Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Struggles of a "Strong" State

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

The Struggles of a "Strong" State

Article excerpt

"The process of transition to the European Union--even if success is a long way off--is likely to force Turkey to undertake significant changes that will make the state smaller, more efficient, less repressive and intrusive and, yet, genuinely stronger."

Turkey has long been regarded by social scientists working on the developing world as one of the best examples of a strong, modernizing state. The single-mindedness with which Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the state, and his successors pursued the modernization project has been the envy of many leaders in Turkey's immediate region and beyond. This drive has also helped Turkey anchor itself solidly in the West's imagination as a secular, democratic and allied Muslim state. But the recent re-emergence of Kurdish nationalism and Islamic reactionism, and the methods employed by the state to confront them, raises questions about the nature of this "strong" state. The construction of the Turkish state as a top-to-bottom enterprise ultimately resulted in an edifice that is less capable of handling major challenges. Unlike a strong state that relies on its legitimacy to cajole and co-opt its citizenry and opposition, the state in Turkey usually sought to overpower them. Kurdish and Islamic challenges to the construction of the Turkish state in the 1990s are, in many ways, a replay of earlier such confrontations and have reopened the debate on what kind of state Turkey ought to have.

In this article the rise of Kurdish nationalism and, to a lesser extent, Islamic reactionism, are used to demonstrate the weak underpinnings of the Turkish state. They have not been the only challenges faced by the Kemalist elite, but they represent the most fundamental ones. The founders of the state and the bureaucratic-military elite that succeeded them envisaged a controlled, linear course for Turkish development. Ataturk defined the course of this development as a race to catch up with and become part of "contemporary civilization." The state had to be strong and omnipresent to succeed in this endeavor. Societal engineering, however, turned out to be more difficult than originally conceived. In fact, well before the troubles of the 1990s, the military intervened on three different occasions to bring events and errant political processes under control starting in 1960. Reliance on its military to save the day when faced with crises has made this institution a fixture of everyday political life. The Turkish General Staff, as the representative of the highest echelons of the military, has become an arbiter and, in many cases, the originator of policy decisions, which, in turn, has further undermined the natural development of state-society relations. The Turkish leadership, therefore, has opted for a state that orders its subjects around rather than penetrating society to mobilize resources in the form of taxes, information, expertise and manpower, effectively managing the bureaucracy, making alliances, subordinating vested interests, upholding its decisions and gaining the population's acceptance for proposed changes. The irony for the Turkish state lies in the fact that it is about to confront its most dramatic challenge in the form of the EU accession. The process of transition to the European Union--even if success is a long way off--is likely to force Turkey to undertake significant changes that will make the state smaller, more efficient, less repressive and intrusive and, yet, genuinely stronger.

REPRESS, BUT DO NOT PENETRATE: THE SINGLE PARTY ERA

The image of a strong and autonomous state reshaping society in its own image has long been associated with Ataturk's Turkey. Indeed, this strong state is also considered responsible for a genuine success: Modern Turkey's transformation from the hapless Ottoman Empire, the "Sick Man of Europe" as it was known to many, to the robust country knocking on the doors of Europe has been remarkable. Many authors have described how this feat was achieved by a relentless pursuit on the part of Ataturk's visionary leadership, and that of his successors. …

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