Turkish Public Diplomacy: Study and Practice

Recently, I was invited to be a panelist at a public diplomacy panel at Galatasaray University. Together with Phil Seib of USC, Asli Sancar and Dilruba Catalbas Urper of Galatarasay University, we discussed the state of Turkish public diplomacy. My talk focused on the gap between the study and practice of public diplomacy in the country. Below you can find a summary of my talk.

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Bridge No More? Turkish Public Diplomacy and Branding under the AKP Government

With its geographic location between Asia and Europe, and with its identity as a predominantly Muslim yet secular-democratic country, Turkey has established its role as a bridge between the East and the West for years. Changes in the domestic political landscape in the last decade have put Turkey in an even more prominent position in the international arena. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the country is an aspiring power in the greater Middle East region. With the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, Justice and Development Party) government, Turkey has seen unprecedented institutional changes done in the name of democracy, witnessed the decreasing influence of the military over civilian politics, and enjoyed impressive economic growth. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s introduction of a well-devised “zero-problem with neighbors” policy, has aimed to strengthen relations with neighboring countries and to increase Turkish presence in parts of the world that has been long ignored by previous administrations.

This article is cross-posted from e-IR Journal. The original article can be accessed here.



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My two cents on Turkish Public Diplomacy

Around two years ago, (and I cannot believe it has been two years already!), I tried to outline the obstacles and challenges for Turkish public diplomacy. During the last two years, several think-tanks, non-government organizations, as well a governmental institutions started working on understanding, discussing, and implementing the concept of public diplomacy in the Turkish political scene. Based on what I learned during my own public diplomacy practice, and my studies, I have a couple of recommendations to ensure Turkish public diplomacy is built on strong grounds.

Short term visitors from Egypt (Picture from @BasbakanlikKDK)


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Theory and Practice in Public Diplomacy: Diplomatic dish-washing

For the last couple of months, I have been working on the latest project of Turkayfe.org – our online coffeehouse project. The website, which started out as an online “social diplomacy” / place branding project is going offline, and meeting people on the street with “Mobile Turkish Coffee House” project.

Mobile Turkish Coffee House in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC

Mobile Turkish Coffee House in front of the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC

Turkayfe.orgstarted out as an idea in May 2009, and the website went live in May 2010. From our very early days, we did our best to learn from our mistakes, and to improve our project. As a doctoral candidate studying public diplomacy, and a dilettante practitioner; I tried to use my practical experience in my academic studies and vice-versa.

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Somalia, you’re welcome!

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…

Is he really shaking hands with the kid?

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The Story of Turkey and Public Diplomacy

According to some sources, Turkish government has been on a public diplomacy offense since 2008. There have been some changes in Turkish understanding of diplomacy, and some attempts to launch public diplomacy efforts. Public Diplomacy Agency, likely to be directed by Ibrahim Kalin – Erdogan’s chief foreign affairs advisor, a Georgetown alum – is being established. MFA and the President have their Twitter/Facebook accounts (in Turkish and no, they don’t reply to anything)…This is a promising start but we need to overcome several obstacles to be succeed in our public diplomacy efforts.

So, please let me tell you the story of Turkey and Public Diplomacy, especially the story of the obstacles.

The first and biggest obstacle, from my point of view, is AKP’s recent foreign policy understanding. When AKP came to power in 2002, Ahmet Davutoglu, the current Minister of Foreign Affairs, introduced the understanding of Strategic Depth. Basically speaking, the idea was having ‘zero problems’ with the neighbors, becoming a regional and global power by using Turkey’s unique geopolitical and geostrategic position. However, the implications of this understanding seem to take Turkey closer to the Middle East, closer to being an ‘Islamic’ country. Even though AKP, including Ibrahim Kalin, keeps telling us that Turkey is a bridge between the East and the West, the recent developments (and my most recent experiences in Turkey) make this claim very difficult to believe. Long story short, there is a belief that Turkey has been moving towards becoming a more Islamic state. In other words, recent political developments shake the fundamentals of Turkish Republic, and Turkish identity. For several individuals, it is very very difficult to believe AKP’s claims.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey leaves the session, while David Ignatius (FLTR), Associate Editor and Columnist, The Washington Post, USA, Shimon Peres, President of Israel, Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General, United Nations, New York, Amre Moussa, Secretary-General, League of Arab States, Cairo, look on, during the session 'Gaza: The Case for Middle East Peace' at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2009. Copyright by World Economic Forum.

Especially demonstrated by Israeli-Turkish relations, AKP seems to be eager to defend the rights of Muslims everywhere. Erdogan’s one-minute tirade in Davos, or the Mavi Marmara disaster and the following events could easily be interpreted as moving away from the Western culture. In other words, AKP does not have credibility for certain audiences, moreover, they are aggressively defending the East (vs. the West). It is not easy to promote Turkey’s role as a cultural bridge through PD when AKP seems to be openly taking sides.

