I, as a research, do not study Turkey. I even don’t do case studies. My current research is more at a conceptual level, where I try to map the current actors and subject in international relations. But thanks to my current government’s perfect understanding of aid diplomacy, public diplomacy, and nation branding; I find myself writing about Turkey quite often. When my PM decided to visit Somalia during Ramadan and take his mustache, family, friends, several businessmen, members of the parliaments, and Turkish celebrities – in short everything the Somalians wanted to see -, I had to write…
As the Google Trends graph on the left clearly demonstrates, Turkey and Turks have always been interested (!) in Somalia and have wanted to learn more about the country through online resources. Similarly, newspapers have consistently (!) covered the situation in the country. In more serious terms, it is obvious that Somalia became an important issue for Turkish public opinion pretty much after Erdogan decided to start talking about the country and the situation. This visit was expected to “[draw] international attention to the plight of the drought-stricken country and Turkey’s leadership in the humanitarian crisis“. Erdogan and his groupies filled up two planes and landed in Mogadishu for a one-day trip.
When we take the visit at its face value, it does not make any sense. Yes, Somalia is definitely in need of international aid – but what Erdogan did was organizing a publicized high level visit to bring a one-time aid. Given the fact that Erdogan called Somalia a real test for civilization, pledged to re-open the Turkish embassy in the country, got Organization for Islamic Conference on board for more aid, and wanted to improve Turkish image, let’s try to look at this issue from a strategic point of view. This visit creates three different question marks in my minds:
Domestic question marks:
This charity drive is taking place during Ramadan, when people’s religious feelings are at a peak point. It is very difficult to evaluate whether government is taking advantage of this religious environment to get donations. Besides, Deniz Feneri case is still going on – so, charities might not be as trustworthy as they seem to be…
Domestic breaking point:
What about our people?! As I tried to show with the Google Trends graph, we don’t care about Somalia – not even a little bit. We heard about the country in 90s with the UN force, then forgot about it for a couple of years, then remembered with the pirate attacks. Government’s decision to give around $200m to Somalia is very difficult to defend given the fact that there are way too many people in need of such an aid in Turkey.
International question marks:
Now, there are a couple of international issues. Why did Turkey decide to help Somalia? It is not a neighboring country. It is not the only war-torn, poverty-struck country. So, why? Well, two answers come up: religion and oil. These answers give rise to several conspiracy theories: is Turkey trying to become the ‘leader’ of Islamic countries? Or let’s take another step further: is another power (mainly the US) trying to situate Turkey as the leader, is another power trying to access oil resources?
International breaking point:
Turkey, out of the blue, gives lots of money to Somalia – does not address any security issues, does not address any development issues but puts a great show on stage. Can we see Turkey as a credible actor in international arena after this act? I highly doubt that…
Public diplomacy question marks:
Did Erdogan try to gain ‘street cred’ in Islamic countries? After Iran, Libya, Egypt, and Syria; firstly this aid is not enough. Moreover, Somalia was not an important issue in Islamic agenda. Did Erdogan try to lead the West by example? Very unlikely. Several Western countries already have standing aid and development programs and are helping Somalia.
Public diplomacy breaking point
Erdogan’s declared message is ‘Somalia is a test for civilization’ and ‘Turkey will lead aid efforts’. Both statements are false and don’t mean much for the Western or Middle Eastern audiences. Somalia is not the only test for civilization and several countries have been actively helping the country for decades right now. This extravagant visit is not likely to make Turkey a ‘donor’ (and definitely ‘leader’) country in the eyes of the Western audiences. The issue is not ‘hardcore’ enough for the Middle Eastern countries. Therefore, even though I accept that an aid is likely to improve Turkey’s image, this improvement will be quite limited.
Long story short, I hope Erdogan and others with him enjoyed their time in Mogadishu, and took lots of pictures. Because this trip will not generate any more influence than a touristic visit in long term. But well, who knows, we might get another term of temporary UNSC seat thanks to our African friends….