Tag Archives: Politics of Turkey

Further Reflections on Istanbul as Global Capital

7 Nov

 

My proposal that we consider the possibility of treating Istanbul as the world capital attracted a broad range of responses. I tried to make clear in my revised text that Istanbul could not hope to have this kind of recognition until Turkey had addressed some serious issues, especially the Kurdish grievances that have induced a massive hunger strike in Turkish jails (with over 600 prisoners now taking part, and more threatening to do so), as well as serious concerns about the human rights implications of the imprisonment of many students and journalists. Several other kinds of objections were also raised. For instance, Istanbul is inappropriate as a choice because it is situated at the interface of colliding tectonic plates that makes it vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Others respondents contended that if recreational appeal is part of Istanbul’s charm, then why not Las Vegas. It supposedly has a better claim than Istanbul as ‘it has something for everybody.’ My initial very tentative proposal of Istanbul was based on its extraordinary combination of qualifying features, especially its strategic inter-civilization geography, its capacity to be of the West and at the same apart from the West, and its cultural/religious/historical resources that seem unmatched in cumulative effect elsewhere, and give the city a cosmopolitan identity that recalls its days of multi-ethnic Ottoman imperial glory. Additionally, more than elsewhere, the Turkish political leadership has been alive to providing Istanbul with a world class infrastructure as it wishes to take advantage of its unique character.

 

Other objections to the proposal were more substantial, yet unconvincing to me. For instance, some pointed out that Turkey as a country of 80 million Muslims and Istanbul as a city estimated to have 15 million Muslims is not capable of representing the world, and that somehow a great European city would serve the peoples of world less controversially. There is of course an inherent problem arising because any urban space will partake of a particular religious, national, and ethnic identity, but if such a qualification were to be uniformly applied it would mean that there was no city on the planet that could ever serve as the world capital. The idea of having a capital city is a strictly soft power proposal, creating a symbolic meeting place for diverse cultures, religions, and political systems, and is offered as a building block for a global imaginary that befits the imperatives of moral and spiritual globalization. It is my opinion that the Turkish government over the course of the last decade has done better than any other country in relation to cities within its borders in creating at atmosphere of cosmopolitan hospitality and stature for the city of Istanbul.

 

A quite different objection is associated with Turkish membership in NATO and what that entails in relation to non-defensive military operations such as in Afghanistan ever since 2001, the regime-changing 2011 intervention in Libya, and the interference with the Syrian internal struggle over the course of the last two years. Such Turkish undertakings do seem to cast a shadow over any present undertaking to propose Istanbul as a global capital, and should probably be treated as a serious obstacle. If Turkey seeks to make Istanbul play its potential global role then it would need to rethink its geopolitical ties. Perhaps, there exists a decisive contradiction between such a Western oriented geopolitics and the kind of world identity that a global capital should aspire to achieve. Turkey has been up to now pursuing an equi-distance diplomacy, balancing its Western ties against its post-Cold War independence, as well as promoting a new geopolitics of soft power without relinquishing the residual role of the old geopolitics of hard power. The Arab upheavals since 2011 have seemed to make the transition to a soft power matrix more elusive for Turkey, and thus weaken arguments for Istanbul’s ascension to a status that overlooks its reality of being embedded in Turkish national sovereignty.

 

In summary, Istanbul is marvelously qualified from many perspectives to serve as the capital of the world, but cities cannot avoid being identified with the country in which they are physically located. The Turkish government in the last decade has done many things to enhance the role of Istanbul, but its own persisting problems are part of Istanbul’s reality, and to the extent these difficulties are not overcome it is hard to imagine any proposal of Istanbul as global capital getting very far in world public opinion. In effect, there is a Gordian Knot at the core of world order that ties the fate of the city to that of the nation, and most of the citizenry of particular countries would not have it any other way. To this extent, the modest

proposal of Istanbul as global capital, while tantalizing, does not seem capable of realization without the deterritorialization of the relationship between global cities and sovereign states, and if this ever happens, it will not be anytime soon.

