By Jason Dougenis
What is soft power?
Conventionally, power would be measured in terms of the economic and military capacity of a country. However, in his landmark article “Soft Power”, Princeton professor Joseph Nye introduced a whole new axis along which power can be measured. Unlike ‘hard’ power, soft power does not rely on capacity for coercion, but rather on persuasion. Its ‘weapons’ are not missiles and economic sanctions but a more illusivenormative power, which makes other states want to emulate you, thus following policies compatible with your interests.
In an increasingly multipolar world system, regional powers have seen their role as key-states of their wider civilisational grouping and soft-power as a tool to establish themselves in this role.
The rise of Turkey’s soft power
It was when the ruling AKP party arrived at the helm that Turkey started becoming a soft-power superpower and this was due to a major ideological shifting from an identity focused on Turkishness to one focusing on Muslimhood. Its goal was to project itself as the leading nation of the post-Ottoman space from the West Balkans to the Arab Peninsula. This entailed a promotion of its civilisational legacy, highlighting its Islamic character in conjunction with principles of liberal democracy and respect for human rights. As Erdogan stated in a speech at Harvard University in 2003, Turkey’s goal was to promote a model of democracy for the Middle-East to follow, to lead by example on how Islam and democracy can co-exist and thrive.
In the first decade of the 21st century with Davutoglu leading the charge as Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister, Turkey’s soft power was increased exponentially. Concerted and successful efforts were made in order to rebuild relationships with the Muslims of the Western Balkans through their religious and Ottoman ties and to rekindle a common Islamic identity. At the same time, Turkey launched a highly ambitious programme of foreign aid, with its famous branding as the “most generous country in the world” being reflective of its per-capita foreign aid spending.
By Erdogan’s re-election in 2011, Turkey’s soft power had reached its apex; a model to be emulated as a responsible global player, an Islamic democracy and a growing liberalised economy.
Declining (soft) power
In the last decade, a rapid slide to authoritarianism at home and a series of failed interventions abroad meant that Turkish soft power took a hard hit, with the country increasingly relying on hard power and sharpened, coercive rhetoric for its foreign policy. Erdogan’s crackdown of the peaceful Gezi Park protests in 2013 greatly damaged Turkey’s image as an ostensibly ‘Western’ nation. This perception worsened as the increasingly erratic leader began imprisoning his critics, leading to Turkey being condemned as the “World’s largest jailer of journalists” by human rights groups.
Davutoglu’s foreign policy stance during the Arab Spring was another reason for the decline of Turkey as a soft-power juggernaut. Convinced that the protests were an opportunity to put an end to the ‘historical parenthesis’ brought by colonialism and the Cold War, he strongly supported regime change in Syria and Egypt. As those efforts failed with Assad maintaining control and al-Sisi ousting the Islamic Brotherhood, Turkey’s influence suffered a devastating blow.
With its diplomatic position in the region damaged, maintaining its soft-power strategy became increasingly untenable. Turkey was seen by its neighbours as a source of instability in the region rather than the sui generis Muslim Republic.
Thus, Davutoglu was ousted from government in 2016 and Erdogan shifted his strategy to using more tools of traditional great-power geopolitics alongside the AKP’s soft power toolkit.
The way things stand
Despite the decline of the last decade, Turkey’s soft power remains formidable and, since reaching a minimum in 2016, it has seen a slightly upward trend. Despite its mistakes, it retains a highly influential position as one of the leading states of the Islamic world with a widespread network of public diplomacy, exemplified by its English-speaking TRT-World media conglomerate which sits alongside the likes of Russia Today and Al-Jazeera as alternatives to western narratives.
According to the Soft-Power-30 model of the University of Southern California, Turkey ranks 29th globally for 2019, in terms of its soft power. Its diplomatic, cultural and religious networks across the Middle East are cited as its major advantages while its chief weakness is its increasing identification with Erdogan’s erratic personality.
Overall, having reached the nadir of 2016, Turkey’s soft power is slowly re-ascending but it is not the dominant avenue of its diplomatic thrust anymore as the country has become increasingly willing to use the tools of hard power to achieve its objectives.
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