Democracy Lab

Turkey's Weakest Export

Turkey says it wants to be a model for democracy in the Middle East. But so far its actions lag behind its achievements.

The Arab Spring has prompted a lot of talk about Turkey's possible role as a model. Turkey's recent economic success and the relative liberality of its institutions have made it a point of reference to many in the Middle East.

Let's leave aside for the moment the issue of whether the Arabs really need a role model, since they're perfectly capable of establishing their own system without copying either Turkey or the West. Being a model is not only about having a well-functioning democratic system but also having the capacity to be able to foster it domestically and internationally and to be able to put rhetoric and aims into action. Does Turkey really offer a useful template for democratic values and institution building?

First of all, it's worth taking a look at Turkey's capabilities. While there has been considerable discussion of Turkey's role in the region, a look at the country's diplomatic, economic, and soft-power resources is sobering. Though Turkey has 25 diplomatic missions in the Arab countries, at last count only six of the 135 staffers in these missions actually spoke Arabic. Needless to say, this says a lot about Turkey's ability -- and perhaps its willingness -- to develop wide-ranging diplomatic relationships throughout the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). Furthermore, although Turkey's trade relations with the region are frequently cited, most of its exports are based on natural resources and low-technology (56 percent), followed by medium-technology goods (40.5 percent). Its share of high-tech exports to the region remains low (3.5 percent in 2010). This suggests that Turkey is not necessarily one of the main economic competitors in the region, a factor that will tend to limit its influence.

My previous employer, the Turkish think tank USAK, has published a report offering some useful data for assessing Turkey's capacity as an economic and diplomatic actor in the Arab world. A USAK report -- which includes the data mentioned above -- shows that there is much that needs to be done if Turkey wishes to increase its credibility as a regional role model. Currently, Turkey is far from having the capabilities to take action in line with its rhetoric. This doesn't exactly inspire confidence in Ankara's ability to project its influence into more dysfunctional Middle Eastern states.

Let's take "soft power" for a moment. The report notes that, while Turkish state TV began Arabic-language broadcasting to the Arab countries in 2010, its presence on the airwaves still lags far behind other Arabic satellite broadcasters -- not to mention Arabic-language broadcasting from the western countries, Russia, and Iran. (The report also notes that Turkish TV dramas are highly popular around the region -- though some polling figures suggest that more conservative segments of local populations often regard these shows as a bad influence.) Of the 9,374 foreign students who chose to study in Turkey in 2011, a mere 1,123 (12 percent of the total) were Arabs. This suggests that the talk of Turkish soft power influence might require a bit of qualification.

Despite its structural shortcomings, Turkey has undeniably been working hard to develop its political and economic ties within the broader region. (The photo above shows Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving in Cairo for an official visit on Nov. 17.) Yet Ankara has offered little in the way of concrete measures to promote democracy or safeguard human rights. Generally the Turkish government prefers to stick to the principle of non-intervention and non-interference in other countries' internal affairs. Although this so-called zero problems policy has helped Turkey to establish good relations with the MENA countries, the non-intervention aspect of this policy has somewhat hindered Turkey's open emphasis on democracy promotion. Most notably, the cases of Syria and Libya have exposed the contradiction between Turkey's claim to support democracy and its reluctance to undertake actions that would amount to concrete support for pro-democracy forces within specific countries.

And that, perhaps, is somewhat symptomatic of a larger problem. When Turkey mentions the subject of democracy promotion at all, it usually does so in the context of cooperation with its partners in the West. While this is understandable in light of Turkey's underdeveloped capacity, such talk is also likely to undermine that entire undertaking. Some segments of Arab society already perceive Turkey as a tool of the United States and Europe -- in conjunction with a widespread notion among Arabs that Turks tend to be "Western-minded" whether they are liberals, Islamists, or conservatives. If cooperation with the West is a given, then Turkish policymakers need to devise clear strategies for neutralizing such accusations.

