Emre Erdogan, Professor, Bilgi University, Istanbul 12/3/13
For an ordinary citizen of the world, it is not easy to understand Turkish foreign policy especially in turbulent times. There is a lot of evidence of increased interest in Turkey as a player in the elevated scene of international politics. An elementary Googling effort shows that number of academic pieces including “Turkish foreign policy” keywords; is 5230 since 1923, foundation of Republic of Turkey. A simple calculation shows that 97 percent of them are dated by 1980, the critical turning point in Turkish history indicating opening up of Turkish market and transition to a market society. 70 percent of total pieces published during the AK Party era after 2002. Finally, about half of total pieces is dated after 2009, when Ahmet Davutoğlu was appointed as the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Of course this sky-scraping interest in Turkish foreign policy is highly affected by several conjectural factors such the Arab Spring, civil unrest in neighboring countries, occupation of Iraq by the Allied Forces, enduring love relationship between Turkey and the EU and so on. Whatever reasons are, it is clear that Turkey attracts a lot of academic interest, if you compare 908 entries about “French foreign policy” after 2009.
Increased academic interest doesn’t mean that Turkish foreign policy became much easier to understand for those interested in it. Perhaps, the mechanism works in the reverse way: as Turkish foreign policy became more opaque; academic interest increased. A good indicator of degree of simplicity of any social phenomena is number of concepts defining it. In Eskimo language there are 15 lexemes for snow, while it is only one in English. And in Turkish we are using three different words for only one word in English: uncle. It is an old habit counting number of words related to a given phenomenon to show its complexity.
Hence, concepts related with Turkish foreign policy can give some idea about its opaqueness: “zero problems with neighbors”, “drifting away”, “model country”, “precious loneliness”, “resetting foreign policy”, “soft power”, “multi-faced” and “geocultural” are some of concepts used, built or reinvented for defining Turkish policy. It seems very confusing, multidimensional and intriguing.
I’m not an expert of Turkish foreign policy, or I’m not “more” expert than an ordinary world citizen. However, I believe that out of box thinking may help us to understand what is going on. We know that there is a general tendency to take countries as homogenous entities and using COUNTRY AS A PERSON metaphor[i] in discussing international relations. My out of box thinking is to open this black box and trying to understand it through actors, namely the cast.
Analysis of personalities of leaders as a determinant of foreign policy is rare but not non-existent. As the neo-realist hegemony in the study of international relations takes nations as rational actors, personalities of executors of foreign policy are generally accepted as residual factors if they don’t start a nuclear war. However there is increased interest on this perspective, especially by scholars from constructivism and political psychology approaches[ii].
Personalities of Turkish leaders didn’t attract too much attention except some recent works published after 2012. However, personality traits of the prime minister were always on the couch of analysts, especially after his “strong” reaction in Davos, 2009. He is known as an “angry” man, despite he recently complained about the anger of “Angry Birds”.
In this short piece, I want to introduce some actors from the theater of Turkish foreign policy. Since I didn’t have any chance to make a session with any of them, these are all my perceptions and need further verification, if they allow.
First actor in the scene is Abdullah Gül, the president of the Republic, elected in 2007 after a series of political conflict. Although the existing constitution of Turkey –written by the Generals- gives a lot of power to the President, this post is not powerful and presidency is a boring place for active politicians. Our past experience showed that every leader stepped up to the Presidential House, tried to step down within 1 year or conflicted with the Prime Minister. From this perspective, Gül selected by majority of the AK Party is not a conflicting person. He has a significant power of vetoing laws and he used his power only twice and the parliament overruled him easily. Gül has a lower middle class background from the Central Anatolian city, Kayseri well known with its merchants. He has an academic career as an economist; he worked for the Arab Development Bank for 8 years before being elected as a Member of Parliament in 1991, when he was 41 years old. He was active in the religious political movement since 1970s when he was a student of the prestigious Faculty of Political Science of İstanbul University.
Since his first years in politics, he is well-known with his calmness and smooth approach to problems. He is accepted as an intellectual with a Clooney look, interested in Islamic culture and the world problems. He doesn’t like personal conflicts; this trait leads some people to underestimate his political experience and ambitions. He was the prime minister for several months and the Minister of Foreign Affairs and we never observed an aggressive behavior.
As Gül completes his services as the president this year, his political future is not clear. He has a right to be re-elected however it seems Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will decide who will run for the presidency next August. Since presidents of Turkey are now elected by popular vote, it is not easy to run a campaign without the support of a political party to get 50 percent plus one vote in the second round of elections. And, Gül cannot ask support of his old ex political party without the consent of Erdoğan, who is a natural candidate for his post.
