Misreading Turkey: the false promise of 'rational choice theory'

The economic crisis in Turkey is worsening.

However, many national and international experts misread Turkey’s crisis, resulting in wrong expectations about the possible decisions of its political actors.

As an example, let us look at the Pastor Andrew Brunson case once again.

Many analysts including those who work for prestigious international companies expected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to compromise with the United States and not to risk his country’s fragile economy.

But that is not what happened and Erdoğan rejected a compromise.

As the Brunson case has revealed once again, what misled national and international analysts on Turkey is their focus on the rational choice theory.

Attached to this theory as the main analytical tool, experts always calculate that political actors in Turkey behave in certain ways.

Nevertheless, this unquestioned loyalty to the rational choice theory has frequently created serious miscalculations on Turkish politics.

To summarise, rational choice theory assumes that people normally make decisions in order to achieve the highest amount of personal utility.

Accordingly, Erdoğan should have released Brunson right away since such an action was the best possible decision to secure Turkey’s and Erdoğan’s economic interests.

But Erdoğan rejected the U.S. proposal even though the prolongation of tension over Brunson generates serious repercussions for the economy. The Turkish lira quickly descended to historic lows.

Erdoğan may latter give a green light to release of Brunson, but the lessons drawn so far from the case reveal how experts’ focus on rational choice theory misled them on Turkish politics. Undoubtedly, rational choice theory is an important approach, but its adoption almost as the only analytical framework generates seriously reductionist conclusions.

Remember how the miscalculations of economic analysts causes cause big financial losses in the Greek financial crisis. Global companies guided by very well educated analysts lost billions of dollars.

An analogy could now be drawn between Turkish and the Greek cases. Many very well educated economic analysts fail to read Turkish politics and this could also result in large financial losses for companies that have invested in Turkey.

Under the impact of rational choice theory, analysts tirelessly predict that political actors in Turkey would always make their decisions according to economic interests.

For example, predictions such as “Turkey will never impose capital controls” or “Turkey will never split from the West” are typical examples of such rational choice theory based readings.

But a purely rational choice based analysis of Turkish politics is misleading on two grounds:

To begin with, political actors may prioritise ideological or cultural factors when making decisions that could never be predicted by a standard Western rational choice theory model.

For example, in Turkey, political actors may decide in line with their ideological preferences even if their decisions may cause serious economic costs to them.

Therefore, it is obvious that many Turkey analysts fail to incorporate sociological and ideological parameters while reviewing this country, resulting usually in false and reductionist predictions about Turkish politics.

To give a fresh example let us consider Erdoğan’s speech in Bayburt last week when many analysts expected him to try to ease tension with the United States and help the economy.

But Erdoğan continued his harsh rhetoric both on United States and on economic matters causing further deterioration in the Turkish currency. By all standards of rational choice theory, Erdoğan’s speech in Bayburt is an “irrational” behaviour.

But, on the other hand, Erdoğan’s Bayburt speech is a textbook case of how a political leader prioritises ideology over economic concerns.

Secondly, rationality and interest are contested terms.

Let us return to the Brunson case again. According to the rational choice theory, the expected scenario is for Erdoğan to compromise with the United States.

But what Erdoğan thinks are rational and in his interest might be completely different. The prolongation of the Brunson case and of the tension with the United States might be a perfect opportunity for Erdoğan to explain the deepening economic crisis in Turkey to his constituency.

In so doing, Erdoğan will be able to explain the economic crisis as a result of an imperialist assault by Western powers like the United States.

The ongoing crisis with the United States may even help Erdoğan suppress opposition to his handling of the economy. Erdoğan will quickly label them as collaborators with imperialists, i.e. the United States.

Ironically, what we define as irrational might be the most rational option for Erdoğan in securing his political survival.

As we learn from cases such as Iran, Venezuela and even Hungary, political actors’ understanding of rationality might be very different when they can risk splitting from the system in the name of the political survival of their regimes.

Turkey is still part of the Western system, but Erdoğan is a political leader who can risk splitting from the West if he believes he needs to do it to survive.

Yet the case of Erdoğan is no longer about the fate of a politician. Erdoğan is now a leader with a nascent Islamic regime behind him. Legitimising his new regime is an essential task for Erdoğan’s political career. And such a task will always make Erdoğan consider ideological concerns as critical parameters in his decision-making.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.