Mind the Gap: Turkey between Resonance and Capability

If Turkey plays its cards right…


© photocredit


If Turkey plays its cards right, the confluence of domestic, regional, and international developments that both raised the country’s currency between 2002 and 2011 and brought it back down several pegs in the past two years could be leveraged to bridge the gap between its limited short-term influence and its long-term resonance.

To do so, Turkey’s leaders must predicate their work on the two principles that drove AKP success in earlier years — pragmatism and inclusivity — rather than the ideological and exclusionary positions increasingly displayed toward both domestic and international interlocutors. These principles can help Turkey navigate turbulent economic and political waters, and address specific make-it-orbreak issues like Turkey’s energy aspirations, the Kurdish question, and sectarianism. They can also empower approchement with the EU and deepened cooperation with the United States for a fruitful triangular relationship. Only by thus achieving democratic depth at the nexus of its domestic, regional, and international politics can Turkey achieve its proverbial potential. In the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring, Turkey was seen by many as a model for the Middle East and a bridge between the vital, troubled region and the West. This was a story favored by, among others, the Obama administration and the international business community. It was bolstered by the clear aspirations to regional leadership of Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though many Turkish diplomats opted for more modest phraseology, arguing that Turkey’s experience had “inspirational” dimensions. Pundits across the Arab world also chimed in, widely viewing Turkey as a significant player due to its relatively more “stable democracy, growing economy, and proactive foreign policy.”

At the same time, some Arabs expressed ambivalence about the relevance of Turkey’s experience because of its non-Arab identity, its long history of Westernism in terms of both geopolitical orientation and secularism, and its Ottoman imperial past (which appeals to some Islamist groups nostalgic for the caliphate, but which also can grate upon the nationalist nerves of religious, liberal, and leftist Arab nationalists alike).

But the model narrative lost much of its traction within two short years. The Arab revolutions unleashed not only hopes for national and regional rejuvenation, but also grievances that authoritarian governments had kept under wraps (the U.S. invasion and withdrawal had a similar effect on Iraq). The upshot has been deep polarization within societies divided along ideological, ethnic, and sectarian lines. Today, even the apparent success stories — Tunisia and Egypt — are gripped by political deadlock and escalating violence, as bloodshed in Syria spills over into neighboring countries, including Turkey.

In this increasingly complicated and dangerous regional environment, neither Turkish leaders — nor their U.S. and European, or Iranian, Russian, and Chinese counterparts — have been able to broker political settlements or staunch the bloodshed. Yet, because the model story had raised expectations, many international observers projected their frustration on Ankara, charging Turkey with hubristic wishful thinking about its capacity to lead the region. Comeuppance — deserved or otherwise — came in the now almost clichéd inversion of Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s once lauded foreign policy motto, “zero problems with neighbors,” which had underpinned Turkey’s activism toward the region up until the Arab Spring; in the transformed environment, it is widely suggested that Turkey stands “zero chance for zero problems” with its neighbors.

Meanwhile, a shadow has been cast over Turkey’s image by the recent confrontations between government forces and protestors in some 70 cities across the country. Catalyzed by disproportionate police response to plans to demolish an Istanbul park, many in the country demand to be heard when it comes to the rapid development and transformation of their country and its infrastructure.

The “Gezi Park” demonstrations displayed features of both the Occupy movements in advanced industrial economies, and the Arab uprisings against authoritarianism (in 2011) and Islamist electoral majoritarianism (in 2013). On the Occupy side of the equation, the protests reflected growing unease among urban middle classes with the excesses of neoliberal restructuring. Many of them benefitted from Turkey’s transformation under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and now question the trade-off between sustainability and development. On the Arab Spring side, they entailed a refusal to bow before an oppressive security apparatus (epitomized in Tahrir Square in 2011), and concern over the winner-takes-all (…)

Full analysis:

From Model to Bystander and How to Bounce Back: Turkey, the Middle East, and the Transatlantic Alliance

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