This uncertainty of political career of Gül is the key factor explaining his role as an actor in Turkish foreign policy. Traditionally, presidents of Turkey are motivated to echo priorities of the Turkish state as an institution and advocate conservative positions supported by the state bureaucracy. Turgut Özal, legendary prime minister and short term president was an exception of course. His active role supported by his legacy on his ex-political party created a lot of conflict during the first Gulf War however as he lost the support of the parliamentary majority he has been tranquilized by the new government. Until today Gül never conflicted with unusual foreign policy practices of the government and it is known that he has good relations with the powerful Minister of Foreign Affairs, Davutoğlu.
Despite his harmonious position vis-à-vis government’s foreign policy, he always gives a milder position in the foreign policy scene. For example, it is clear that he wouldn’t create a crisis similar to the Davos incidence or he wouldn’t use foreign policy issues in his party meetings. As a typical right-wing politician, he’s not a supporter of foreign policies of Israel in the region; however he never used an anti-Semitic discourse. As a potential president or prime minister or the Secretary General of NATO, he prefers to keep his position as the voice of common sense, he presents himself as a moderator in any kind of conflicts. For instance he is not so much involved in foreign policy making of the government, however it is clear that he prefers a milder approach, caring less about feelings of people of the Arab street and he prefers balance than conflict.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, legendary charismatic leader of the AK Party is characterized with his strong expression of his feelings. Erdoğan was also active in the Islamist political movement similar to Gül. One key difference may account for their different styles. Erdoğan is from Istanbul, the cultural and economic capital of Turkey which is very similar to New York. As a son of lower class craftsman from the Black Sea region –well known with their impetuous attitudes-, Erdoğan experienced a lot of frictions in this big city. He was a football player –most probably a striker-, an active member of the political movement and he was very famous with his oratorical talent. He didn’t have a good education and his academic performance is still a matter of discussion.
Erdoğan was the leader of the youth organization of party during 1970s. In 1985 he has been elected as the head of local party organization in Istanbul and lost his first elections in 1989 local election by 5000 votes. His second election was also a failure for himself. In 1991, he has been elected as a member of parliament however he had to leave his seat to one of his friends as a result of the electoral law at that time. In 1994 he has been elected as the Mayor of Istanbul -10 million population then- and his success in this position gave him an important advantage in the political race. A public opinion poll conducted in 1998 showed that more than quarter of Turkish youth pronounced him as a potential leader in Turkish politics. He didn’t complete his term in this office, he has been trialed because of a poem and had to leave his position for a sentence of 3 months in jail[iii].
When he established his own party –even before the establishment of party, 25 percent of voters stated their tendencies to vote for his party- he couldn’t run for any elected positions. After the general elections of 2002 when his party took the power and Gül became prime minister, he deserved his political rights. As the winner of three general, two local elections and one referendum; he proved his capacity as a political leader, apart of his success as the prime minister.
Erdoğan is characterized with his emotional personality, especially after the Davos incident when he left the panel. He is accepted as an unforeseeable person by foreign experts as a result of his high tempered behaviors, at home and abroad. Erdoğan attracted sympathy of millions with his direct style and never been tried to be politically correct. He has a strong paternalistic standing and as citizens of Turkey we have to be ready to be scolded, yelled or praised by the father of nation. As a result of his direct style, he’s generally accepted as a non-tolerant leader.
Meanwhile, his emotional personality creates a significant advantage for him. Although he’s not tolerant to his opponents –if you don’t agree with him, you are a potential opponent-, he’s very caring of some segments of his “populace”. Erdoğan spent a lot of energy for improving living conditions of poor people and previously socially excluded segments of Turkish society, not through instruments of the modern welfare state but with some newly invented populist tools. He always visits poor households, shares their foods and gives some gifts. It is not surprising to see our authoritarian leader playing with small babies of his voters. If you think that he didn’t spend any word for the 5 people killed during the Gezi protests; it is very contradictory. I don’t want to explain this phenomenon with a simple assumption of hypocrisy, most probably what Erdoğan lacks is empathy but he has a lot of compassion.
For Erdoğan, Turkey is not different than his house, a lower class apartment located in the outskirts of a modern, Westernized world. Opportunities provided to second generation of this house is very limited, they can be music players or small craftsmen as their fathers. As lyrics of a famous Turkish musical says “city is far away like fairytales”. According to him, only way to access living standards of these rich neighbors is ambition, hard work and struggle. Such a Hobbesian worldview presents itself in the case of failures. Ambitions turn to anger and it creates a significant feeling of chagrin, as we observed in Turkish-Israeli relations and Syrian conflict. Any disappointment stemmed from the challenge of the history to the will of the leader results to aggressive positioning and extreme reshuffling. These emotional swings create impression that Turkey is governed by emotional right-hemisphere; in contrast to rational bureaucratic approach.
