The Passions of Erdoğan

Students of international relations spend much time and energy studying leaders of countries, in order to be able to understand, explain, and if possible anticipate their foreign policies. Some of these leaders, though, confound our best efforts by alternating between what seem to be careful reasoned policy and then veering wildly in the opposite direction by letting their unfiltered emotions get the best of them.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one such leader: in particular, his insistence on using emotional and affective frameworks to structure his decision-making. And yet, at times he is capable of (or interested in) containing his emotional reactions.

His early life was suffused with religious inclinations. The story is told of his time in primary school: once when the headmaster called students to pray, Erdoğan was the only one to respond. He later enrolled in an imam-hatip (prayer-leader and preacher) school. As a good soccer player, Erdoğan was offered a position on Turkey’s top team, but only if he shaved his beard. Considered a sign of a pious Muslim, he refused to shave, forfeiting the position.

These religious inclinations and his stubbornness in meeting them remained as he moved into politics. He joined the youth branch of the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party), the country’s first avowedly Islamist political party. In their 1997 book, Turkey Unveiled: Atatürk and After, Nicole and Hugh Pope note that when he became mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan is reported to have said that “women should try first to find fulfilment in family life, and, failing that, should confine themselves to voluntary work for the party.” He is cited as asserting, in July 1996, that democracy was not a goal, but an instrument for the Islamists, implying a lack of commitment to the secular state.

He might, then, have been expected to follow Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in adopting a rigid and confrontational policy based on his affective attachment to Islam both in the domestic public sphere and in Turkey’s foreign policy. But Erdoğan proved far more flexible and adaptable: he learned from the confrontation Erbakan created with the Kemalist state, which led to Erbakan’s ouster and a crackdown on Islamists throughout the country.

When he came to power in 2002, Erdoğan repeatedly and publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the secular state, the constitution, and Ataturk’s legacy, and declared his wish to avoid confrontations with the military. He was largely successful.

It is clear, then, that Erdoğan can control his passions when he wants to. But there are times when he seems unable to: when his emotional reactions get the better of him, and suffuse his public rhetoric on foreign affairs and infuse his specific foreign policies.

To some degree, this is both natural and useful. Emotions researchers have found that our emotions can provide strategic benefit for us, acting as a form of survival mechanism. Fear, for example, can be a powerful motivator preventing us from engaging in potentially harmful activity.

Sometimes our emotions make us better as individuals, by prompting us to “do the right thing.” Erdoğan’s outrage on behalf of Palestinians and Syrians is admirable, however slow or uneven his response to both has been.

Lately, though, Erdoğan appears to have given himself over to his emotions completely, without incorporating a “thinking” element. His reaction to the decision in the French parliament, on criminalizing denial of the Armenia Genocide, has been about as un-diplomatic as possible. (His Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been no less intemperate.)

In response, Erdoğan has withdrawn Turkey’s ambassador to France, suspended political relations, demanded a severing of economic ties, and cancelled joint military activities. In all of this, Erdoğan has verbally abused France.

Erdoğan’s anger is completely understandable. As Joost Lagendijk has pointed out, the issue is far more complex than is warranted by a simple parliamentary vote. However, Turkey is not in a position to let its Prime Minister’s negative emotions govern its foreign policy. In this case, pure emotional reactions harm, not help, Turkey.

Faddish proclamations notwithstanding, Turkey’s hoped-for position as a regional leader is unlikely to pan out. Relations with Syria, once the cornerstone for Turkey’s “zero problems” foreign policy, have clearly deteriorated as the Syrian regime has ignored Ankara’s calls for an end to the killing of its citizens. The strategic relationship with Israel has all but ended, while relations with Iran, too, have declined as Turkey has struggled to adapt to the fluid dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. Meanwhile, the government’s anger and fear at domestic criticism of its policies has heightened in recent weeks, leading to a mass arrest of Turkish journalists that has the European Union expressing increasing concern over Turkey’s appropriateness as a candidate for membership.

The regional and global system is in flux. The last time Turkey faced a similar situation was the end of the Cold War. Then, Ankara let itself be carried away with hope and joy that its position at the center of several volatile and strategic regions would earn it a privileged seat at the geopolitical table.

