The AKP was elected in 2002, and in the decade that it has been in power under the direction of Prime Minister Erdoğan, it has risen to enormous heights. The AKP has received credit for the Turkish economy taking off, Turkey has been viewed by many (whether appropriately or not, and I am on record as voting for not) as a model for Arab countries, and Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu have been frequently and repeatedly lauded as brilliant and innovative thinkers. Whether any of this was correct or accurate at the time is beside the point; what mattered was the perception that Turkey under Erdoğan and his acolytes was, as Foreign Policy put it in 2011, “a regional powerhouse” with “a level of influence in the Middle East it hasn’t had since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” Particularly when it came to the Arab Spring, Turkey was seen as the clear regional winner, having avoided any upheaval while touting its version of electoral democracy and pushing an image of itself as an indispensable bridge between Europe and the Middle East and the lynchpin of stability in the region. All the while, Turkey attracted billions of dollars in foreign capital and talked of making Istanbul a global financial center on par with New York and London, opened embassies and consulates all over Africa, massively increased trade with Arab countries, and became America’s go-to regional partner. All of this took a decade, and in the span of just ten days Erdoğan has destroyed an image that took ten years to painstakingly build.
Last month the Center for Strategic Research, which is a think tank affiliated with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, published what it called a conceptual map of Turkish foreign policy under the AKP. It is a 35 page attempt to define what it sees as important foreign policy concepts and terms used by the AKP, and it is simply stunning in its complete lack of self-awareness. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would swear that it was not a real report but rather a parody. To take one of my favorite entries, “rhythmic diplomacy” is defined thusly: “Although it has not found an exact conceptual equivalence in international relations theory, rhythmic diplomacy is a specific style of foreign policy practiced in Turkey. It is a tactical activity that envisages simultaneously and harmoniously using diplomacy in different fields.” In case you are still confused, there is a quote from Davutoğlu purporting to explain it. “What is meant by rhythm is the co-existence of mobility and harmony. If there is mobility but not harmony it might lead to chaos. Unnecessary leaps might bring along unnecessary risks. However, if you have rhythm but no mobility than you will not make any progress. There needs to be mobility as well. Yet, if you desire for the perfect harmony and wait for it there will be no mobility.” Confused? You should be, although this combination of arrogant assertiveness and meaningless pablum is what Davutoğlu has ridden to widespread international acclaim and a reputation for unparalleled brilliance.
Other gems include lines like, “Being an order-building actor has been said to be one of the methodological macro-level objectives of foreign policy in the AK Party era.” Or asserting that Turkey has successfully pursued a win-win strategy when it comes to Cyprus. Or describing Turkey as a “wise country” which “is listened to on global matters, who predicts incidents in advance, takes precautions against these, and produces solutions for them.” Or the fact that despite the sheer volume of self-serving nonsense contained in its pages, the very first term defined in the paper is self-perception. A couple of weeks ago, some good friends – who are all veteran Turkey analysts – and I got a good chuckle out of mocking the report, but just stop for a moment and reflect upon how even more insane this stuff sounds in light of what is going on in Taksim, John F. Kennedy Avenue in Ankara, and other places around Turkey where the police are wreaking havoc on protestors and civilians of all stripes. Once Christiane Amanpour and Richard Engel are reporting live from Istanbul in gas masks while the world watches the Turkish police storm Taksim Square on the orders of the government – and after promising not to touch any of the protestors in Gezi Park, no less – your claim to be some sort of exceptionally wise country and model state is pretty much destroyed.
Perception matters a great deal in world politics, but in Turkey’s case perception has been even more important, as it fueled Turkey as a figurative growth stock all the while masking some very serious problems. As should now be clear to everyone, Turkish democracy is not nearly as robust as the government wanted the world to believe. Turkey under Erdoğan has had a real problem with creeping authoritarianism that is looking a lot less creeping every day. And yes, the problem is authoritarianism and not Islamism. This has been a recurring theme for me, as lots of people have a hair trigger when it comes to any action on the part of the AKP that has a whiff of Islamist rationale behind it while glossing over the much larger issue, which is garden variety autocratic and illiberal behavior.
