No “Hero of Haarlem” in Ankara

With Mary Mapes Dodge’s Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates, the English-speaking world took to heart the tale of a Dutch boy who saves his beloved homeland from certain flood by plugging a leaky dike.  Briefly: Happening home as dark approached, the lad espied a leak in one of Haarlem’s many dikes. Grasping the potential calamity, the boy stemmed the flow with his finger, suffering cold and solitude through the night until the townspeople discover him and mend the leak. The boy becomes a hero, having saved Haarlem from deluge.

The boy-cum-hero was more than brave. He demonstrated prescient awareness, grasping the potential magnitude of the situation. He responded with appropriate measure, running for help or stuffing the dike with soil would have left the danger unguarded. The boy then readily called for help at first chance.

The analogy to Ankara?  With Turkey’s economy threatened by turbulent waters, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to pose as his country’s indispensable protector. However,  he shows poorly in comparison to Haarlem’s little savior. The president’s most recent maneuver to keep the country’s economic ship aright—an enormous transfer of state-owned corporate shares to Turkey’s first sovereign wealth fund—will fail to achieve its intended aims. Any dissenting counsel to this undertaking will be prone to the president’s usual dismissal.  

The republic’s economy will instead likely worsen. As growth slows and consequent discontent rises, Erdogan will not retreat from his autocratic drive to direct the economy himself. For now, Turkey’s once-emerging democracy will instead continue to deconsolidate as Erdogan adds further economic power to his already dominant political role.

The Economy:  Red Sky at Morning

On February 6, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s privatization administration announced the transfer of billions of dollars worth of  government-owned shares into a new sovereign wealth fund (SWF). These involve several of Turkey’s best performing companies and banks, including Turkish Airlines  and Halkbank with a combined value of $3 billion, in which the state has 49.1 and 59.1 percent of the shares, respectively. Also included in the mass transfer were the Borsa stock exchange and BOTAS—the state-owned natural gas pipeline operator. The stated purpose of this asset transfer is to reassure foreign lenders whose confidence in Turkey has steeply declined.

Why will this move fail? Turkey’s SWF is a sharp departure from the international norm. SWFs are commonly funded out of revenue generated by a country’s natural resources or foreign exchange reserves and established when there exists a significant budgetary surplus.  Moreover, SWFs typically invest globally. In contrast, the assets transferred this month come from domestic banks and firms, not from commodity revenues or reserves.  Although Turkey’s budget deficit is currently somewhere between 1-2%, 2016 saw a marked increase in budget expenditures on health, welfare, and pensions; and none are poised to abate. Furthermore, the AKP government is likely to use the SWF as leverage to borrow for mega-infrastructure projects at home, rather than pursue investment opportunities abroad. Such a build-up of debt is likely to decrease rather than increase investor confidence in the Turkish economy.

There are few indicators suggesting that the Turkish economy will resume the robust growth that propelled it to become the world’s 17th largest economy. The attempted coup on July 15, 2016, and its aftermath greatly shook investors and creditors alike. In the third quarter of 2016, Turkey’s economy contracted for the first time in several years to levels lower than predicted. Last September, Moody’s Investor Service downgraded Turkey’s sovereign credit rating to junk status.  The Turkish lira has dramatically declined against the dollar, falling 23.73 percent between September 2016 and February 2017.

Not all of Turkey’s current economic woes are linked to July 15th fallout. Turkey continues to struggle with a growing current account deficit. It is forecasted at $34.3 billion for 2016 (an increase of $2.1 billion from the previous year). This is nothing new—Turkey has been struggling to keep its current account out of a deep red since 2010.  And due to Russian boycotts and terror attacks, Turkey’s tourism industry was already suffering mightily before the attempted coup. Tourism’s contribution to GDP dropped from  twelve percent in 2014 to 4.5 percent in 2015. Employing eight percent of the country’s workforce, this industry’s shrinkage is being felt.  

Governance: Bad Crescent Moon Rising

The sweeping shift of wealth into Turkey’s SWF is the latest step in Erdogan’s drive to centralize authority under his own personal executive control. Should he win April’s referendum on the expansion of Turkey’s presidential powers, authority over the SWF would no doubt transfer to him, since the position of its current overseer, the prime minister, would be abolished. This is especially dangerous, as SWF transactions will be unaccountable to either parliament or Turkey’s High Court of Auditors, thereby giving a uniquely dominating president tremendous sway over the use of state funds.  