That didn’t happen. And today, Turkey faces a similar condition, but with a Prime Minister more prone to react from his gut without including other calculations. In this case, his emotions have no strategic value, and instead are endangering Turkey’s regional influence and ability to meet its broader security and foreign policy interests. Erdoğan, and his government, should step back and reassess. Clearly, it needs to react to the French decision on the Armenian genocide. But it should do so more cautiously, with more thought put into the specifics of the reaction.

This should be part of a broader reassessment of its foreign policy, with a new framework to be put in place that accounts—as best as possible—for the unstable nature of regional and global politics. Only by doing so will Turkey be able to claim a leadership role in world affairs.

Memo to Turkey: The Arab World in 2011 is More Similar to Central Asia in 1991 Than You Realize

Turkey has a proud and justified sense of its history—as a territorially-contiguous entity built around a core ethno-national community with a legacy of greatness and power. But this has at times prompted Ankara to pursue policies under the assumption of a similar contemporaneous standing, without regard for existing conditions and constraints.

Anthony Shadid captures this dilemma nicely in his New York Times piece, “In Middle East, Turkey Offers Itself as an Answer.” One gets the sense, though, from the article that Turkey is set to become the region’s new hegemon, driving its politics and managing its affairs. Only toward the end of the piece is there acknowledgement that Turkey’s numerous domestic and foreign policy problems could put such dreams on hold.

This theme of Turkey’s new role, minus the difficulties, has been widely discussed in recent weeks, particularly in the aftermath of the spat with Israel over the Mavi Marmara affair and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s very public celebrations of the Arab Spring and defiance of Israel. One observer represented this new paradigm by intimating that Turkey is the “new strong man” of the region.

The reality, though, is more complex. Like Israel, Turkey’s place as a country of “in-betweens” (between Europe and the Middle East, between Islamic and secular, between Western orientation and Eastern location) has left open the door for a government-driven foreign policy tied closely to an identity purposively expressed and shaped by that government.

History provides important lessons on this. Take, for example, the hype over Turkey’s role in the Caucasus and especially Central Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union. The “opening up” of the Turkic republics prompted many Turkish leaders—cheered on by Western policymakers and scholars—to follow its natural path there and in the Middle East to a position of leadership. Particularly regarding Central Asia, it was argued that the common Turkic identity would lend itself to Turkey playing an important role in developing the region, and providing a model of a stable, pro-Western democracy.

And Turkey responded. It began a broad process of investment in the region, across a range of areas (including construction, telecommunications, and banking). It convened summits and worked on fashioning shared cultural frameworks including a common alphabet and building schools and shaping curriculum.

But Turkish leaders failed to recognize that the needs and interests of the Central Asian states were different from those of Turkey, and the limits of their own capacities and ability to exert influence. The assumption of a common identity was soon exposed as more hope than real. The Central Asian states quickly understood the importance of being careful not to antagonize the still-powerful Russia. There were millions of Russian-speakers living within their borders, and Moscow made clear its intention to retain predominance in its own backyard. The Russian use of force in Georgia and Chechnya showed the length to which it was willing to go to do so. Finally, the sheer difference in economic, social, and political conditions limited Turkey’s applicability as a model.

Today, similar conditions either prevail or lie just beneath the surface in the Arab world, and the shared religious and regional identity between it and Turkey is unlikely to overcome them. Despite the ease with which Turkish leaders can stir up Arab publics on Israel or the Palestinian cause, the Arab states—like the Central Asian states—are not likely to want to give up their freedom to maneuver to Turkey. They have different economic needs and are struggling under different political conditions than is Turkey. It’s not clear that many or any of them will share the will to confrontation with Israel once they are internally stabilized; Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, for instance, is a cornerstone of its relationship with the US. Finally, shared Arab expectations of behavior, cultural norms, language, and historical experience will continue to operate on them, necessarily leaving Turkey on the outside.

This isn’t to say that Turkey won’t play an important role in regional politics. But Turkish policymakers need to be more realistic in their rhetoric; they cannot get over-excited about new opportunities but should rather examine them more closely to determine causes and effects. And they must be careful about over-compensating when their intentions and proclamations don’t match reality.