On a related note, Michael Rubin somehow accused Aaron Stein and me of “dismiss[ing] the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness” because we interpret Erdoğan’s alcohol bill as more a problem of authoritarian instincts than a problem of Islamism, and says that since the protests have started – which Rubin implies are being driven primarily by the alcohol bill – “there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.” First, if Rubin genuinely believes that the protestors in the streets are primarily motivated by an alleged Islamist turn by Erdoğan and the AKP, then I have serious doubts about whether he has actually spoken with anyone in Turkey over the last two weeks. The alcohol bill is certainly a factor in these protests, but it is one factor of many, and anger over a majoritarian theory of governing, mistreatment of minorities, crony capitalism, rampant over-development in Istanbul, and most importantly police cracking heads in the service of clearing environmental protestors out of Gezi Park have absolutely nothing to do with backlash against Islamism. I’d urge Rubin to read today’s post from Zeynep Tufekci, who has spent days interviewing Gezi protestors and has catalogued their complaints, which have nothing to do with religion or Islamism. Second, if Rubin thinks I have dismissed Turkish repression, it is glaringly obvious that he has never read a thing I have written. He might want to try this or this or this, or perhaps he might want to check out “subsequent introspection” such as this widely read piece. *Deep breath* And now back to your regularly scheduled programming.
Turkish economic growth has been driven by foreign borrowing and increasing reliance on energy imports from Russia and Iran, which have led to an over-leveraged economy and a structural current account deficit, neither of which have any prospect of abating in the near future. There is a civil war taking place right across Turkey’s southern border, and not only is it not going to end any time soon, the Turkish military is in such a sorry state as to be unable to respond to the downing of its aircraft or to stop the Syrian military from shooting across to the Turkish side. These are all problems that have existed in one form or another for some time, but now that Erdoğan has decided to go postal on his own citizens, it is going to be a lot more difficult for Turkey to paper them over.
Turkey is about to see its foreign financing disappear as the perception of Turkey as an island of stability goes up in a cloud of tear gas smoke. The enormous building projects designed to attract the 2020 Olympics are now going to be used solely by Istanbul residents, since not only will Turkey not get the Olympics but regular tourists are going to stay away in droves. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu can also forget about hosting various foreign conferences, as Western countries are going to elect to forego the optics of meeting in a country where protestors are being dubbed as marginal terrorists. The next time that Davutoğlu insists that Turkey isn’t a model for anyone while actually implying that Turkey is indeed a regional exemplar for Arab states to emulate, who is going to take him seriously? The next time Erdoğan crows about how the European economy needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe, who isn’t going to dismiss him out of hand? What Turkish diplomats are going to have the gall to seriously talk about Turkish democracy as a genuine success story? All of those issues that Turkey was able to largely keep under wraps by painting a portrait of a country on the rise, a country with a vibrant economy and a vibrant democracy and a vibrant diplomacy, are now about to be exposed to the world.
I wrote last week that Erdoğan isn’t going anywhere and that these protests are not going to dislodge him, and I am confident that is still the case. When this is all over, Turkey is still going to be stuck with its prime minister, for better or worse. But that does not mean that what is taking place is inconsequential; indeed, the long run consequences of the last few days are potentially devastating. Erdoğan has taken the conscious decision to pursue a strategy of solidifying his base and pitting it against everyone else in an us-versus-them rhetorical battle. He has dismissed the people in the streets as marginals, hoodlums, foreign agents, international provocateurs, parasitic financiers, and any other derogatory term that he can come up with. He is quite clearly trying to mobilize his supporters by acting as if his opponents are attempting to carry out a civilian coup, and by repeatedly refusing to stand down and instead upping the ante with tear gas, truncheons, water cannons, and endless tone deaf insults, he is beginning to tear the country apart. There are numerous cleavages in Turkish society that run along fault lines of religious-secular, rural-urban, conservative-liberal, rich-poor, and Sunni-Alevi-Kurdish, to name just a few. Some of these have been more under wraps than others, but this brings them all to the surface in a way that will be difficult to undo. After the government’s over the top and appalling response to the protests, the AKP won’t be able to command half of the votes anymore come the next election, and neither will it be able to run on the economy after what I think is about to happen. What this means is more of an appeal to people’s base instincts, more nationalist rhetoric, more pitting one group against another. I think we are in for a return to a distinct past flavor of Turkish politics, and not one that has ever ended well. Turkey’s house of cards has fallen down, and everyone can now see what Erdoğan has been holding.