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The West, the liberal order and (post-coup) Turkey

Image credit: US Government Works

Image credit: US Government

Roughly 24 hours after the shock and horror of the Bastille Day attack in Nice, the European continent was again rattled, this time with a brazen coup d’état attempt in Turkey. While Turkey is no stranger to coups – it has now had six attempted coups (some successful, some not) in the last 60 years – the attempt against their President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – a leader once thought to have an extremely tight grip on power – was nonetheless shocking and points to a country with mounting internal strife.

The initial reaction of the United States (US) and the European Union (EU), the arbiters of the Western liberal international order, was to condemn the coup attempt while offering solidarity with Turkey’s democratically elected government, including the under fire Erdoğan. However, in the post-coup setting, particularly since Erdoğan has initiated a rapid purge of army personnel, civil servants, judges, and even teachers and academics, Western powers have started to change their tune.

The US’ Secretary of State, John Kerry, stated that the US ‘will measure very carefully what is happening’ with significant vigilance and scrutiny and even insinuated that Turkey’s NATO membership could be reviewed. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, similarly stated that the EU will ‘send a strong message’ to Turkey in regards to protecting ‘democratic and legitimate institutions’ while also insinuating that Turkey’s EU candidacy could be affected.

Despite the stronger rhetorical show by Kerry and Mogherini in light of Erdoğan’s strong illiberal response to the coup attempt, essentially, what the West is demanding is that Erdoğan halts the democratic backsliding and return to the pre-coup levels of democracy. The problem is to call Erdoğan’s Turkey prior to the coup a democracy makes a mockery of the concept. Yes, Turkey has had a history of relatively free and fair elections under Erdoğan. However, to use such a low benchmark for a functioning democracy is to show naivety for how democracy should work in its liberal form.

Frankly speaking, elections – which are arguably seen as the key criteria by Western democracy promoters – alone are a poor mechanism for democratic participation. Even when they are run fairly, they automatically favour people with power, money, and status and are also easily hijacked by interest groups. Turkey, like many countries that have ostensibly attempted to democratise over the past few decades, use elections as a kind of PR strategy in that it projects to the international community (and to their own citizens) that democracy is alive and functioning. However, once this veil is lifted, many of these countries have extremely centralised power structures and illiberal tendencies, making them more authoritarian than democratic.

Turkey is a vivid example of an illiberal democracy as in recent years its democracy has backslid noticeably. Arguably, the most egregious authoritarian behavior by Erdoğan has been his efforts to control information. Erdoğan started by co-opting independent media outlets – through offering government funding – towards a more pro-Ankara bent while punishing those that do not comply. As a result, Turkey ranks as the 5th worst country in the world for journalist imprisonment. Furthermore, Erdoğan has even gone as far as controlling what people can access on the internet; a strategy straight out of the Chinese governance handbook.

These actions have enabled Erdoğan, like so many authoritarian leaders, to successfully use disinformation to strengthen his grip on power while minimising the effect of internal (and external) dissent. In addition to his controlling of information, Erdoğan has overseen further crackdowns on democratic principles, such as the right to public assembly. The Gezi park protests in 2013 glaringly demonstrated this development as the Turkish government used force to suppress the protests, resulting in 22 deaths.

Unsurprisingly, certain factions within the army have grown tired of Erdoğan’s illiberal rule. According to a released statement, the coup aimed to ‘reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedom’. This is not unprecedented as the army, given its strong Kemalist underpinnings, has often felt it necessary to step in and stem the influence of the more theocratic Islamism of which Erdoğan is an adherent.

Unequivocally, the West was right not to support the coup. Regardless of the coup’s stated goal of liberating Turkey from the authoritarian clutches of Erdoğan, using an illiberal means to reach a liberal end is a contradiction that cannot be easily reconciled in the long run. However, the West should take its role as a promoter of democracy in Turkey seriously.

Arguably, the West has a golden opportunity to aid Turkey’s democratisation efforts in light of the coup, particularly as popular frustration with the Erdoğan regime has been growing for some time. However, the West’s track record as a democracy promoter is mixed. One issue is that their strategies are often too top-down in design as they focus mostly on the formal aspects of democracy; namely election, rule of law and the separation of powers. While these formal aspects are key components of a liberal democracy, promoting only these will do nothing to alter Turkey’s democratic performance and would actually help maintain the status quo.

Worthwhile democratic change usually has to organically come from the bottom-up, not be imposed from the top-down. Certainly, both the EU and the US claim to promote bottom-up democracy in target states through helping build civil society, often through funding NGOs, but this usually pales in comparison with the focus their formal democracy strategies get. As has been illustrated in the Gezi park protests and during the coup attempt, Turkey, despite Erdoğan’s efforts, has a fairly vibrant civil society. Combine this with its Kemalist legacy and it gives external promoters like the EU and the US an encouraging platform for promoting bottom-up democratisation.

The elephant in the room which could inhibit the promotion of democracy in Turkey is its strategic importance to the West. For the US, Turkey is an ‘important partner’ in its Middle East machinations while Turkey’s importance to the EU has skyrocketed in the wake of the refugee crisis. Historical precedent says that strategic importance always trumps principles in foreign policy decision-making – see the West’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example – which means that when push comes to shove, the West, despite strong rhetoric to the contrary at the moment, could turn a blind eye to Erdoğan’s mounting undemocratic indiscretions.

Choosing strategic aims over liberal principles, while fulfilling perceived short-term needs, has a much greater long-term cost as it undermines the already failing Western liberal international order and hastens the emergence of a chaotic post-Western world. Indeed, such an outcome has been built on a legacy of Western foreign policy failures which stretch back to the 1990s (and beyond). However, having had a taste of what the post-Western world might look like over the past 24 months, surely now is the time for the West – led by its two largest powers, the US and the EU – to work on restoring credibility to its liberal international order before it is too late.

Vol. 8, No. 18 (2016)


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