Turkish foreign policy in the age of BRICS: a critical perspective, By Ziya Öniş
Talking TR is a monthly series of talks and discussions from leading analysts and academics on key issues for Turkey and the region, filmed in front of a live audience. Each month Talking TR addresses a different topic. This essay is a modified transcript of the talk presented by Prof. Ziya Öniş, of İstanbul’s Koç University, at the May Talking TR event in İstanbul on Turkish foreign policy I would like to present a broad framework for understanding and discussing Turkish foreign policy. One of the features of the recent era of globalization has been global power shift. There has been a relative decline of established powers, which has accelerated in the wake of the global financial crisis. There has been a crisis in Europe, which is causing major challenges for the European Union and the social-market model of Europe. We can also see the accelerated rise of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) in general and of China in particular. In this context, second-generation BRICS -- near-BRICS, or what one might call emerging middle powers -- are also significant actors, and I would like to locate Turkish foreign policy in a broader discussion of near-BRICS and emerging middle powers.
These are large countries and significant actors and have the potential to play an important role. They are playing an increasing role in the G20 and in the broader global context. There is also an interesting debate about the role of these near-BRICS or emerging middle powers in the changing global context. Accordingly, there are essentially two different perspectives. One is the more skeptical view, which is that although we talk about the broadening of global governance and the participation of emerging powers, what we are likely to see is the dominance of a “G2” -- the United States and China. Even among the larger BRICS, there is a common view that China is going to dominate the BRICS. Although this perspective recognizes that the secondgeneration BRICS are also important, the skeptical view tends to think that their role is likely to be peripheral.
There is also an optimistic point of view, to which I subscribe to more closely. According to this view, this second group of countries could play a very constructive role in the changing global context, and could be important actors. However, this is not inevitable and I want to relate this discussion to recent Turkish foreign policy. I would also like to argue that there are five criteria under which countries like Turkey, which is in the emerging middle-power category, can play an important role. I would also put countries like Mexico and Indonesia in this category. MIKTA (Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia) is an interesting organization that constitutes a combination of both emerging and established middle powers. I would include South Korea
and Australia in the established middle-power category.
What are these five conditions that relate to these important regional powers? The regions in which they are located are important and in the Turkish context, this is extremely critical. Turkey is a multiregional power with important influence in regions that have very significant problems to resolve. Both of its regions are important and Turkey’s multiregional role is important; these are regions where there are serious conflicts to be resolved.
The second criterion is the capacity to be a role model in terms of democratization and economic development. South Korea is an interesting case. It is not a large country; its population is 50 million. However, it has been part of the debate on economic development. Scholars of my generation remember that the hyper growth of South Korea was in the context of authoritarian politics -- a very repressive, authoritarian regime. But, since the 1980s, what we have seen is the transformation of South Korea into a consolidated, established democracy. We no longer talk about South Korea as a rising power but as an established power, given its significant convergence to the income levels of industrialized countries. So, rolemodel characteristics are important as a second category.
The third element, which is also very important -especially for discussions of Turkish foreign policy -- is the ability to form inclusive, encompassing coalitions. Effective coalition-building is key to playing a successful role in these regions because none of these countries are big enough to be influential on their own. One of the advantages of countries located in this category is that they have historical links to established powers. There is also the fact that they now form parts of groups of rising states. Turkey, for example, has historical links to the West. When you look at Mexico in the context of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), you see a similar pattern. However, these countries want to be more assertive regionally and globally. They have the potential to do this, but will need to rely on building effective coalitions. In the context of US political scientist Joseph Nye and his conception of smart power, I think one could conceptualize effective, inclusive, overlapping and institutional coalition-building as a key constituent of smart power. An important test of Turkish foreign policy is whether Turkey has been effective in terms of building effective coalitions during the recent period.