Another problem is the current Turkish foundations and immigrants in Europe. I already discussed the negative role of Turkish immigrants. During the recent years, Turkish foundations contributed to this negative identity. Deniz Feneri and IHH had several problems with local authorities. Deniz Feneri was charged with fraud, whereas IHH was found to have links with Hamas. Fethullah Gulen Foundation, on the other hand, has been actively working in several countries for decades. The foundation owns ‘Turkish’ schools in many countries and organizes Turkish Olympics – yet the Turkish image promoted by Gulen foundation is again not in line with the cultural bridge role.

Moving away from identity politics, it is important to point out that Turkey has several communication obstacles, too. For starters, open communication is a revolutionary understanding for us. As MFA’s and the President’s online social media accounts show, state officials are not willing to engage in a dialogue. Turkey seems to have a one-way communication understanding of public diplomacy.

Lastly, we still lack the necessary knowledge, skills, monetary resources, and political stability to execute long-term public diplomacy projects. As I discussed above, AKP has a different understanding of Turkey, so do other political parties. This is why I cannot foresee a project carried out by several governments, prime ministers, and presidents.

In short, it is very difficult and problematic to promote Turkey, to launch Turkish PD project, and to brand Turkey. Our history includes several conflicts with our neighbors. Recent political developments exacerbated the situation. If Turkey wants to use soft power, we need to define Turkey’s role/identity, establish credibility in the eyes of the audience, and create long-term non-partisan PD strategies.

Altering the Discourse of Conflict in Cyprus

I was trying to find a paper that I wrote about THY (Turkish Airlines) and while googling THY and Efe Sevin, I ran into Yelena’s post about (Armenian) Diasporan public diplomacy. The comments section was maybe even more intriguing than the post itself. The discussion between Yelena and anonymous Turkish guy over the importance of rhetoric, the question of truth, and the political nature of the Armenian-Turkish-Azeri conflict(s) reminded me of a post that I was supposed to write – well – three months ago. My topic is how public diplomacy could and should be used to support the conflict resolution attempts in Cyprus.

I presented a paper entitled “Altering the Discourse of Conflict in Cyprus: Recognition and Resolution through Public Diplomacy” at the 9th METU Conference on International Relations in TRNC. Basically, I examine the dominant rhetorical strategies employed by official Greek, Turkish, Greek Cypriot, and Turkish Cypriot sources. I discuss the outcomes of negative discourses – with an aim to prove that the Cyprus conflict cannot be resolved as long as the competing narratives of different nations continue their existence. I argue that public diplomacy can be used “as a feasible political communication tool to alter the negativity of the discourses with the ultimate aim of resolving the conflict.”

Rhetorical strategies: All parties involved in the conflict have some common rhetorical strategies. In other words, when parties want to ‘encode’ certain kind of messages, they usually employ one of the two following strategies.


Parties try to show themselves as the victims and the other party/parties as aggressors. This strategy is mainly used when parties ‘frame’ the conflict.


When there is a need to justify a certain action, parties usually claim that the other party/parties’ ‘former act caused the subsequent act’*.

Negative discourses: These rhetorical strategies support the growth of negative discourses within the conflict. There are four important (meaning constructing an obstacle in the conflict resolution process) outcomes:

Multiple mediated realities:

There is no one truth or history. There are several different accounts of what has happened in Cyprus, and what constitutes the Cyprus Conflict. Parties believe their account is the ‘right’ one, while other accounts are pure propaganda products.

Constructed national identities:

Negative discourse is part of the national identity. Cyprus conflict has a fundamental place in Turkish/Greek Cypriot, Turkish and Greek national identities. The memories of the conflict are still being reproduced to support the national identities.

Rigid negotiation positions:

Given the multiple mediated realities, and the essential part of the conflict in national identities, it is not surprising to find out that parties have very rigid negotiation positions which leaves little or no space for bargaining.

International organizations:

As we don’t know what the conflict is, cannot clearly name ‘victims’ or ‘aggressors’, and cannot foresee a resolution; the role of the IOs in the island is not clear.

What can public diplomacy do?
Practically, public diplomacy is not a magical wand (- even though sometimes it is mistaken for one). Public diplomacy, and grassroots movements on the island and among the involved parties will put an end to the reproduction of negative discourses. The dialogue between parties might consolidate the competitive conflict narratives. PD might help the parties to re-write the history of the island based on facts rather than on victimization and provocation.

In short, let’s know the limits of public diplomacy – let’s not expect to reach perpetual peace just by executing pd projects. But, when there are multiple accounts of reality in a conflict, any resolution attempt without PD is very unlikely to succeed.

*In my paper, I used Benoit’s Image Restoration theory. Please see Benoit, W. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies : a theory of image restoration strategies. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

This blog post is also posted on http://placebranding.ning.com/