Not everything has to be done by the government, of course. In addition to putting forth a clear national agenda, civil society organizations can also play a key role in expanding Turkey's influence. Yet even these options currently remain starkly limited. Turkish non-government organizations lack the relevant know-how and skills to exercise influence in the region. Notwithstanding their well-meaning rhetoric about respect, dignity, sympathy, and understanding, all too often Turkish NGOs seem to have difficulties developing concrete plans or agendas and making them more public and affecting the policy-makers.

Still, there is great potential for NGOs and the rapidly growing civil society sector in Turkey to cooperate with the Arab countries. NGOs can organize events on political, economic, and social topics, share their experiences, and shape public opinion. They can identify the needs of societies and even can help to find out the best policies for the newly emerging governments to address the problems. These kinds of efforts may also help to change mutual misperceptions as well as sharing relevant Turkish experience of democracy and civil liberties that can help both sides to foster their own democratic transformations.

Turkey still has a long way to go in developing its own democratic institutions. We still face enormous challenges in protecting civil liberties and reforming our judicial system, to name but two crucial elements on the path toward genuine democracy. There is still considerable debate within Turkey about the extent of press freedom, the imprisonment of dissidents, and so forth. This is unavoidable, given that the road toward democracy is never perfect. But such issues invariably create doubts about the consistency of the Turkish model in the international community.

Turkey also faces problems when it comes to projecting its political influence. Turkey still lacks an in-depth understanding of the internal dynamics of the MENA countries (even if its knowledge of the region is still better than that of its partners in Europe or the United States). A major factor is the ongoing Kurdish conflict, which creates an additional constraint in Turkey's dealings with Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This not only makes it harder for Ankara to implement its agenda, but also ends up creating many misperceptions about its policies in the Arab world.

In short, Turkey faces many serious obstacles when it comes to advertising the advantages of its system. Its pro-Western image, its limited capacity to project influence, and the divide between rhetoric and reality are all part of the problem. So, too, are its social and political differences from the Arab countries in respect to the understanding of society, ideology, secularism and Islam, and so on. While I think it's basically true to assume that Turkey's Muslim identity will help it to argue the virtues of democracy to the Arab countries, these fundamental differences in culture are sure to complicate matters.

There is no doubt that Turkey can make an impact and has a role to play in the region. But its inherent weaknesses mean that actual ability to become a role model and source of inspiration will remain constrained for some time to come. Turkey has to analyze its deficiencies in this respect if it seriously aims to have a credible regional role.

I believe that our country does have a constructive role to play in the region. But its influence is likely to remain minimal unless Turkey makes a much more concerted effort to assert its credibility and effectiveness in the Middle Eastern transition process. The Arab countries are unlikely to be impressed by high-minded Turkish rhetoric unless we offer effective action to back it up.

/AFP/Getty Image


Overdone Turkey

The hype about Ankara as a regional leader is way overblown.

One day before announcing Wednesday, Nov. 21's cease-fire agreement, at a brief news conference prior to talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, late on Tuesday night, the secretary announced that her itinerary included Ramallah and Cairo in addition to Jerusalem. The visit to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was a head-scratcher -- given how marginal he was to the conflict raging in the Gaza Strip -- as much as talk with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy is a no-brainer. There also seemed to be a glaring omission from Clinton's shuttle: Ankara.

This was a surprise only if one took all the hype about Turkey's aspirations to be a regional power broker and problem solver seriously. For all of Turkey's apparent assets, including its good relations with Hamas and the regional popularity of its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it is Egypt that was at the center of diplomatic efforts to find a formula for a cease-fire. As for poor Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose plane is usually first to land in a crisis zone, he was a bit player in this drama. His visit to Gaza on Tuesday seemed late, especially as it came five days after Morsy dispatched the Egyptian prime minister to Gaza to demonstrate his country's solidarity with the Palestinian people. Observers have understood since Hosni Mubarak's fall that Cairo would make a bid to re-establish its regional prestige, but no one knew it would be so fast, performed with such deftness, and at the definitive expense of Turkey -- last year's Middle East's "it" country.

The widespread praise for Egyptian diplomacy is no doubt well deserved, but the fact is that the Turks have long written themselves out of the Arab-Israeli script. Once upon a time, Turkey -- even under Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) -- had good relations with Israel. The Turkish prime minister visited Israel in 2005, as did then-foreign minister, now president, Abdullah Gul, both in the service of peace between Israelis and their neighbors. Yet Ankara is no longer a problem solver with good offices on all sides.

