Saturday, May 22, 2010

Turkey's PD Charm

(Sülemaniye Mosque in Istanbul. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

I had mentioned before that Turkey was the other country (apart from Russia) I had been working on throughout the past semester in terms of international communication (and public diplomacy was just a part of it all). There are multiple reasons for my immense interest in the country, ranging from the fact that my great-grandparents came from Anatolia, to my fascination with its history, culture, and now, its public diplomacy.

It seems that Turkey has been a "subject" of enthrallment and awe, particularly in the West, since the early Ottoman days, and especially so in the 15-16th centuries, during the "Golden Age" of the Ottoman Empire. Over time, however, that transformed into fear and distrust. The major reason? Difference. And well, differences, especially in culture, are vulnerable to stigmatization, vilification, and manipulation for political purposes.

This has been especially true in the case of Turkey over the past decades. Indeed, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk held back no effort in trying to modernize Turkey, which, for him, was synonymous to strict Westernization. And yet, given the size and the complexity of the country, achieving that has not been easy. More importantly, Turkey has faced a significant challenge in changing the perception of its image around the world (particularly, in the West). Perhaps the most vivid examples of the latter include the fact that Europeans have been adamant in preventing it from joining the EU, while the U.S. Congress has been all too willing to pass Resolutions on the Armenian Genocide (despite the seemingly strategic interest, that would prompt a different action).

(The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

Writing this post, I wanted to point out a very telling passage from a book. I finally got my hands on Kinzer's "Crescent and Star," (I had heard a lot about it, but never actually got to read it; I'm sure it's at least as good as "All the Shah's Men"!) and the following sentences from the opening paragraph are really striking:

[Istiklal (Turkish for "independence")] has special resonance in Turkey because Turkey is struggling to break away from its autocratic heritage, from its position outside the world's political mainstream, and from the stereotype of the terrifying Turk and the ostracism which that stereotype encourages. Most of all, it is trying to free itself from its fears - fear or freedom, fear of the outside world, fear of itself."

This is very true and reflects well the overall complexity and ambivalence within the Turkish culture. When I had to put together a "cultural profile" for the International PR class, finding a single "right" category for each of the cultural orientations/traits proved to be impossible. There are so many dichotomies within the general cultural traits, that the only sensible solution was combining those into some amorphous new categories: progressive yet within certain conservative limits; secular yet religious; democratic yet authoritarian; looking to the future yet highly valuing and glorifying the past; collectivist yet putting a great emphasis on the individual...

(Whirling Dervishes. Image courtesy of National Geographic.)

The list can go on, and when looked upon in this light, can be simply explained by Turkey's geographic location and its past. And yet, as Kinzer correctly points out, the Turkish people themselves seem to be finding all these dichotomies hard to deal with. So, when a nation as a whole is still struggling to define itself (which, in many cases, might be a faulty objective), what is the image that it tries to project to the world, especially when it wants to undertake a serious role in international affairs and act as a global agenda setter?

It seems that Mr. Davutoğlu, the current Foreign Minister, has found the answer. In fact, he has been instrumental in developing Turkey's current foreign policy of "Zero problems with neighbors" and its positioning as a key mediator in many of the regional conflicts: Israel, Syria, Iran, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Russia, Afghanistan, and even as far as Somalia...

Al Jazeera recently had this amazing report on Turkey's current foreign policy and it's major national and international challenges:

It covers some of the major issues fairly comprehensively, and indeed, does a good job in presenting Davutoğlu's role in Turkey's recent foreign policy. As he puts it himself, Turkey is "the litmus test for globalization," and he is certainly trying to experiment with it.

One of the most significant initiatives - except for the "Zero-problem neighborhood" of course - was the establishment of the new Public Diplomacy Coordination Agency to oversee and coordinate all the various PD initiatives by governmental and non-governmental efforts. Davutoğlu does appreciate the power of image and perception. As he told Al Jazeera:

What is our objective? Zero problems with our neighbors. I know that this is a slogan, but slogans are symbols as well. Symbols create a new mind. The most important thing is to change the concepts in the minds of the people. You can create enemies through the concepts, you can create friends through the concepts. Now, with these symbols we showed our good intentions, and with our actions, based on these symbols, we achieved a big success with our neighbors."

Whether he can claim success with neighbors is fairly objectionable, since there are still many problems in the region directly or indirectly involving Turkey. Other major challenges with its image include (but are not at all limited to) the Kurdish issue, its human rights record, the secularist-religious divide, very recent economic troubles, as well as issues such as the Armenian Genocide or the status of Northern Cyprus. And yet, the fact that Turkey decided to be more aggressive and organized about its public diplomacy, as well as the active engagements with others do indicate efforts to offset the existing challenges.

The successful brokering of the nuclear deal with Iran this week (in partnership with Brazil) - welcomed even by UN's Ban Ki-moon - definitely earned Turkey significant brownie points. And yet, the reaction to the deal seems to have taken many away from other actors who just don't seem to be really enthused about any kind of mutual deals. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do get credit for trying, nevertheless.

There are many challenges and troubles to overcome in Turkey's public diplomacy, just as in its foreign policy; and yet first steps have been made and given the potential, Turkey just needs to keep walking despite difficulties: whether they are foreign or domestic.

(Image courtesy of GoMo News)


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