Tim Lowell
Feb 17 2018

Turkey’s power is getting sharper

The long-popular distinction between hard, or military, power on one hand, and the soft power of an attractive intellectual, civilising and democratic culture on the other has recently been added to with the introduction of the concept of “sharp power” by Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig in the journal Foreign Affairs.

Walker and Ludwig use the term to describe the employment of non-military means, not as an attempt to win support and admiration from powers overseas, but as a way of deliberately projecting a distorted image of the world in order to confuse and divide foreign countries.

“Contrary to some of the prevailing analysis, the influence wielded by Beijing and Moscow through initiatives in the spheres of media, culture, think-tanks, and academia is not a ‘charm offensive,’ as the author Joshua Kurlantzick termed it,” Walker and Ludwig wrote.

“Nor is it an effort to ‘share alternative ideas’ or ‘broaden the debate,’ as the editorial leadership at the Russian and Chinese state information outlets suggest about themselves. It is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centres on distraction and manipulation. These powerful and ambitious authoritarian regimes, which systematically suppress political pluralism and free expression to maintain power at home, are increasingly applying the same principles internationally.”

Joseph Nye, the scholar who had first coined the term “soft power,” embraced the new concept.

“The manipulation of ideas, political perceptions, and electoral processes has a long history,” he said. “Both the United States and the Soviet Union resorted to such methods during the Cold War. Authoritarian governments have long tried to use fake news and social disruption to reduce the attractiveness of democracy,” he wrote in a response article in Foreign Affairs.

“What’s new is not the basic model; it’s the speed with which such disinformation can spread and the low cost of spreading it. Electrons are cheaper, faster, safer, and more deniable than spies. With its armies of paid trolls and botnets, along with outlets such as Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, Russian intelligence, after hacking into the e-mails of the Democratic National Committee and senior Clinton campaign officials, could distract and disrupt news cycles week after week.”

In his article, Nye emphasised that sharp power should not be fought with sharp power: the authoritarian and dishonest methods that sharp power requires reduce both the quality of a democracy and the attractiveness of a culture to outsiders – the soft power – that enemy nations are targeting in the first place.

It is therefore no surprise that Turkey’s switch from soft power politics to sharp power methods largely took place in the context of the growing authoritarianism of the early part of the present decade, when partisans of the government felt under more and more pressure from the outside world.

A clumsy early example that set the stage was a website called the Kebab and Camel. The premise of the site was that foreign journalists in Turkey were acting on prejudice, painting the country as becoming authoritarian because their “in-group” of wealthy secularists were resentful at the growing power, success and freedom of their religious neighbours. Despite occasionally scoring a direct hit on a piece of misinformation, it had done little to damage the reputations of the Washington Post or The Times by the time its authors were smeared within Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles as part of a plot to replace Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with then-Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.

That smear, credible sources suggest, arose within the iconic “Pelican mansion” on the shores of the Bosporus, where a sharper engine of sharp power was being powered up: a public relations company named Bosphorus Global, which runs dozens of Twitter accounts and many websites devoted to targeting perceived enemies of Turkey and its leader.

FactCheckArmenia.com, a website run by another group with close ties to the Turkish government, went so far as to hire skywriters to deny the Armenian genocide above New York while dancers wearing Turkish-flag T-shirts performed a show below.

This is without considering the incredible growth of government-sponsored media outlets, as well as media owned in name by some of Erdoğan’s closest building contractor allies, which a State Department spokeswoman in October – and not entirely incorrectly – described as “a government-private partnership”.

These outlets could have chosen to go largely down the route of soft power, aiming to be the new BBC or Al Jazeera, but instead their coverage has become more and more filled with attacks and sometimes disinformation.

The former route was plied by the now-defunct Gülen movement English-language daily Today’s Zaman, which long remained pro-AKP until the movement began to prepare for an existential fight against the government in early 2013. Its coverage of Turkey was intended to project soft power, attract business and tourism, and highlight the sides of government politicians’ arguments that were most palatable to the outside world.

“Through sharp power, the generally unattractive values of authoritarian systems – which encourage a monopoly on power, top-down control, censorship, and coerced or purchased loyalty – are projected outward, and those affected are not so much audiences as victims,” Walker and Ludwig wrote.

In other words, it becomes a more difficult task to promote the ‘soft power’ virtues of a young, vibrant society, a well-placed economy, and an attractive culture when the screams of the victim are in earshot.