Turkey and the international liberal order: What happened?

Turkish democracy has taken a few big knocks recently. It is not surprising that in light of the arrest of numerous academics and journalists, who disagree with the government, the international watchdog Freedom House downgraded Turkey to the “Not Free” category in its Freedom of the Press rankings. Its overall rating also sank deeper, into the “Partly Free” status. Turkey tops the list of countries with the highest number of judgments from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) regarding violations of freedom of expression in 2015. Furthermore, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights recently expressed concern about the actions of the Turkish security forces in Southeastern Turkey, where a battle continues to rage between security forces and the militias of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The violence threatens the fundamental rights of civilians, many of whom have been displaced in the wake of the destruction in the area—numerous observers have drawn parallels to scenes from Syria.

It is no wonder that Turkey is increasingly called an “illiberal democracy” at best—a term invoked for countries that hold relatively free and fair elections, but otherwise display policies associated with authoritarian regimes.

[A]s Turkey’s accession prospects to the European Union faded away, so did Turkey’s commitment to reform.

Change of course

Turkey looks very different today than it did even a few years ago. It was only in April 2009 that President Obama received a standing ovation in the Turkish parliament for praising the country’s democratic and economic achievements. That was a time when Turkey enjoyed enormous soft power and its foreign policy was applauded for advocating “zero problems with neighbors.” Not surprisingly, the nation was seen as a model to be emulated by countries aspiring for economic and political reform. Turkey was supposed to have been an engine that would help countries throughout the Middle East and Central Asia transition into the international liberal order. 

The story of what has happened since is a long and complicated one, but a couple of reasons can be highlighted: 

  • Firstly, and most importantly, as Turkey’s accession prospects to the European Union faded away, so did Turkey’s commitment to reform. The process was an iterative one: As the Turkish leadership lost confidence in the EU’s interest to have Turkey as a member-state, the hands of advocates of a liberal Turkey weakened; as their hands weakened, the pace of reforms slowed down. In turn, this furnished the Turkey skeptics in the EU with a plausible pretext to further push against Turkey’s membership, playing into the hands of those wanting to distance Turkey from the EU and from reform. In other words, Turkey was partly pushed, partly pulled away from the international liberal order.
  • Secondly, this distancing from the EU occurred at a time when President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, then prime minister, was popular domestically due to continuing economic dynamism and Turkey’s popularity in its neighborhood, especially in the Middle East. In turn, Ahmet Davutoğlu—then serving as the foreign minister—sought to see Turkey as not just a regional but a global power and steered Turkish foreign policy away from its Western vocation. Instead, Turkey aspired towards crafting a new international order—one that would have Turkey spearhead a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Middle East, while enjoying closer relations with Russia. Turkey increasingly found itself in the company of actors that challenged, if not worked to undermine, the values of the international liberal order. It is not surprising that these developments coincided with the gradual but steady deterioration of Turkish democracy. 
  • Furthermore, the infamous Gezi Park protests in June 2013 became a turning point: Rather than taking a conciliatory approach, as some members of his government advocated, Erdoğan chose to use force against the protesters. From then on, his rule became increasingly associated with authoritarianism. His aspirations to transform Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one with scarce respect for checks and balances led many to argue that his earlier commitments to EU membership and to liberal democracy were no more than a means to consolidating his power. A series of relatively free, but not necessarily fair, elections in 2014 and 2015—held against the backdrop of the growing chaos in Syria and in the absence of credible opposition at home—culminated in electoral results that entrenched him firmly in power. His majoritarian understanding of democracy left little room for consensus building, forging an increasingly divided and strained Turkey.

Turkey increasingly found itself in the company of actors that challenged, if not worked to undermine, the values of the international liberal order.

Ripe for a comeback?

Among the countries discussed in Ted Piccone’s new book “Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order,” it is Turkey’s illiberalism that is by far the most troubling one in terms of the future of the international liberal order. It is difficult to see how in the absence of Turkey’s depleted soft power, such an order could come to pass in the Middle East and Central Asia. If anything, with the chaos in Syria now engulfing the neighborhood—and Russia and Iran turning to hard power—protecting what little is left of Turkish democracy may well become the greater challenge. 

Yet Turkish democracy does have a chance to regain some of its former strength. The Syrian crisis, combined with the recent showdown with Russia, is pushing Turkey back towards its “traditional” transatlantic partners, foremost the EU and the United States. In turn, the leadership in Turkey may become more susceptible to calls for reform. Such reforms are increasingly being recognized as the only means to jump starting Turkey’s economy. Indeed, the current leadership of Turkey is very conscious of the importance of economics in sustaining its rule. 

Additionally, Turkey does not have any natural resources to export—its economy relies considerably on the export of manufactured goods. It therefore needs to remain integrated with, and function within, the global economy. This is likely to generate additional motivation for greater cooperation with the transatlantic community. If this does not happen, and if Turkey’s sole remaining claim to democracy is indeed free (if not fair) elections, then we may see either: reformers from within the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) demand a course correction favoring both economic and political reforms, or opposition parties gaining the reins of power. In other words, there will be government change through the ballot box. The alternative would be too macabre to entertain. 

Click here for Ted Piccone’s summary of some of the main findings of his new book, “

Five Rising Democracies and the Fate of the International Liberal Order

.” Harold Trinkunas has a follow-on post about Brazil here, and Bruce Jones writes about the mixed record of rising powers in the international order here.