On April 18, a CNN Turk TV host asked Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu a question that could be summarized as, “Is Turkey left alone in Syria?”
Davutoglu responded by saying that Turkey is not isolated, but that this unfortunately was the image opposition parties and others were seeking to present of the country's leadership to the world. Davutoglu said Turkey is involved in so many important regional issues that it could not possibly be isolated.
Still, just two months ago he had said, “Turkey is the only actor that cares about how many more Syrians would be killed under Assad's violence.”
So why is there this deep suspicion about others’ intentions in Turkey? In international politics, we define paranoia as deep mistrust of all other actors without sufficient evidence. As a country grows stronger — wealthier, more influential — its rhetoric of paranoia is expected to decrease. Yet, the Turkish case is counterintuitive and deserves further analysis.
Turkey has been on the path of becoming more prosperous and stronger in the last decade. Almost everyone agrees — without attempting to measure success or failure — that Turkish foreign policy activism has grown exponentially in the last decade. This visibility brings along with it more scrutiny about Turkey’s presence in different countries. Some of this commentary is positive, and well deserved. This newfound activism is lucrative on several fronts (helping, for example, Turkish private businesses at home and abroad).
Yet, has Turkish paranoia decreased when we study the rhetoric of the Turkish foreign policy elite? This piece argues that the rhetoric that feeds paranoia has grown alongside Turkish power. There are four main indicators or pitfalls to explain this:
1) A steep learning curve: The ability, or lack thereof, to deal with critique. The swift growth of activism has brought a high volume of criticism to the rather sheltered and idealist Turkish foreign policy elite. By foreign policy elite, I mean diplomats, ministry employees, public diplomacy office personnel, anyone affiliated with the Turkish government, and pro-AKP media people. It takes practice for any individual or association to get used to the visibility factor and to tackle criticism shrewdly and smoothly. Most of the reactions to criticism are negative because those who have been critiqued are on the defensive. The increasing demands of social media and various communication channels require professionally trained personnel, who are lacking.
2) Belittling the critique and advice: Foreign policy is designed by a small group of elites, especially in times of crisis where urgent decisions are needed. It is universally elitist. Outsiders having access only to open source intelligence (OSCINT) can only provide limited analysis. Therefore, we, as scholars, cannot view the world as policymakers. However, as policymakers are sometimes lost in the details, sober scholarly minds may be able to provide valuable analysis and clues to the bigger picture. Therefore, the general attitude of dismissing any question, comment or advice with statements such as “they want to isolate Turkey” or “there is no good opposition challenge to our policies” is self-destructive for policymakers. It is crucial not to discard hard work just because the author’s name is alien to you.
3) ‘If it is not flattering, it must be the enemy’ mentality: It is no longer enough to pen pieces to compliment and defend government policies, both in the foreign and domestic political spheres. But one needs to be the star cheerleader to be appreciated by the foreign policy elite. Even raising a small red flag and stating that there are some challenges (for example, bringing up serious charges about various groups who desire to declare a Turkish ambassador persona non grata or take the Turkish government to the International Criminal Court can be labeled as being “propaganda that desires to stop Turkey in country A”). The power of ideas and the pen is potent, yet is it ever possible to stop a country’s actions with an op-ed piece? There are unnamed enemies in the AK Party’s neo-Ottoman mentality: On the one hand, the government portrays a Turkey which is applauded on Ottoman lands; on the other, there are the rivals who oppose the Turkish presence, and if you dare to bring this up, you intentionally or unintentionally will be helping them. This Voldemort syndrome is counterproductive. The issue is that there will be those who benefit from Turkish presence in those countries and those who are against it. Raising flags about opposition should be taken seriously. However, a red flag is not necessarily cooperating with the “rival”; why shouldn’t it be viewed an opportunity to provide a rebuttal instead?
4) Ad hominem (personal) attacks: The last, yet truly the worst, is that unwarranted suspicion, paranoia. It generates so much angst that almost everyone who fails to praise government policies is seen as “tainted”; some are labeled wrongfully as “foreign agents,” “fifth columns” and “spies.” In a democracy, shouldn’t a variety of views be available in the media? Yavuz Baydar has analyzed this issue in depth. It is not fair to assign all blame for the internal media wars to the AK Party. Similarly, almost any international publication, unless it specifically praises Turkish foreign policy, is seen as the enemy, and hence not credible. The idea is similar to the other “side” seeing various works as “pro-government” and not worth reading.
Perpetual paranoia is costly. It brings, first and foremost, individual pain and suffering. Many people who have lost their jobs or have been discredited do not even grapple with the why and how. Second, such paranoia is detrimental to healthy policymaking as it generates an introverted, even inbred, culture which cannot produce new ideas. Where there is evil outside and all outsiders are “evil” who want to destroy, limit, or undo Turkish power, you will not only never have any “naysayers” inside the group, but fresh ideas and opportunities will be scarce or absent as well. Third, as a consequence of the above, many more policies designed with such deep fears and suspicions of the unnamed enemy produce dangerous, unintended consequences.
Turkey is a growing, prosperous country which has several challenges in front of it. Challenges are the sine qua non for a state. Criticism is what you make of it. It will not benefit your rivals if you do not fall into these pitfalls. A majority of Turks are proud of the accomplishments of the AK Party and believe it has become more pleasant to declare your national identity as a Turk when abroad. This alone is a huge prize. Yet, a true patriot is not a hooligan if questions are asked and red flags are raised; the people deserve an explanation. The explanation, if adequately provided, will surely support the moral purpose of the Turkish state. Turkey has significant achievements, but many of them are clouded behind this paranoia. If unwarranted fears are shed, true accomplishments may shine.
Pinar Tremblay is a doctoral candidate at University of California, Los Angeles, in political science and an adjunct faculty member at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. She has previously been published in the Hurriyet Daily News and Today's Zaman. Follow her on Twitter: @pinartremblay.