However this analysis lacks a very important characteristic of Erdoğan. He is the most successful political strategist with a lot of electoral victories and a small number of tolerable defeats. He is not an outstanding intellectual however he proved himself as the designer of the huge party machine of the AK Party and as the chief strategists of several campaigns. Most probably, he is more religious than any other political personality, spending a significant time in practicing worships. There is anecdotal evidence that he performed his worship 10 times more than written in the Koran. Typical westernized worldview would undermine this ritual as a remainder of traditionalism or symbol of backwardness; however it is clear that such a time devoted to meditation leads an important capacity for mental focusing. I believe that political analysts –even the Turkish ones- don’t pay enough attention to this characteristic of Erdoğan which would falsify their stereotype about him as an “angry man”. Erdoğan has a significant mental room for dealing with the calculus of political life.
This dual characteristic of Erdoğan is visible in the making of Turkish foreign policy. Turkish foreign policy seems to be emotionally motivated and dominated by discourse of a populist leader. For Erdoğan, the Middle Eastern societies are neighbors in the poor neighborhood and all of them are playing in outskirts in the rich western societies. By ambition, hard work and cooperation, it is possible to change the destiny of these poor neighborhoods and access to opportunities of life. Years of restless spent in the ranks of the Islamist political movement give Erdoğan a consistent framework to explain backwardness of this broad neighborhood: corrupt political leaders devoted to the Western interests, exploitation of natural resources and lack of upward mobility. Any failure in Turkish foreign policy explained within this framework pushes Erdoğan to anger and emotional reactions in the chess table of rational politics.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan is aware of institutional capacity of Turkey and his domestic political experience shows that capacity matters. If you need to be successful in politics, you need lots of resources: money, human capital and commitment of street fighters. Turkey is far from having completed this institutional capacity which needed to be an active player in the scene. Until Turkey reaches this capacity, Turkey –and Erdoğan not surprisingly- has to take the support of real political actors: the United States, Russia and even the European Union. It gives an unexpected rationalist touch to Turkish foreign policy.
Third and relatively less important leading actor of Turkish foreign policy is Ahmet Davutoğlu, a Kissinger style politician and student of real politics. Similar to other two leaders, Davutoğlu also is from a lower middle class family. He attended a very high quality education in the most prestigious state education institutions, not surprisingly with fellowships thanks to his academic performance and extraordinary intellectual capacity. He worked for the Malaysian Islamic University as a career academician and transferred to a leading state university in Istanbul. Davutoğlu armed with his Islamic background, knowledge about Teutonic philosophy and empiricist Anglo Saxon thinking; became very famous with his strategic thinking in closed circles of foreign policy making. Even before the rule of the AK Party, he was a regular attendant of the Military Academy.
If Gül is the man of balance, Erdoğan is the Janus faced political genius. We need to put Davutoğlu as the symbol of the rational mind to this picture. According to him, international politics is a chess game with fractal dimensions, interactions between actors are numerous but observable. An ordinary person can fail to understand this complex game, however for a talented person cacophony of international politics compete with the most beautiful sonatas of Brahms. Erdoğan is the wisdom of the street; while Davutoğlu is the voice of pure analytics.
If Davutoğlu could live in the early enlightenment years, he would be very successful as a post-scholastic academician, trying to synthetize his books with the reality. As Umberto Eco tells in the “Name of the Rose”, it is possible to re-theorize history if history doesn’t fit to your theory. However, negative feedback mechanisms are much more visible in our connected world. Davutoğlu is the main responsible for Turkish foreign policy for the last two years, not only as the Minister of Foreign Affairs but also as intellectual father of a new “Strategic Vision” a concept bought and reproduced by a significant portion of public figures and the public opinion. Although he is still very confident about his foresight about the Arab revolutions, his policies are brutally criticized by not only foes; but also by his friends. He could be very successful in times of stability, but turbulent times are not good for testing rigid hypotheses of books written in empty libraries.
Current Turkish foreign policy is largely determined by current events, geopolitical developments, institutional capacity or other innumerable factors, even including public feelings. However, we need to leave some room for interaction of these above presented actors. By using old-dated metaphor of brain we can draw a picture. Davutoğlu is clearly the left hemisphere, dealing with calculus and Kantian thinking. Gül plays the role of corpus callosium bridging two hemispheres. And, finally Erdoğan can use both hemispheres, like every human being.
Turkey will experience an important reshuffle at the top level of state apparatus. Each of above described actors are nominees for each political position with different probabilities. Dreaming about possible results of all combinations and interaction of these combinations is mind refreshing and priceless. Can you imagine?
[ii] For the study of international relations from a political psychology perspective, Rose McDermott, Political Psychology in International Relations
[iii] Surprisingly nobody has published a biographical book about Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in English.
Originally published at intlrelationsgroup.wordpress.com on December 4, 2013.