Turkey’s soft-power on the rise despite challenges

Turkey as a regional actor and “source of inspiration” has started to become more active by resorting to soft-power tools, especially in the last decade. However, its rise is dependent on the continuation of elements that make it attractive in the first place, mainly a democratic outlook and the ability to combine Islam and modernity.

Turkey’s increasing profile and attractiveness is easy to detect even before looking at numbers, although surveys support the argument that the perception of Turkey is increasingly positive, particularly in its own region. Simply by observing the growing number of foreigners who visit Turkey, buy property here and establish regional headquarters, especially in İstanbul, one could argue that Turkey is not only the single democratic country in the Muslim world but that it has surpassed the threshold of being the only democratic country in the Muslim world.

Turkey’s clear ascendance is mostly owed to the successful economic performance of a stable single party government in the last decade. Coupled with the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government’s proactive foreign policy approach, Turkey has become more visible in every respect. It is worth examining how Turkey’s soft power played an influence in the rise of the country. What is really meant by soft power needs clarification since it is widely and sometimes inappropriately used. Today’s Zaman talked to experts in an effort to provide fruitful debate on Turkey’s soft power and challenges it faces.

Soft power is a term coined by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye. According to him, soft power is the ability of a state to attract and co-opt rather than coerce, use force or give money as a means of persuasion. Nye, whose definition of soft power has become universally accepted, writes that “a country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries — admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”

Nye, whose definition of soft power has become universally accepted, writes that “a country may obtain the outcomes it wants in world politics because other countries — admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness — want to follow it.”

Turkey frequently declares that it is willing to be a “source of inspiration” rather than a “model.” Talking to Today’s Zaman, Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru says, “Turkey is surely a source of inspiration for the countries in its region.” However, he immediately adds that “we refrain from presenting ourselves as a model since each country has its own dynamics and characteristics.” According to him, this does not mean that the Turkish experience is irrelevant. “Turkey can be seen as a source of inspiration rather than a model,” he says, reiterating the official position of Turkey.

Studying extensively Turkey’s soft power, Dr. Tarık Oğuzlu from Antalya International University first defines power as “the ability of one state to create a difference in the behavior of another state” and then says that whether it is hard or soft has something to do with how this power is exercised. According to him, if a state fears the other or even changes its behavior as a result of a cost-benefit analysis, there is hard power. Soft power, however, is in place if there is attraction and persuasion. “When you do nothing, but a country takes you as a model anyway, this is the most ideal form of soft power,” says Oğuzlu.

Nye: Turkey shows it is possible to reconcile Islam and democracy

According to him, “Turkey is not a soft power in the ideal sense of the term.” He calls Turkey “a civilian power,” which means shaping the behavior of other countries by means of economic instruments. He refers to a Turkey that has shown a tendency for persuasion in the last decade. Although he describes it as a positive step, according to Oğuzlu, when it comes to making a conclusion over whether there is soft or hard power, we need to see the results.

While not underestimating the contribution of Turkish TV shows and cultural and historical ties with its surrounding, Oğuzlu argues that “what we should look at is whether they generate results or not.” However, for another political scientist, Mensur Akgün, soft power cannot be measured. “We may presume but we cannot measure,” says Akgün as he adds that “we cannot rely on our soft power.”

While soft power may not be measurable, apparently perceptions of it are. Research conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) in numerous Middle Eastern countries in 2012 showed that 69 percent of respondents had a positive opinion of Turkey, making it the most popular of the 18 countries in and around the region. However, this still marks a 9 percent drop over the previous year.

Asked why Turkey could be considered a model, respondents cited its economic performance (31 percent), democratic regime (21 percent), Muslim identity (18 percent) and the country’s strategic value (11 percent).

In accordance with these results, Professor Nye of Harvard University told Today’s Zaman that “Turkey is the first Muslim country in the region to show that it is possible to reconcile Islam with democracy, modernity and success.”

Has the Arab Spring tested the limits of Turkey’s soft power?

Although the idea of Turkey as a model found the most support in Libya, Tunisia, Palestine and Egypt, it received little support in Syria and Iran, which could only be expected given the rift between Turkey and these two countries over the situation in Syria.

In 2011, when the Arab awakening was young, the reasons Turkey could be considered a model in the region ranked in a different order: 32 percent of respondents identified Turkey’s democratic regime as the reason it could be a model, compared to 21 percent in 2012, and 25 percent identified Turkey’s economy, compared to 31 percent this year.

The survey also asked people in the Middle East why they would not see Turkey as a model. The reasons given were that it is “not Muslim enough” (17 percent), it has a secular political system (14 percent), its close relations with the West (13 percent) and it is not Arab (8 percent). Eight percent said there is no need for a model.

To explain the results, Dr. Oğuzlu said that for many years the region’s perception of Turkey was negative. “Turkey was seen as an extension of the West in addition to having the burden of an imperial past,” he stated. Coupled with the fact that Turkey had turned away from the region, its impact was limited until the AK Party government came to power, according to Dr. Oğuzlu.