This would conform with a consistent pattern of incremental power consolidation, in economic affairs as well as in the political realm. The AKP party has unrelentingly relied on the crony issuance of tenders for unnecessary infrastructure projects as a key means of securing political influence; Turkey’s SWF is simply another chapter. Furthermore, AKP’s leader regularly disregards sound economic counsel in favor of political expediency. For example, Erdogan has for years shouted down top economic advisors seeking to stem inflation by increasing interest rates, a widely accepted remedy. The Gulenist witch hunt following the July 15 coup attempt provides a further example of damaging market interference. By executive order under a state of emergency, hundreds of businesses were shuttered, eliminating in many cases competitors of AKP-aligned enterprises and banks.

Given the breadth of Turkey’s current economic challenges, Erdogan’s continued reliance on his tried playbook will turn up insufficient. The demographic bulge that fueled Turkey’s post-2002 Wirtschaftswunder is coming to a close. Of Turkey’s top ten export destinations, six are presently European Union member states, a trade zone whose “outlook is surrounded by higher-than-usual uncertainty” and moderate recovery remains nascent. Nor will the resumption of trade with Russia via the recent rapprochement do much. At best, the countries may return to the same steady levels that preceded the crisis-provoking downing of a Russian jet in November 2015. And don’t expect a return of Russia’s tourist masses as long as ISIS and PKK terror attacks continue. This insecurity and Turkey’s noteworthy political risk are especially damaging to prospects of foreign direct investment at a time when multinational corporations appear on a full-fledged retreat worldwide.

Despite Turkey’s autocratic regression over the past several years of AKP rule, Erdogan and his party could become vulnerable. When polled, Turks regularly assign their greatest concerns to security and the economy. Although the AKP won 40.9 and 49.5 percent in the last two multiparty parliamentary elections, there is now no end in sight to the current fighting with the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). If, added to this, there is a severe contraction of Turkey’s economy, it could cost AKP and the president dearly at the ballot box.

In sum Erdogan’s “finger in the dike” does not seem likely to bar the flood. And, absent an uncharacteristic change of tack—such as a willingness to better heed sound economic counsel or greater inclusion of private sector actors unsupportive of his political agenda—the dyke could well give way.

Unfortunately, Erdogan’s reliance on political charisma and personal power-projection tends to preclude rethinking or retreat, particularly before the looming mid-April referendum. Unfortunately for our Turkish friends, it may thus be a long time before they see a red sky on the evening’s horizon.           

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Is Turkey’s Military Reentering Politics?

Hulusi Akar, the recently selected chief of Turkey’s military, confronts a very tense, if not perilous environment. His August appointment occurred amid political uncertainty and increased security concerns. The Turkish government has been at a virtual standstill since last June’s general election, unable to forge a viable coalition based on the results. Shortly thereafter, after a 2 ½ year ceasefire, fighting renewed between Ankara and the Kurdish separatist PKK movement, reigniting a bloody struggle which has cost an estimated 40,000 lives over the past thirty years. Economic uncertainty adds to the nation’s anxiety, along with neighboring Syria’s strategic and humanitarian dilemmas. Another national vote is scheduled for November 1, but recent polling shows little if any change per voter sentiments.

In the past, such circumstances would have prompted the Turkish military to express serious concerns as to how the country was being managed. If civilian authority didn’t heed these warnings, a coup d’etat would usually ensue.  The last thirteen years of Islamist rule has effectively ended the military’s political interventions, albeit by questionable means.  Then Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) launched a series of investigations that accused the armed forces and alleged civilian cohorts of plotting to overthrow their duly elected government.  These probes are riddled with controversy, begetting trials which have purged large swaths of senior officers from the various branches. The overall result has subjugated the Turkish military to non-political status, ostensibly creating a new generation of leadership that respects civilian governance by not meddling in it.

General Akar represents this changing of the guard. His philosophical bearings noticeably differ from his predecessors, especially concerning Islamist politics. Prior to the AKP’s ascendance, religious activism was a red flag for the officer corps.  There are several episodes in Turkey’s political history where the military deemed Islamist-based organizations to be threatening the nation’s secularist precepts and subsequently were disbanded. A decade plus of the AKP’s governance has effectively chastened the armed forces disposition on this matter.

A more pressing topic for the military these days is national unity.   The renewed hostilities with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) while there’s political impasse raises various questions and concerns throughout Turkish society. Heightening the uncertainty is the increased presence of homegrown radical jihadist networks within Turkey. Much of their material and financial support comes via next-door Syria as well as Iraq, denoting lax, if not compromised border security. (A similar observation can be made about the massive outflow of Syrian refugees from Turkey’s Aegean provinces towards Europe.) Together, the Kurdish and border issues convey an overall impression of teetering state authority.

