March 15, 2013

The effect of ‘soft power' on Turkey's rapid development

Bülent Keneş

Turkish flag
While every country in the world has its own sources of soft power, only some are really aware of these sources. As for Turkey -- which possesses a vital geopolitical position and military strength, a deep-rooted history and a rich culture and sees the future of economic and socio-political development as being intertwined with such universal values as basic human rights and freedoms, the superiority of justice and a liberal economy -- it is a country with extremely rich sources of soft power.

As citizens in a country where the economy is constantly strengthening, where levels of imports and exports are always on the rise and where the sheer volume of trade is expanding, Turkish entrepreneurs have seen a tremendous increase in self-confidence over the years. Simultaneous to the increasing economic strength and prosperity throughout Turkey, the media sector has grown rapidly, with hundreds of new TV channels, thousands of new radio stations and many, many more new newspapers. The output of culture from Turkey -- whether we are talking about the cinema, TV series, literature or music -- has reached the level of spreading influence beyond our borders.

And just as our cultural output has increased and expanded, we have also seen giant steps taken in communications and transportation. While there were no direct flights between İstanbul and New York in the 1980s, the increasingly powerful national airline of Turkey now offers direct flights to major cities in countries all around the globe. With new destinations added every year to its flight program, Turkish Airlines has truly brought Turkey and the rest of the world together. And so Turkey, which has experienced a true sort of quantum leap in both domestic and international communications as well as transportation possibilities, is seeing tremendous development in tourism, trade, cultural exchanges, education and many other areas.

The “soft or slow motion revolutionary” reforms that were carried out in Turkey in the first half of the 2000s as part of the larger framework of EU accession talks wound up providing a source of inspiration for other Muslim countries, which looked toward the Turkish state as a secular and democratic Muslim country. It cannot be claimed that the inspiration provided by Turkey played no role whatsoever in the developments in the Middle East referred to by so many as the Arab Spring or the Arab Uprisings. In the same way, the “zero problems” approach to foreign policy used so successfully by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has become one of the important soft power factors possessed by Turkey, which has tried so hard to export peace and stability to its neighbors. In fact, this policy has had deep-rooted effects on economic relations between Turkey and its neighbors, with trade between Turkey and its neighbors rising from just $4 billion in 1991 all the way to $82 billion in 2008.

In the meantime, located at a geopolitical transit point between East and West, the Middle East and Europe and Christians and Muslims, Turkey is a democracy with a liberal market economy, a fact that also increases its soft power influence. Other manifestations of this growing soft power include Turkey's shouldering of the role of interlocutor in many international problem areas, as well its role as one of the co-founders of the “Alliance of Civilizations” initiative.

And so today we see that neither the significant amount of human movement between global points East and West (as well as North and South) taking place via Turkish Airlines flights, nor the vast region in which Turkish films and TV series (from Europe to Africa and from the Middle East to Central Asia) are viewed is coincidental. What's more, these gains are not confined to being the results of the political superstructure policies followed by the AK Party government in recent years. In fact, one needs to recognize in these gains the significant effects of a much more deep-rooted and vast socio-economic and cultural groundswell. This transformative societal groundswell, whose effects could be felt starting from the years of former President Turgut Özal, has had not only a vital influence on domestic politics and the country's economy but also on Turkey's foreign relations and its integration with the world around it. This groundswell also became an important motivating factor in Turkey's moves to become involved in new regions of the world where it had previously not been very active.

Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gulen
So much so in fact that this groundswell became more than just a strategy for Turkey, which was opening up to Africa, the Pacific and Latin America in new ways. In fact, this societal groundswell's transnational efforts created a situation and responsibilities that derived from these developing relations. In this sense, the role played by the Hizmet movement, which takes its inspiration from the ideas of Turkish-Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen and has led to Turkey's active presence in more than 150 different countries around the world -- notably in the areas of education and cultural activities -- cannot be denied.

At the same time, Turkey's rich cultural and historical past is another piece of the wealth of soft power it enjoys. Turkey's historical ties with Europe, as well as the effects of its historical and cultural links to the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucuses continue on in these regions today. And there could be nothing more natural than to see Turkey -- with its rising education levels, its strengthening economy and its political stability -- increase its influence over these regions.

It should also be noted that the widespread recognition and use of Turkish goods over a wide region wherein Turks have developed strong transnational relations is no coincidence either. In fact, Turkey's trade and economic relations have far outperformed in comparison with the past.

Just as much as Turkey's economic, political and cultural arenas have strengthened, its capacity and attainment levels in terms of humanitarian aid and assistance have also expanded. Today we see many Turkish humanitarian aid foundations and associations -- not the least being the Kimse Yok Mu? Foundation -- heading off to help people anywhere in the world that a disaster has struck. Especially in Africa, where this rush to assistance has now continued ceaselessly for years, the aid coming from Turkey has reached the level of setting down the foundations for stability that allow for what could be termed the re-building of entire countries. What we are talking about is not just civil society organizations, but groups such as TİKA (the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency), the Turkish Red Crescent and state institutions like the Religious Affairs Directorate, which also enjoy important levels of influence and activity on these fronts.

If we take “soft power” -- a concept developed and made famous by American political scientist Joseph Nye -- to really mean the measure of how attractive certain countries are to others and how much they are held up as examples by other countries, then Turkey is headed down this particular path taking strong steps and over a wide area of the world. In fact, the magazine Monocle has chronicled listings of soft power from over the last three years, registering Turkey's influence and reality in this arena. According to Monocle, the whole concept of soft power -- which was up until recently under the monopoly of the West -- has gained tremendous influence and importance in Turkey, China, Brazil and even Russia in recent years.

According to the various criteria put forward by Monocle -- which considers factors like countries' diplomatic substructures, the numbers of their embassies and cultural missions throughout the world, their cultural products and successes at international festivals, the number of foreign correspondents and foreign students in these countries, national educational systems, numbers of think tanks, numbers of Internet users, the quality of national airlines and similar aspects -- England is number one and America is number two when it comes to soft power. As for Turkey, it is ranked as one of the fastest rising countries in this arena. For now, Turkey is listed as number 20 on the soft power list, but it will be no surprise to me if it manages to rise much higher in the coming years.

Parallel to Turkey's fast-rising global appeal and value, an ever-growing number of foreign embassies are opening in Ankara, as well as Turkish representation in countries around the world. As for the foreign media, its interest in Turkey -- which is visited annually by nearly 30 million tourists and where tens of thousands of foreign students study -- is growing swiftly, too. Every sort of interaction between Turkey and all the countries around the world has increased and continues to increase, thanks not only to the civil society educational and cultural activities that occur on a global level but also because of state-owned institutions like Turkish Airlines, which have become so much more active. And in the end there can be no question that both the Turkish economy and trade benefit from all this. I can say with complete confidence that it is in fact these soft power influences that have played the biggest role in Turkey's now almost $150 billion level of exports.

*This article is based on my speech that I gave during the third annual Turkic American Convention organized by Turkic American Alliance (TAA), Rethink Institute and the Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists (TUSKON) in Washington DC on March 12-13, 2013.

Published on Today's Zaman, 14 March 2013, Thursday