The fourth element is that emerging near-BRICS powers are uniformly more democratic than the first group of large BRICS. When you look at the large BRICS, you see a division between the authoritarian BRICS with firmly entrenched authoritarian regimes -- China and Russia -- and the more democratic variants in Brazil and South Africa. Indeed, I would put South Africa more in the category of second-BRICS or near-BRICS, given its size and economic capacity. It’s also interesting that in spite of the limitations of their democratic systems, this group of near-BRICS also has experiences of significant transformation. One example is Indonesia, which for a long time was authoritarian but has been transformed in a more democratic direction, with some reservations. It still has the characteristics of a hybrid democracy, but there has been a significant transformation. This also applies to Mexico; a country that was a one-party state for a long time but has been transformed -- even if there are democratic qualifications. The fifth element is that the
ability to play an effective middle-power role depends on a certain matching correspondence between capabilities and expectations. This is another area where we could test Turkish foreign policy in the recent period.
These requirements are necessary for an optimistic scenario, in which these countries can play an important role; this effective role is conditional, not inevitable. In that context, I want to offer a broad critique of recent Turkish foreign policy in terms of its ability to match these underlying criteria for effective regional and global role. One criticism is about being a role model. I think that in terms of role-model characteristics, we have seen a decline from the golden age of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) era, when Turkey was quite effective in terms of its economic performance, with very high rates of economic growth. There has also been a decline in terms of the momentum of democratization reforms and its soft power-based foreign policy.
I think that in the more recent period, we have seen a decline in the raw characteristics of the Turkish model, in terms of the major challenges to sustainable economic growth that we have observed recently. Turkey is facing a middle-income trap and has very serious challenges in terms of its ability to deal with this trap. In terms of democratization, I think that there are also significant problems. In the foreign policy realm, we can also see quite significant problems. Role-model characteristics are very important and Turkey has the potential to project itself as a role model but an important discussion -- which subsequent commentators could follow up on -- is whether Turkey is realizing its potential to be a role model.
The second critique, based on my five criteria, is the swings and paradoxes of Turkish foreign policy between multilateralism and unilateralism. I think there is a tendency toward over-extension, over-involvement and an over-ambitious foreign policy, especially in the context of the Middle East; there is also a tendency for unilateral action, which has been undermining the effectiveness of Turkish foreign policy.
This brings me to my criterion about expectations and credibility. I think that in the Turkish context, there is a gap between expectations and credibility. Another paradox of recent Turkish foreign policy is in the sense that Turkey has, in the context of the Arab Spring, projected itself to its neighbors as a democracypromotion force. But clearly, to play this role model, developments in the domestic sphere have to be in line. There is a mismatch between the domestic sphere and Turkey’s role as a projector and a promoter of democracy. There has also been a drift away from Europe. Ironically, Turkey could extensively utilize its links to the West and to the more democratic BRICS and near-BRICS. However, the paradox in the recent era is that Turkey has been drifting more in the direction of the authoritarian BRICS and the Russia-China axis. One example of this is the increasing pleas for membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (CSO). This is not to say that developing economic relations with Russia and China are not important, but the logic of effective coalition-building suggests that you need to have a hierarchy of priorities in your foreign policy.
There’s an inconsistency in the Turkish context -- for example, in its approach to the Middle East. In the context of Russia and China, there is a consistent approach in the sense that their foreign policy is based on the principle of sovereignty. Clearly, their conception of democracy is the democratization of globalization, rather than promoting democracy; so, these are clearly authoritarian states. The point I would like to conclude with and open up for discussion in the subsequent session is the fact that Turkey’s role in the recent period could have been very effective. The problems with and paradoxes of its foreign policy include inconsistencies between swings to multilateralism and unilateralism. In addition, the swings from democracy promotion to a drift in the direction of the authoritarian BRICS has undermined Turkey and led to partial isolation in Turkish foreign policy.
To conclude, countries like Turkey have a very important role to play, but that role is conditional and depends on a certain set of conditions. What we see in the Turkish context is how Turkey has failed to capitalize on its advantages and to play a productive, important role as an emerging middle power.
Emerging near-BRICS powers are uniformly more democratic than the first group of lar ge BRICS
Ziya Öniş on stage at Talking TR .