 

This commentary on Istanbul arises from my own romance with the city during the past twenty years, entranced by its beauty, vitality, exotic features, the warmth and tenderness of its people, and the transcendent vision of the Turkishpolitical destiny set forth by its principal leaders. This kind of love affair has persisted despite the horrors of Istanbul’s traffic and the unpleasantness of its unhealthy air.

 

 

Turkey, the Region, and the West after the Elections

23 Jun

[This post is co-authored with Hilal Elver]

 


             There has been a dramatic shift in critical international responses to the current Turkish political leadership that has been recently highlighted by reactions to the resounding AKP electoral victory of June 12th. The earlier mantra of concern was expressed as variations on the theme that Turkey was at risk of becoming ‘a second Iran,’ that is, an anti-democratic theocratic state in which sharia law would dominate. Such a discrediting approach has itself been discredited to the extent that it is all but abandoned in serious discussions of the Turkish governing process.

 

            The new mantra of criticism is focused on the alleged authoritarian goals of the Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan. He is widely accused of seeking to shift the whole constitutional order of Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, and coupled with a little disguised scheme to become Turkey’s first president under the new constitution, and then look forward to being reelected the leader of the country for a second five year term. Some of these anxieties have receded since the AKP did not win the needed 2/3s majority in the parliament that would have enabled a new constitution to be adopted without needing to gain the consent of the citizenry through a referendum. In his victory speech on the night of the elections Erdogan went out of his way to reassure Turkish society, including those who voted against the AKP, that he will heed the message of the voters by seeking the widest possible participation in the constitution-making process with the aim of producing a consensus document that will satisfy a wide spectrum of Turks. It might be expected that such a process would likely preclude any shift to a presidential system, and would certainly make politically impossible the adoption of the strong French version, which does give a president extraordinary powers.

 

            From outside of Turkey the new line of criticism seems to reflect American and Israeli priorities and perspectives, and is not too closely related to Turkish realities. The tone and substance of this line was epitomized by a lead NY Times editorial published the day after the Turkish elections. After acknowledging some AKP achievements, including giving it credit for the flourishing Turkish economy and a successful reining in of the deep state, the editorial moved on to criticize “Mr. Edgogan’s increasingly confrontational foreign policies, which may play well at the polls, but they have proved costly for the country’s interests.” Such a comment by the supposedly authoritative and balanced NY Times is quite extraordinary for its display of ignorance and slyly disguised bias. After all, the hallmark of Turkish foreign policy during the Erdogan years, as developed under the inspired diplomatic leadership of the Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, has been ‘zero problems with neighbors’ as manifest in a series of conflict-resolving and reconciling diplomatic initiatives, and a broad conception of neighbor to include the Balkans, Central Asia, and the Caucuses, as well as the entire Arab world. It is possible to argue that this direction of non-confrontational foreign policy went too far in some instances, most notably Syria, and possibly Libya, and as a result have generated some serious challenges for Turkey.

 

            The only exception to this pattern of zero problems has been Israel, but here the NY Times once again displays an uniformed and opinionated outlook when it writes “Once-constructive relations with Israel have yielded to tit-for-tat  provocations and, if they continue, could threaten Turkey’s substantial trade with Israel.” It would be hard to compose a more misleading description of the deterioration of Turkish/Israeli relations. It should be remembered that prior to the Israeli attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, Turkey was doing its best to promote peace between Israel and Syria by acting as an intermediary, a role at the time appreciated by both parties. It is also quite outrageous to speak of “tit-for-tat provocations” when it was Israeli commandos that boarded in international waters a Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, carrying humanitarian goods for the long blockaded people of Gaza, and killed in cold blood nine Turkish citizens. Even here in responding to Israeli unlawfulness in this Flotilla Incident of May 31, 2010, Turkey has subsequently tried its best to calm the waters, asking Tel Aviv only for an apology and compensation paid to the families of the victims, as preconditions for the restoration of normal relations with Israel. It has been Israel that has up to now defiantly refused to make even these minimal gestures in the interest of reconciliation.  And recently Davutoglu has gone further, perhaps too far, in his dedication to peaceful relations by openly discouraging Turkish participation in plans for a second Freedom Flotilla at the end of June, asking activists to wait to see if the blockade is broken due to changes in the Egyptian approach at the Rafah Crossing. The latest indications are that the Mavi Marmara will join the second freedom flotilla.

