Guest Article by Efe Sevin
As I portray several other personae in my daily life, I sometimes forget the fact that I am trained as an international relations scholar. The recent talks between Syria and Turkey reminded me that fact, as well as the necessity to discuss a nation brands in terms of global politics and soft power capabilities. What is the Turkish brand in Syria and how does this perception affect Turkey’s role in the region?
Following the June general elections, I wrote another post about Turkish identity, the government, and soft power. Yet, that post focused on inconsistencies between projected image and domestic demands, and had a pro-Western, pro-secular stance. In this post, I (at least aim to) discuss the Syrian reaction to the projected image with a very basic market analogy. Turkey is trying to sell its ideas to Syria in a political market. How does Turkish image influence this transaction and market structure?
According to Turks, and the Turkish media; we are the beacon of democracy and human rights in the region*, are not affected by global economic crisis, saved Hama by talking, protected Londoners during the riots, and, in addition to all these, have built up soft power resources through TV shows. It is not important whether these messages are specifically crafted by the government to mislead target audiences or they reflect government’s conception of reality. At the end of the day, the quasi-official Turkish projected image is that of an invincible regional super-mega power.
Turkey has delivered several messages to Assad’s regime, and asked them to stop the violence. Yet, Turkey’s zero-problem foreign policy strategy, which -I assume- was initially suggested in a 4th grader’s essay, breaks Turkey’s current stance. Similar to the Libyan case, Turkey failed to react firmly to the events in Syria. Besides, during the last couple of years, two countries started to cooperate on several different levels, eased visa regulations, and became what one might call the international relations equivalent of best buddies.Therefore, the projected image is not likely to be welcomed by the Syrian audience. Let’s take a closer look at the buyer.
Assads have been ruling Syria for nearly four decades. Influenced and encouraged by other developments in the region, Syrians demanded a new, more democratic regime. Assad, on the other hand, reacted simply by oppressing the protestors. While doing his best to crack down the opposition, Bashar Assad did not forget international community, and his obligation to communicate with foreign audiences. He started talking about new elections and new parties.
Now, when we are talking about soft power, there are two models of influence (cf. Nye, 2011). Turkey might directly influence governmental elite to change behavior. Or Turkey might try to influence the masses, which in return will pressure the elite to change behavior. Given the fact that the masses side with Turkish demands, Turkey needs to use its soft power to directly influence decision makers.
Even though the projected image is that of an almighty one, Turkey has a proven track record of adjusting its position according to the ideas of other actors (cf. the cases of Egypt and Libya). On one hand, Turkey is explicitly trying to change Syria’s preferences, and is trying to strengthen its stance with its image as a regional power. On the other hand, there is no aspect of its project image that has to do anything with stable foreign policy objectives. Will Syria listen to us because we saved Londoners? Will Assad change his policies because Turkey is -let’s go with clichés here- a bridge between the East and the West? In short, does it make sense to invest in branding for the sake of political power? The short answer is yes-provided that you know how to do so.
Turkey’s projected image in the region is based on ‘low’ politics issues and political ‘fluff’ pieces (i.e. Erdogan’s one-minute show). Despite what AKP’s deputies might think, regardless of its strength, Turkish brand is not likely to help Turkish government in this case as it lacks the necessary substance. There is a need to have a strong brand image based on what a country is trying to achieve. A friendly nation image will not generate soft power, neither will a reputation as a good trade partner. If Turkey wants to position itself as a regional power, it needs to focus on political and foreign-policy related aspects of its images. In very simple terms, Turkey assumes Mercedes can be a very successful ice-cream vendor.
One important implication of this conclusion is on measurement of nation brands. For instance, ranking #3 in Nation Brands Index does not show anything. Third place does not give you soft power, does not make you attractive to investors. There is a need to better understand what the brand stands for, instead of taking brand as a whole. I’ll try to elaborate this point in my next post.