The influence game
Turkey is positioning itself as a leader for developing countries. Is
it a sound strategy?
Geopolitics is often a game of influence. For countries like Turkey – middle powers with great future potential but somewhat limited current sway – finding the means to influence the world can prove a challenge. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears to have chosen a path where Turkey will invest in places where it can wield influence, primarily in the developing world. What are the risks and potential benefits of this strategy?
►After the G20 meet ng n Argent na last week, Pres dent Erdogan made some s de tr ps to smaller countr es n South Amer ca. What was the relevance of those v s ts?
Since the Turkish President of had to travel such a great distance, he might as well use the occasion to conduct other business. But then the question is what was this other business? The President visited Paraguay, which is hardly known to the Turkish public. He went to Caracas, Venezuela. There we know that the Turkish government has been trying to expand relations with the Venezuelans for both economic and ideological reasons.
►One cannot escape the mpress on Turkey s try ng to reach out to all corners of the world to expand ts commerc al opportun t es. Whenever the Turk sh pres dent goes to a place, he usually travels w th a group of bus nessmen and a cons derable amount of the conversat on s centered around expand ng b lateral trade. But s that all? Is t s mply econom cally mot vated?
To answer that question, one might look at what the Turkish president has been doing and saying in recent years. He objects to the domination of the world system by a few powers. “The world is greater than five,” he often remarks, referring to the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. He feels that the global order built by the U.S., and, to a considerable extent, serving American interests both in the economic and political domain, should be challenged. Therefore, he has assumed a role that is similar to the third world leadership role that Tito had assumed in the past.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the desire of the third world neutralist movement was to challenge the order that the great powers had built for themselves but, at the same time, stay out of the major conflicts in which these great powers engaged. The movement petered out mainly because it was not based on realistic assumptions. Today, we may be seeing the re-emergence of the same movement in different clothes. Of course, the world is a different place: There is the rise of China; and China, unlike the Soviets, is a genuine economic and technological power. Mutual interdependence among great powers is also much greater. Meanwhile, the hold of the U.S. on the world system has been considerably weakened. The Turkish President may have judged that he has a greater chance to transform the global system than previous developing world leaders.
►Turkey also appears to be us ng development a d as a k nd of fore gn pol cy tool. Some of the b ggest successes t has had n pursu ng FETÖ s n these develop ng countr es where t has nvested a d. Is th s a way for Turkey to pos t on tself as a relevant player on the nternat onal stage?
The Turkish government feels that Turkey is a growing power and that it should develop some instruments to wield greater influence in the world. One of the instruments is economic assistance. This is often in the form of development projects but in some instances, there is a particular emphasis on religion. For example, there was this decision to open up a mosque in Caracas. Here, Turkey may be competing with Saudi Arabia. Turkey has also become, in its own right. an arms exporter, in addition to offering administrative and military training in a number of different countries. For example, Turkey has been training the gendarmerie of Gambia; it now has a base in Somalia; it is beginning to establish a base in the Sudan; and also, there are Turkish forces in Qatar. Turkey is reaching out to the world in a variety of ways and exercise soft power through economic assistance, ideological leadership and exports of military ware and training, but all of these are bound to remain modest.
►Prov d ng m l tary or even econom c ass stance to develop ng countr es can be r sky bus ness. Often these places are unstable and prone to nternal str fe. In a r sk-benef t analys s, st wortht for Turkey to engage w th these frag le nat ons?
Obviously when a country conducts complex foreign relations, it hopes to produce positive results by exercising its soft power potential, but one has to recognize that this doesn’t always prove to be the case. One has to remember that these societies are often receiving assistance from variety of sources, so they may simply take it for granted. Also, there are often quite a number of political considerations. You may try to gain influence in a particular environment but other countries are also operating there, and they may have more clout. Some of these developing countries also have frequent changes of government and the next government might not be disposed to friendly relations with Turkey. Sometimes, too much presence in a country creates negative reactions as the Chinese are discovering in Africa these days. From Turkey’s perspective, I think there is also the danger of overreach. This clearly happened after the Soviet Union crumbled and Turkey began extending support to the Turkic republics of Central Asia. The amount of expectations Turkey created, the number of promises it made but failed to deliver, was phenomenal. The result was an erosion of credibility. Much care needs to be exercised in choosing the right projects, making sure that they are sound on the basis of economics and administrative efficiency and that they will produce some political goodwill toward Turkey.
Turkey has recently enjoyed expanding external trade. Trying to reach areas where future growth is expected is only natural. But whether future growth will materialize is another question. Here, we might remember the old expression: “Turkey has a bright future, and it will always remain so.” That dictum also applies to Africa, or the Middle East, where Turkey is investing heavily. There seems to be a lot of potential but at the same time there are such powerful forces of disorder that we have to wonder whether they will be the regions of the future that we predict they will be. It’s a gamble, but that’s the way politics are played.