Turkey’s Soft Power in the Middle East

Assad Bhuglah

Turkey’s soft power capacity comes from its history, culture and geography. Rather than seeing
them as obstacles or burdens, the Turks are now turning them into strategic assets in both domestic
and foreign policy. There have been profound changes in Turkish Foreign Policy when compared to
what it was in post 1923 and what it is in the 2000s. Turkey’s strategic assets are derived from
combination of two elements: history and geography. Moreover, the country has a certain cultural
value that spans centuries and it may become a soft power in international relations. The new
Turkish public diplomacy is building on Turkey’s expanding soft power in the Balkans, the Middle
East and the Caucasus.

‘Soft power’ is a concept coined by Joseph Nye, which denotes a state’s ability to leverage and
influence the other actors through non-military instruments. According to this definition, military
coercion is seen as a non-profitable and obsolete way to make the others abide by the conditions
that a state imposes. Political culture, doctrines, strategic impact of its policies, economic interests,
social values may constitute the soft power that a state possesses. Therefore, the changing
international status of Turkey, in addition to its increased value of its regional capabilities brought by
post-9/11 and post-Arab Spring international environment, led Turkish Foreign Policy to mobilize its
soft power as a global actor.

Given the Turkey’s geographical location lying in between the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Middle
East, Turkey holds both potential risks and advantages at the same time. One of these advantages is
that, it is situated in the intersection of the energy routes where Turkey can capitalize this central
location. Turkey is the first neighbouring country adjacent to rich natural gas and oil reserves
opening to Europe. Therefore, Turkey is a vital asset for both Europe and the resource rich regions.
Turkey is simultaneously pursuing a broad-based strategy to secure as many reliable sources of
energy as possible in order to position itself as a more independent player unencumbered by the
structural restraints which come from its present dependence on Russian resources. Instead of being
simply a transmission belt for energy route, Turkey has revised its ‘traditional’ foreign policy by
shifting from a ‘corridor’ country to a ‘central’ country which can have a more assertive role over its
trade and economic interests.

Turkey has cultural accumulation and a vast history. These are important values for a nation. Even
though elements of power like economic and military are important in international relations, there
is more to them. Northern European countries, for instance, have higher development levels than
our country, however, they can never be a centre of power in terms of international balance. If a
country has a certain cultural value that spans centuries, it may become a power in international
relations. In this sense, Turkey's most important power is its cultural values. Turkey is currently
synthesizing these values with the realities of modern world and developing them in various ways.
Of course, these values are valuable if they can be conveyed to oncoming generations. Turkey has a
young population that is dynamic, productive and creative that could convey this cultural
inheritance. Turkish TV series gained considerable popularity in the Arab countries. The rising
interest in Turkey in the Middle East prompts more visits to Turkey by citizens of the regional
countries.

Soft power approach to international relations does not imply a total abandonment of the military
impact on the conflicts. Due to the deterrence function it undertakes, Turkey needs stronger armed
forces than ever, when taking into consideration the terrorist activities along its borders. In contrast,
emphasis tends to be on new dimensions such as expansion of international trade, active role in
multilateral organizations through dialogue, spreading democratic and liberal economic values
through intensified interaction and diplomacy.

In addition to aforementioned political and economic Turkey’s soft power attributes, religious and
cultural relations have got a distinct place in its foreign policy. Shared history and spirituality
inherently motivates people living in remote geographies. The Ottoman past plays an important role
in establishing Turkey’s cultural ties in the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East, North Africa, and
even in Central Asia. All these domains have been an integral part of the Ottoman State. What
separated their populations can simply be described as the twist of fate deriving out of politics,
which has not been under the control of their will. Caliphate did not carry a symbolic, however, it
was a protective umbrella for the Muslim populations. These spiritual ties still combine the
‘relatives’ who have been anticipated to forget each other.

There are non-conventional actors of Turkish Foreign Policy who works in collaboration with other
international organizations. Turkey Presidency of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, is one of the major
institution who plays an important role in the integration of split Muslim realms. It participates in
the ‘Eurasian Islam Shura’, bringing Islamic administrations of 38 countries together. Diyanet
provides assistance and service to other Muslim communities, in the framework of the organization
of the ‘hajj’, the education of religious scholars, publication of books as well as translation of the
Qur’an in other languages. The major institution of cultural diplomacy is the Yunus Emre Cultural
Centres which began functioning in 2007. It aims to promote the Turkish language and culture
through opening language courses, organizing film screenings, exhibitions, conferences and
concerts.

In as much as there are some strong reservations and old fears in certain Arab circles, particularly in
Egypt and Saudi Arabia, about the Ottoman rule over the centuries, there is a perception that Turkey
is becoming a rising star in the minds and hearts of the peoples of Middle East. Arab and Iranian
intellectuals appreciate Turkey's role and urge its greater involvement in regional issues. Turkish
policy-makers keep an equal distance from all actors and avoid taking part in any regional alliances
or groupings. Turkey's all-inclusive policy and equi-distance policy satisfy the concerns of regional
actors and assure them of the constructive nature of Turkish policies.
A recently published higher education cooperation plan with Tunisia represents the latest milestone
in Turkey’s plan to set up joint universities with North African Arab states in what is seen as an
expression of cultural diplomacy or ‘soft power’ aimed at building regional alliances and
partnerships.

Turkey’s ascent in Iraq may prove its greatest success so far in an effort to project its growing heft
across an Arab world long suspicious of it. Basra's Sport's City, a project being developed by a
Turkish company, is set to be the largest sporting complex in the Middle East. While the United
States invaded and occupied Iraq, Turkey now exerts what may prove a more lasting legacy — so-
called soft power, the assertion of influence through culture, education and business.
Turkish engineering team and contractors are on the frontline of a huge development effort in
Somalia, one of the world's most dangerous cities - one which U.N. agencies and international
charities prefer to deal with from a third country instead of being directly involved. Some 500
Turkish relief workers and volunteers poured into Mogadishu's bullet-scarred wastelands,
unleashing a wave of humanitarian aid as the militants struck back with a string of suicide bombings
and roadside blasts.

Turkey's foreign policy has acquired strategic depth in the Middle East, where Turkish policy-makers
have the self-confidence and political will to play a soft-power role. There is a receptive audience in
the region. However, there is also no guarantee that Turkey will succeed in solving the chronic
problems, since many others failed in previous decades. Nonetheless, Turkey's ruling elite is willing
to take the challenge. In the years to come, we will see more Turkish involvement in resolving the
Middle East's protracted problems.

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