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Turkey and the Arab Spring

Friday, May 6, 2011

There's an emerging consensus that, after a promising start, Turkey has had a bad Arab Spring. Anthony Shadid suggested yesterday in the New York Times that the unrest threatens Turkey's newfound regional influence, while Steven Cook argued in Foreign Policy that the Arab uprisings represent a kind of "emperor has no clothes" moment for Ankara, exposing the hollowness underlying Turkey's much-vaunted rise. I'd like to weigh in on this, especially since I recently flagged the Turkish Model as a promising foreign policy approach for Egypt, the Palestinians and the region in general.

Clearly, Turkey miscalculated on Libya, as Cook makes clear and as Yigal Schleifer argued here in WPR in late-March. And as Cook also demonstrates, the missteps cannot be reduced to defending Ankara's economic interests in the country. They were, in effect, errors in judgment. The inconsistencies regarding Syria are a bit more understandable, given the proximity and the very direct impact -- including potential refugee flows -- that any fallout there will have on Turkey. But they are just as glaring, given Turkey's rhetoric and the image it has promoted of itself.

Moreover, and supporting Cook's argument, as much as I've often admired Turkey's regional approach, I've previously noted that there remains a wide gap between the rhetoric used by Ankara -- and outside observers -- to describe Turkey's regional pull and the reality of it. This was on prominent display following the Turkey- and Brazil-mediated nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran, and is also characteristic of most of Turkey's "successes" in the region and beyond. The fact is, Ankara is pretty good at getting people to the table, as its many past and present mediation efforts -- Israel and Syria, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Iran deal -- attest. But the difference between mediation and influence lies in the ability to get everyone, including interested third parties, to sign on the dotted line. And that's where Turkey bumps up against the limits of its diplomatic weight.

Ankara has delivered some concrete results in resolving tensions with its own neighbors: Syria, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran and Armenia, as well as a more distant Russia. But on a regional basis, it has not yet managed to convert the soft power that comes with increased trust and connectivity into the hard power of getting others to adopt its preferred line. In part that is because it just doesn't have the muscle necessary both to twist people's arms and to guarantee the resulting compromises. In part it is because the rise in its regional influence remains a work in progress. For Turkey, the Arab Spring comes 10 years too soon.

But it is also worth noting the regional realities: Ankara is operating in a very challenging neighborhood. If Turkey has failed in the Middle East, and during the Arab Spring, who exactly has succeeded?

As for the Turkish Model that emphasizes connectivity and autonomy over containment and alignment, Ankara's current challenges do not necessarily invalidate it, but they do demonstrate two vulnerabilities. First, connectivity is only as stable as the surrounding network. In almost all circumstances, the redundancy it offers serves to minimize the destabilizing impact of local perturbations. However, connectivity shifts from being a dampening effect to being a magnifying effect when the entire network experiences generalized perturbations. That's what's happening in the Middle East right now, and the threat -- or challenge -- it poses to Turkey is a clear illustration of connectivity's double-edged sword.

Second, the diplomatic value of connectivity is inversely proportional to the surrounding network's reach. Turkey's refusal to exclusively align with either side of the region's many divides -- Saudi-Iranian, Sunni-Shiite, Western-Arab -- was more valuable in the context of a region where trust and communication were low, but where the cost of conflict was high. In that kind of environment, being the only party that has relationships with all sides can be more easily converted into influence.

But Turkey's status as the only the only game in town when it comes to bridging divides and resolving conflicts is no longer guaranteed. Egypt's emerging reorientation, including tentative contacts with Iran and an increasing willingness to buck U.S. policy, suggests that, in a best-case scenario for the Arab Spring, Turkey might find that it is no longer the only regional actor pursuing a policy of connectivity and nonalignment. That will be good news for the region, but it could very mean that the high-point of Ankara's regional influence is behind it.