According to Nye, “the Arab revolutions had roots in their own societies, but for some who wanted change, Turkey served as an attractive model.” However, he said that although Turkey will be “an important beacon in the region due to its stability, democracy and prosperity,” it will not be the only one. Moreover, Nye believes that the term “Arab Spring” is misleading “because these revolutions will take more than a decade to play out.”

When asked whether Syria has tested the limits of Turkey’s soft power, Oğuzlu said this question is open to discussion. Turkey wanted to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by means of dialogue and cooperation to follow Turkey’s advice, but these expectations collapsed, according to Oğuzlu.

“Which Middle Eastern actor has followed in Turkey’s footsteps without any effort?” Oğuzlu asked, answering himself with “none.” However, he added that since this is a process, “it would be unfair to argue that Turkey’s soft power was an illusion.”

An associate professor of international relations at TOBB Economics and Technology University, Şaban Kardaş, on the other hand, argues that there is “conceptual confusion” in terms of Turkey’s soft power and that as a result, “any increase in Turkey’s influence is seen as if it is soft power.” He calls this problematic because, for example, Turkey’s increasing economic interaction with the region is not soft power.

“In Iran and Syria, Turkey wanted to create a more peaceful atmosphere. It wanted to act as a mediator in the Iranian crisis and prevent the isolation of Syria from the world,” said Kardaş, noting that it only “partially” succeeded. However, he also said that Turkey lost some of its soft power in the wake of the Arab Spring. According to him, “Turkey was not able to use its influence to bring about a regime change in Syria, which is a sign of a decrease in its soft power.”

Turkey still has potential

However, Akgün believes that the Arab Spring had a positive impact on Turkey’s influence, “since the Arab Spring’s main aspiration was democratization and the current government explicitly supported the change towards democratization.” Yet, he warns about possible “scrutiny” of Turkey. “They are observing Turkey more closely and the deficiencies in the system are creating either disappointment for those taking inspiration from Turkey or vindication for those claiming that Turkey cannot be a model for them,” says Akgün.

Dr. Ömer Taşpınar from the Brookings Institution confirms the overall positive impact of the Arab Spring to Turkey’s attractiveness. According to him, in the competition between Turkey and Iran, “Turkey is by far the most attractive country in the region.” In addition, for him, “the Arab Spring also forces Turkey to address its own democratic deficit with the Kurds.” However, Taşpınar believes that “Syria showed the limits of Turkey’s influence” as it also put Turkey “firmly” in the Sunni camp.

Responding to a question on the limits of Turkey’s soft power, Koru, however, says that “it is the will and potential of Turkey which will determine the boundaries of its soft power.” In reference to Syria, he refrains from a debate as he says, “It may not be useful to define the boundaries of Turkey’s soft power by reference to geography or current developments in our neighborhood.” Yet, he believes that “in the last decade, Turkey has taken significant steps in furthering its soft power, but there is still a great potential.”

Taşpınar thinks that “the AKP believes it is a source of inspiration but the secularist circles are very skeptical because they don’t want to give credit to Erdoğan for Turkey’s success.” Despite the skepticism, limitations and challenges that Turkey faces in its region, there is an agreement among analysts that Turkey will likely continue to be a “source of inspiration” as long as it keeps growing as a successful example of coexistence of Islam and modernity. The surveys, however, reveal that Turkey’s soft power can only increase by setting an example, not imposing anything on anyone.

Ever-growing Turkish Airlines contributes to Turkey’s profile

Turkish Airlines (THY) has proven itself to be a national brand of the country and has received international awards for its service. The CEO of the company, Hamdi Topçu, says that “Turkish Airlines is one of the components of Turkey’s soft power.” Deputy Foreign Minister Naci Koru also defines THY as “a global trademark of Turkey.”

According to Topçu, who spoke to Today’s Zaman, Turkey’s soft power increased as a result of “the leap” in the field of foreign policy. For him, Turkey’s democratization at home and its economic development played a role in this leap. Topçu underlines that “the vision of Turkish Airlines overlaps with the vision of the government.”

Directing attention to the “sustainable growth” of THY, Topçu says the company contributes to Turkey’s soft power not only with its flight network but also for the sponsorship it provides to well-known sports clubs and events.

Currently, THY is the airline that flies to the greatest number of countries. It has flights to 98 countries and 219 destinations. It also ranks fourth in the flight web network. In 2012 alone, THY added 34 new destinations. Topçu says that by means of increasing the number of direct flights to the remotest places, they act as a facilitator for Turkish businessmen who were reluctant to take connecting flights beforehand. Topçu also adds that they work in cooperation with the Turkish Exporters Assembly (TİM) to promote their new destinations.

Turkey’s increasing access to Africa is also worthy of attention. THY currently flies to 34 points in Africa. In addition, Topçu says that of the 64 aviation agreements signed with various countries in the last decade, 38 percent were with African nations.

The opening up of THY flights to Africa almost goes hand-in-hand with the new diplomatic missions that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has started abroad. In Africa alone, Turkey has opened 22 new embassies in the last three years.

Source: Sevgi Akarcesme – Today’s Zaman

Photo: Today’s Zaman