Another indication of growing restiveness recently appeared at several funerals for soldiers and policemen killed in the latest round of battling the PKK. Their burials have become an outlet for voicing discontent with the current state of affairs. Much of the disgruntling has been directed at Mr. Erdogan, whom mourners accuse of deliberately instigating combat for his own political purposes. The most prominent case occurred at an August funeral ceremony when a uniformed Lieutenant Colonel accused Erdogan of being responsible for his younger brother’s death. It was a widely televised incident, yet pro-government media outlets avoided reporting the officer’s protest and overall clamor. In order to avoid further embarrassment, Ankara subsequently restricted access to these interments, thereby curbing journalistic coverage. Additional methods have been employed to offset the protests via government-friendly social media networks (who accused the Lieutenant General of being a “terrorist” and “PKK sympathizer”) and indictments.

What’s particularly noteworthy about the funeral demonstrations is that they are happening in areas soundly supportive of Mr. Erdogan’s policies. While the AKP effectively represent these citizen’s interests, many questions have arisen about the ceasefire’s collapse and the underlying motives which caused it.

There’s a broad consensus that Mr. Erdogan created the present atmosphere in order to avenge last June’s election results. The  Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) foiled plans that would have allowed Erdogan greater executive authority.  The HDP’s higher than expected vote tally came at the expense of Erdogan’s AKP, ending the latter’s one party dominance since 2003. Adding insult to injury, the HDP is a Kurdish-oriented party that serves as the PKK’s political representative. When Mr. Erdogan was Prime Minister, he took an enlightened stance towards the HDP/PKK arrangement. As President Erdogan, it’s been a complete reversal. The HDP is no longer viewed as an emissary seeking a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish situation, but a political opponent whose eighty parliamentary seats block the path to an autocratic presidency.

A campaign to discredit HDP is underway which aims at exploiting its PKK connection. There are indications that the PKK wasn’t surprised by recent events and were readily prepared for a new round of warfare.  Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Erdogan is taking a huge gamble that will result in a  Pyrrhic victory. The military recognizes what’s at stake and has so far refrained from overstepping boundaries that have been established during the AKP’s reign.  This could change however, depending upon the November 1st election results.


The horrific bombing which recently occurred in Ankara has further heightened pre-election tensions. Indications point to Islamic extremists being responsible for the attack, namely as a warning about Turkey’s Syria policy. The incident has also widened AKP/HDP hostilities. There is a general consensus that the government didn’t adequately safeguard the largely Kurdish gathering. The claim has become politicized with both the HDP and AKP accusing each other of complicity with the operation. Instead of a nation uniting over this tragedy, societal polarization prevails.

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Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part I

(Read Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently sworn in as the President of the Republic of Turkey, the ceremony did not lack in symbolism, much of it contradictory.

Erdoğan represents a shift in the nature of the Turkish state. He is a fundamental departure from every Turkish national leader before him and the most consequential Turkish political figure since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. Erdoğan emerged on the national stage out of the country’s Islamist Milli Görüş movement, which is often compared to the Muslim Brotherhood (although it differs in some key respects). After breaking with the movement in 2001, he took his Justice and Development Party (AKP) from victory to victory and was the country’s longest serving prime minister since İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s right-hand man.

Erdoğan’s rise to the presidency is not quite the coup de grâce to Turkish laicism that admirers and critics both imagine, but observers could be forgiven for seeing it that way. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk’s, has singularly failed to achieve any sort of meaningful electoral victory for years. Rather than nominating a presidential candidate that reflected the secular ideals of their party to face off against the Erdoğan juggernaut, they joined with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – an even more Kemalist-inclined party – to nominate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. A graduate of Islamic world’s premiere center of religious learning, Al-Azhar, and former head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, based in Jeddah, Ihsanoğlu was not the candidate secularists hoped to see. While many secularists condemned the CHP-MHP alliance for not sticking by their principles, others praised what they saw as a pragmatic recognition of the Turkish electorate’s center-right and religious orientation.

Regardless, Ihsanoğlu lost and a prominent CHP deputy was reduced to hurling a parliamentary rulings book at the Speaker of the Turkish General Assembly before Erdoğan’s swearing in. No one really could have defeated Erdoğan, even after a corruption scandal and mining disaster that left him bloodied. As such, the opposition’s presidential nominee represented something beyond the immediate contest — a signpost, pointing to where they now understand votes can be found in the future. Turkey has changed indeed. (Michael Koplow and Steven Cook wrote an effective analysis of the Ihsanoğlu nomination and its implications.)

After Erdoğan took the oath (which includes a promise to protect “the principle of a secular republic”), he went to Atatürk’s tomb, as is customary, to pay homage to Turkey’s founding father. He then went to continue the ceremony at Çankaya Mansion, the presidential residence (at least until now; Erdoğan will be the Turkish Republic’s first president that lives elsewhere). In his remarks there, Erdoğan vowed, “The era of the Old Turkey is over. We are now in the era of a New Turkey, the Great Turkey that carries the substance and spirit of the Republic.”