 

            The NY Times goes even further in its Orientalist approach to Turkey, writing that “Ankara must discourage private Turkish groups from initiating a second blockade-running Gaza flotilla..” Why must it? Is it not the blockade, approaching its fourth anniversary, that is widely condemned as cruel and unlawful, a flagrant violation of the legal prohibition on collective punishment set forth in Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention? Should not putting such a demand to Turkey at least be balanced by a call on Israel to end the blockade? Given the failure of the UN or neighboring governments to protect the people of Gaza, should not members of civil society feel a duty to do so, and in democratic societies should not be hampered by their governments?

 

            The other foreign policy complaint in the Times’s editorial on Turkey deals with Iran. Here, of course echoing complaints from Washington as well as Tel Aviv, Turkey is blamed for playing “cozy games with Iran” that have “only encouraged Iran’s nuclear ambitions.” Perhaps wrongheaded, but hardly an example of Erdogan’s allegedly confrontational style! What NY Times obviously favors, not surprisingly, is confrontation, urging the Turkish government to “press Turkish companies and banks to enforce international sanctions against Iran.” What is at stake here is the foreign policy independence of Turkey. Its efforts to find a peaceful resolution of the dispute surrounding Iran’s nuclear program are clearly designed to lessen the tensions surrounding the present coercive diplomacy of the U.S. led coalition, and backed by the UN, that is based on sanctions and military threats. It is in Turkey’s clear national interest to avoid a military encounter that could eventuate in a damaging regional war that would be disastrous for Turkey, as well as dashing the hopes raised by the Arab Spring, while also using its diplomatic leverage to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, thereby producing an exceedingly dangerous situation for itself and others.

 

            Another Western criticism of the Erdogan’s approach is to blame Turkey for a diminishing prospect of accession to membership in the European Union. The Financial Times in their far more reasonable post-election editorial nevertheless appears to blame Turkey for “strained relations with the EU.” On what basis is not disclosed. What was not even discussed, but should be mentioned as the main explanation of the strained relations, is the rise of Islamophobia throughout Europe and reflected in public attitudes of governmental skepticism in Paris and Berlin, as well as elsewhere on the continent, about whether Turkey is a suitable candidate for membership, given its large Muslim population. It needs to be appreciated that Islamophobia in Europe while resurgent is not new. Recently, it had been associated with Turkophobia, in reaction to the Turkish guest workers that stayed on, and became a strong presence, often unwanted, in Germany. In the two earlier centuries prior to the 20th there existed European fear and loathing of an invading Ottoman Empire, and even earlier, of course, The Crusades with their marauding militarism.

 

            What emerges overall is this American led reluctance to accept Turkey as an independent regional force in the Middle East that has achieved enormous influence in recent years by relying on its own brand of soft power diplomacy. A dramatic indicator of this influence is the great popularity of Erdogan throughout the region, including among the youth who brought about the uprisings against authoritarian rule throughout the Arab world. It is an encouraging sign of the times that these new Arab champions of democracy are coming to Ankara and Istanbul, not Washington, Tel Aviv, or Paris, for guidance and inspiration.  Whether through the NATO intervention in Libya or the crude efforts to intimidate Iran, the West under faltering American leadership remains addicted to hard power statecraft, which no longer achieves its goals, although it continues to cause great suffering on the ground. It is time that the West stops lecturing Turkey, and starts to learn better what succeeds and what fails in 21st century foreign policy. A good place to start learning and listening might be Ankara!

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