The Possibilities and Limits of Turkey's Soft Power in the Middle East

By Altunisik, Meliha Benli | Insight Turkey, April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Possibilities and Limits of Turkey's Soft Power in the Middle East


Altunisik, Meliha Benli, Insight Turkey


ABSTRACT

Turkey has been traditionally viewed mostly as a hard power in the Middle East, due to its military and economic strength. In recent years, however, there has been a discussion on Turkey's soft power. This article focuses on two aspects of Turkey's soft power in the region. First, Turkey's relevance to the debate on political and economic reform is discussed. It is argued that because of Turkey's internal transformations its attractiveness has increased. In addition to having assets, Turkey is generally more willing to project soft power as well as having increasing credibility in the region. Second, the article focuses on Turkey's use of soft power tools, especially its eagerness to play third party roles in the management and resolution of regional conflicts. Turkey's roles in the Israeli-Syrian, Israeli Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts are considered as an example. The article argues that Turkey's soft power has increased in these two aspects and yet it also elaborates on existing and possible constraints in this regard.

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In this article, Turkey's role as a wielder of soft power in the Middle East is analyzed through a consideration of two aspects. First, Turkey's relevance to the debate on political and economic reform in the Middle East is discussed. Second, Turkey's use of nonmilitary tools in its relations with the region, particularly its potential for playing a third-party role in the management and resolution of regional conflicts, are explored. The article will discuss these two aspects of Turkey's soft power by considering their possibilities and limitations

Turkey's Role in the Debate on Political and Economic Reform in the Middle East

In some ways, Turkey's relevance to the issue of modernization in the Middle East and the Islamic world is not entirely new. In the early years of its establishment, the so-called Turkish model was popular in the Middle East among some leaders and intellectuals. After all, unlike the other countries of the region, Turkey was born out of a determination not to accept the post-WW I settlement that was imposed on it by the winners of the war. Turkey's war of independence was closely monitored by nationalists in different parts of the Arab world, who were formulating their own plans for independence. Later, through the reforms that followed the war of independence, Turkey embarked on an extensive modernization path, more assertive than the one it had already initiated in the late 18th century. Turkey's fierce commitment to modernization became a source of inspiration particularly for Iran, Tunisia and Afghanistan.

Despite these countries' admiration for Turkey, which may be considered a soft power asset, the developments in the post-World War II period posed limitations for such a role. After the end of the Second World War, Turkey became a member of NATO, thus strongly anchoring itself to the Western Bloc during the Cold War. The Middle Eastern countries on the other hand did not officially become part of any bloc, although they individually developed close ties with one of the two superpowers. The rise of Arab nationalism led to the 'othering' of Turkey; (1) Arab nationalist discourse framed Turkey as a stooge of the West, and succeeded in building on the negative historical legacy of the Ottoman Empire that existed in some parts of the Arab world, particularly in the Mashreq region. (2) Turkey's recognition of Israel in 1949 created an additional rift. In sum, during the Cold War years the regional countries largely viewed Turkey in a negative light. For its part Turkey also distanced itself from the region for the most part and identified itself instead as part of the West. Thus, during most of the Cold War, Turkey had a limited influence in the Middle East. Turkish foreign and security elites defined the region as unstable and conflict-ridden, and thus tried not to 'get drawn in to the Middle East swamp. …

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