Erdoğan’s friends and foes alike would agree that this is indeed a new Turkey. Over the past eleven years, Erdoğan centralized power via his party, whose leaders represent a new Islamic-oriented elite driving national policy. The Ergenekon trials ended the battle over civil-military affairs in favor of a segment of the former camp. The AKP’s “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy has been strained if not shattered. Yet its foundational ideas based on Islamic identity still drive Turkish foreign policy and its chief advocate, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was promoted to the prime ministry. It seems that, perhaps, there has been a major shift in Turkey’s strategic culture – one that has its roots in the 1980s but has not fully manifested itself until much more recent times.

But what does that mean? What is strategic culture and why is it so important? And how can it help us better understand Turkey?

Strategic culture provides a useful mechanism by which to understand the behavior of nations and the sources of this behavior.

This concept and the best means by which to investigate it are hotly contested.  There are three generations of strategic culture scholarship. While the second and third generations illuminated some methodological shortcomings with the first, they did little to improve upon them, in my opinion. And since this isn’t a literature review, I’m not going to discuss them (but feel free to read a major critique of the first generation here).

The pioneers of the first generation included Jack Snyder, Colin Gray, and Ken Booth. Snyder coined the term, describing strategic culture as the “sum total of ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior that members of the national strategic community have acquired though instruction or imitation and share with each other with regard to nuclear strategy.” Yes, nuclear strategy. This was 1977, still in the thick of the Cold War era. These thinkers were inspired, according to Gray, by Bernard Brodie’s observation that “good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology.” One might imagine they couldn’t have helped but also be inspired by George Kennan’s incisive “Long Telegram” and subsequent Foreign Affairs article, signed X, which focused, as the title promised, on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” many of which were cultural, historical, and ideological.

As with all things regarding strategy, one can do much worse than starting with Colin Gray, who defined the concept as “modes of thought and action with respect to force, which derives from perception of the national historical experience, from aspirations for responsible behavior in national terms” and from “the civic culture and way of life.” He offered the most incisive and useful exploration of the concept of strategic culture in a 1999 article aptly sub-titled: “the first generation of theory strikes back.”

Gray argued that “different security communities and sub-communities (1) tend to exhibit in their strategic thought and behaviour [emphasis original] patterns that could be termed cultural, and that (2) strategic culture finds expression in distinctively patterned styles of strategic behaviour.” He defines strategic behavior as that “relevant to the threat or use of force for political purposes,” but strategy and strategic behavior encompass so much more than war and war-making. It includes the matching of ways and means in pursuit of national goals writ large and therefore involve economic, diplomatic, and informational behavior, in addition to force and its particular coercive properties.

As for culture, Gray prefers the definition offered by Raymond Williams who says culture is composed of three general categories: the “ideal,” the “documentary” – or “’the artefacts’ of intellectual and imaginative work in which human thoughts and experiences are variously recorded,” and the “social” – or the “description of a particular way of life which finds expression in institutions and ordinary behaviour.”

“Strategic culture,” argues Gray, “matters deeply for modern strategy, because the culture of the strategic players, individuals and organisations, influences strategic behaviour.”  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself touched on this when he said, “[T]he matter to which foreign policy most relates and on which it is most dependent is the state’s internal organization.”

Turkey has a distinctive approach to strategy that we can unearth and understand by examining its history, geography, political and military speeches, military strategies and organization, political organization, sense of nationality and identity, etc. And I argue that this strategic culture has been gradually experiencing a major shift since the 1980s and the pinnacle of this shift is best represented by the rise of President Erdoğan.

Turkey had a distinctive approach to strategy based on the experience of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the trauma of World War I and the war of independence that followed. The Turkish state was inward looking and obsessively focused on internal unity, strict control of religion, and a straightforward interpretation of Turkish identity that did not tolerate competition. In foreign affairs, it was not activist. It sought to stay out of foreign conflicts and to align with the West culturally, politically, and militarily. On the security front, its most important concern was its territorial integrity and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The United States quickly became its most valuable ally after World War II. 

Ever since the death of Atatürk, political power has been slowly devolving – in uneven fits and starts, often interrupted by coups – from the center to the periphery. The shift in Turkey’s strategic culture began with the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that followed the 1980s coup as well as the leadership of Prime Minister and, later, President Turgut Özal. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of the Welfare Party of the Milli Görüş movement. But we will get to that story soon enough.  

In Part II, I’ll discuss Turkey’s old, fading strategic culture. In Part III, I’ll turn to Turkey’s new strategic culture and the mechanisms that explain the shift. In Part IV, I’ll argue that this matters a great deal for the United States.

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.

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