Huffpost WorldPost
Brent E. Sasley Headshot

The Passions of Erdoğan

Posted: Updated:

Students of international relations spend much time and energy studying leaders of countries, in order to be able to understand, explain, and if possible anticipate their foreign policies. Some of these leaders, though, confound our best efforts by alternating between what seem to be careful reasoned policy and then veering wildly in the opposite direction by letting their unfiltered emotions get the best of them.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one such leader: in particular, his insistence on using emotional and affective frameworks to structure his decision-making. And yet, at times he is capable of (or interested in) containing his emotional reactions.

His early life was suffused with religious inclinations. The story is told of his time in primary school: once when the headmaster called students to pray, Erdoğan was the only one to respond. He later enrolled in an imam-hatip (prayer-leader and preacher) school. As a good soccer player, Erdoğan was offered a position on Turkey's top team, but only if he shaved his beard. Considered a sign of a pious Muslim, he refused to shave, forfeiting the position.

These religious inclinations and his stubbornness in meeting them remained as he moved into politics. He joined the youth branch of the Milli Nizam Partisi (National Order Party), the country's first avowedly Islamist political party. In their 1997 book, Turkey Unveiled: Atatürk and After, Nicole and Hugh Pope note that when he became mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan is reported to have said that "women should try first to find fulfilment in family life, and, failing that, should confine themselves to voluntary work for the party." He is cited as asserting, in July 1996, that democracy was not a goal, but an instrument for the Islamists, implying a lack of commitment to the secular state.

He might, then, have been expected to follow Turkey's first Islamist Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, in adopting a rigid and confrontational policy based on his affective attachment to Islam both in the domestic public sphere and in Turkey's foreign policy. But Erdoğan proved far more flexible and adaptable: he learned from the confrontation Erbakan created with the Kemalist state, which led to Erbakan's ouster and a crackdown on Islamists throughout the country.

When he came to power in 2002, Erdoğan repeatedly and publicly proclaimed his loyalty to the secular state, the constitution, and Ataturk's legacy, and declared his wish to avoid confrontations with the military. He was largely successful.

It is clear, then, that Erdoğan can control his passions when he wants to. But there are times when he seems unable to: when his emotional reactions get the better of him, and suffuse his public rhetoric on foreign affairs and infuse his specific foreign policies.

To some degree, this is both natural and useful. Researchers have found that our emotions can provide strategic benefit for us, acting as a form of survival mechanism. Fear, for example, can be a powerful motivator preventing us from engaging in potentially harmful activity.

Sometimes our emotions make us better as individuals, by prompting us to "do the right thing." Erdoğan's outrage on behalf of Palestinians and Syrians is admirable, however slow or uneven his response to both has been.

Lately, though, Erdoğan appears to have given himself over to his emotions completely, without incorporating a "thinking" element. His reaction to the decision in the French parliament, on criminalizing denial of the Armenia Genocide, has been about as un-diplomatic as possible. (His Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, has been no less intemperate.)

In response, Erdoğan has withdrawn Turkey's ambassador to France, suspended political relations, demanded a severing of economic ties, and cancelled joint military activities. In all of this, Erdoğan has verbally abused France.

Erdoğan's anger is completely understandable. As Joost Lagendijk has pointed out, the issue is far more complex than is warranted by a simple parliamentary vote. However, Turkey is not in a position to let its Prime Minister's negative emotions govern its foreign policy. In this case, pure emotional reactions harm, not help, Turkey.

Faddish proclamations notwithstanding, Turkey's hoped-for position as a regional leader is unlikely to pan out. Relations with Syria, once the cornerstone for Turkey's "zero problems" foreign policy, have clearly deteriorated as the Syrian regime has ignored Ankara's calls for an end to the killing of its citizens. The strategic relationship with Israel has all but ended, while relations with Iran, too, have declined as Turkey has struggled to adapt to the fluid dynamics of Middle Eastern politics. Meanwhile, the government's anger and fear at domestic criticism of its policies has heightened in recent weeks, leading to a mass arrest of Turkish journalists that has the European Union expressing increasing concern over Turkey's appropriateness as a candidate for membership.

The regional and global system is in flux. The last time Turkey faced a similar situation was the end of the Cold War. Then, Ankara let itself be carried away with hope and joy that its position at the center of several volatile and strategic regions would earn it a privileged seat at the geopolitical table.

That didn't happen. And today, Turkey faces a similar condition, but with a prime minister more prone to react from his gut without including other calculations. In this case, his emotions have no strategic value, and instead are endangering Turkey's regional influence and ability to meet its broader security and foreign policy interests. Erdoğan, and his government, should step back and reassess. Clearly, it needs to react to the French decision on the Armenian genocide. But it should do so more cautiously, with more thought put into the specifics of the reaction.

This should be part of a broader reassessment of its foreign policy, with a new framework to be put in place that accounts -- as best as possible -- for the unstable nature of regional and global politics. Only by doing so will Turkey be able to claim a leadership role in world affairs.

First published at Mideast Matrix, on Dec. 30, 2011.