The AKP's critics will no doubt want to hang Ankara's absence from all the Gaza diplomatic action on incompetence. That's unfair. The Turks have legitimate disagreements with the Israelis, starting with Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and 2009. It was not just the way the Israelis prosecuted their military operations, but the fact that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had visited Ankara two days before Israel's incursion into Gaza and did not even give the Turks a hint of what might be coming -- even though Turkey was then serving as a go-between to discuss the future of the Golan Heights with Syria.

Israel's silence was likely sound in terms of operational security, but it was bad for relations with Turkey. Once the Israeli tanks got rolling, Erdogan risked looking either complicit with Olmert or too weak to stop his Israeli counterpart. Then, of course, there is the infamous Mavi Marmara incident 17 months later, in which the Israelis intercepted a flotilla of vessels attempting to run Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. In the melee when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish ferry, eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed. There are two sides to these incidents, but no one is ever going to convince the Turks of any narrative that does not place exclusive blame on the Israelis, rendering once-close allies adversaries for the foreseeable future.

Still, the Mavi Marmara is not where it all began. The downward trajectory in Turkey-Israel relations began in February 2006, when the Turks inexplicably invited Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to Ankara, where he met government officials at AKP headquarters. Over the course of the following six years, the Turks made an effort to build a relationship with the hard-line Islamist movement, ignoring the organization's bloody history and instead emphasizing that the organization won a free and fair election in January 2006. Hamas's electoral success was certainly a fact, but the irony of Ankara's position was only lost on the Turks, who systematically repress legal Kurdish political parties with ties to the terrorists of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, the PKK.

Back then, the AKP's ministers and representatives made a not-so-convincing argument about how their developing ties with Hamas were part of a strategy intended to turn the organization and convince it to accept Israel's existence. At the same time, however, it seemed that something else was going on, especially when Erdogan remarked rather bizarrely that Hamas and the AKP were similar. Healthy doses of both ideology and geostrategy went into Turkey's cooling of relations with Israel.

It is important to recognize that even though the AKP came to power and maintained good relations with Israel for a time, the party emerged from a tradition that was anti-Zionist and has a core constituency that has been hostile to Jews. When they formed the party in 2001, Erdogan and Gul shed the anti-Western shibboleths of the older generation of Turkish Islamists, but they remained cool to Israel. That does not make either man anti-Semitic -- who knows what is in their hearts? -- but it indicated that the close strategic ties that Turkey's military forged with Israel in the 1990s were vulnerable.

On the geostrategic level, Turkey's relations with Hamas as well as with Bashar al-Assad's Syria, Iran, and Libya, along with closer ties with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, at the expense of Israel, were about establishing Ankara's leadership in the region and the Muslim world. The reality is this: You cannot be strategic partners with Jerusalem and be a regional leader. And the region's traditional big player, Egypt, was in decline. About the only one who believed that Egypt was a regional leader under Mubarak was Mubarak, and much of Cairo's growing irrelevance had to do with the perception among Arabs that the Egyptians were too closely aligned with Israel.

Given Ankara's goals under the AKP, cooling relations with Israel was a reasonable position to take, but the Turks seemed to have the spirit of the converted. They embraced the principles, themes, and language of anti-Israeli sentiment so common in the Arab world, but without any nuance that would allow them to continue to play in the Arab-Israeli game. The Egyptian, Jordanian, Qatari, and even Saudi governments, for example, have a long history of engaging in very public criticism of Israel, but have always managed to keep lines of communication open to manage regional crises and look out for their interests. Not so the Turks who seemed to relish burning bridges with the Israelis.

The full-throated response to perceived Israeli perfidy played well all over the Arab world, making the Turkish leader the "King of the Arab Street," but it does not do anything to get the airstrikes to stop. The double irony now is that Morsy, whose anti-Zionist credentials are beyond dispute, seems like the diplomatic troubleshooter who can put Egypt back on the map, while Erdogan's Turkey is once again left to be a mere observer of regional events.