This begs the question, Başkan stated: when Erdoğan’s popularity decreases, will that of Turkey follow?
Turan Kayaoğlu began his remarks with a description of Turkey’s zero-problem foreign policy. This vision, he explained, was torn apart by the Arab Spring, as Turkey now aims to promote democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Kayaoğlu cited Tarık Oğuzlu’s reference to the new policy as “Zero Problems 2.0”: rather than having no problems with governments of the region, Turkey will now try to have no problems with the people of the region. Kayaoğlu cited a policy brief published by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in April in which he describes “Turkey’s vision-oriented foreign policy.” Kayaoğlu likened this new policy to the Bush’s ideas about the need for democracy promotion in the region.
Kayaoğlu argued, however, that Turkey does not have the political or intellectual capital necessary for a major pro-democracy push. Indeed, the zero problems policy relied on Turkey’s economic power, not its political or intellectual capital. Kayaoğlu pointed out that Turks need to know much more about the Middle East if they hope to promote democracy there, claiming that they tend to rely on Western sources for knowledge of the Middle East. He said that most think tanks in Turkey are affiliated with the government or are influenced by government policy. There has not been a genuine push to understand the region, Kayaoğlu charged, and some even see its problems as a sort of retribution for having rejected Ottomanism. The Turkish view of the Arab world is further complicated, he said, by its own ideological fault-lines.
Though Turkey ranks 17th in the world in terms of economic power, Kayaoğlu explained, its rankings are not nearly as high in terms of adherence to human rights or democracy. As such, it cannot hope to be a promoter of democratic values, he argued. Although Kayaoğlu cited limited domestic reforms, he said further change is needed. For example, the Turkish law still penalizes insulting Turkishness and Islam. The Global Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Gender Gap Index ranks Turkey as 122nd out of 135 countries. According to Freedom House, although political rights and civil liberties in Turkey improved under the AKP, Turkey still is still a partially free country. These statistics, Kayaoğlu argued, do not suggest that Turkey can or should be a promoter of democracy in the Middle East.
Turkish Ambassador to Qatar Emre Yunt objected to Kayaoğlu’s remarks, calling them a one-sided attack and arguing that the government’s side should be represented in the conversation. He added that the Turkish military is legally bound to carry out government orders and that, as a member of NATO, Turkey has a great deal of hard power. Turkey is not involving itself in Syria, he stated, because it is not Turkey’s place to use its military to impose regime change. Yunt also cited Erdoğan’s immense popularity in the region as proof of Turkish influence there.
Moderator Salman Shaikh then questioned the significance of Turkey’s alleged lack of hard power, saying it could be argued that soft power is more important in today’s world. Başkan answered that, as a realist, he believes that no impact can be made without hard power. He also asked what tangible results have been achieved through Turkish soft power. Popularity of the leadership is not enough, he emphasized. Başkan stated that Qatar may ultimately have been more successful in terms of its influence in the region, as it has played a role in solving issues in Sudan and Lebanon, partly due to its lack of financial constraints.
Another question concerned whether Turkey’s EU aspirations had affected its foreign policy outlook. Marufoğlu answered that Davotoğlu’s foreign policy strategy depends on its engagement with both the East and West. When Turkey faces the East and improves relations there, it will have more power, and the EU will take its membership bid more seriously, he said.