Diffusing Liberal Market and Democratic Values: Assessing Turkey's 'Soft Power' in Transforming its Neighborhood

30 Pages Posted: 19 Jul 2010 Last revised: 6 Sep 2010

See all articles by Kemal Kirisci

Kemal Kirisci

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: 2010


The aim of this paper is to address a question that at first may seem unusual: does or can Turkey have a role to play in assisting or diffusing democracy in its neighborhood? The idea of Turkey as a partner that could contribute to democracy diffusion and promotion may at first be puzzling. Actually, a leading scholar of democracy promotion, Richard Youngs, immediate reaction to the idea was more like along the lines of Turkey being associated with “non-diffusion” of democracy. Turkey is not exactly a bastion of pluralist democracy let alone a declared agent for diffusing democracy into its neighborhood. Yet, in policy circles there is also a long tradition of citing Turkey as a “model”. Diamond takes the idea of Turkey as a “model” of democracy going back to the early 1970s but notes how Turkish democracy drifted into trouble especially with the violence and instability of the late 1970s followed by a military coup in 1980. He underlines how in spite of an initial round of economic and political reforms in 1987 when Turkey applied for EU membership, Turkey was at best an “illiberal democracy”. While the history of Turkish democracy is more than half a century long, it is clearly characterized by ups and downs. Turkey’s engagement with the EU did improve and liberalize its democracy. Currently, Freedom House lists Turkey only as an “electoral” but not “liberal democracy. But, as Youngs, points out “Democracy has been increasingly acknowledged to be less a simple absolute – either entirely present or fully absent -… and more a matter of degree, with states possessing different strong and weak attributes along a spectrum of democratic quality”. Does that mean Turkey could be a promoter of democracy in its neighborhood?

The thesis of this paper is that in spite of an absence of experience in democracy assistance and deficiencies in its own democracy Turkey by “default” is actually involved in a modest exercise of democracy diffusion. The “default” diffusion of democracy from Turkey is mediated through at least three channels: demonstrative effect, various government initiatives that indirectly address democracy promotion issues and the transnational activities of Turkish civil society. The paper will also argue that the very fact that Turkish democracy is a “work in progress” project is in itself an asset from the perspective of cooperation with recipients or targets of democracy promotion. It diffuses the tension resulting from the real or perceived hierarchical relations between donor and recipient and engenders a sense of solidarity. At a time when a debate in the US and the EU on reforming democracy promotion and assistance policies is expanding Turkey could well be considered as a partner and an asset. Engaging Turkey can contribute to the reform process of democracy promotion, bring to democracy promotion in Turkey’s neighborhood a value added and also assist Turkey in broadening and deepening its own democracy.

The paper is composed of three sections. The first maps out domestic political changes that have helped create a capacity for the diffusion of democratic values and entrepreneurship. Particular attention is given to examining the emergence of Turkish channels of diffusion such as trade, movement of people, government policies and civil society. The second section surveys the reasons that have brought about these sea changes in Turkey. These reasons will be grouped into those emanating from the international, regional and domestic levels. The third section addresses the issue of “impact” of Turkey in terms of democracy support in its neighborhood through the aforementioned three “channels” of diffusion. The empirical part of the analysis is primarily based on a set of interviews held with government officials, civil society representatives and experts in Turkey as well as in a number of neighboring countries.

Suggested Citation

Kirisci, Kemal, Diffusing Liberal Market and Democratic Values: Assessing Turkey's 'Soft Power' in Transforming its Neighborhood (2010). APSA 2010 Annual Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1644657

Kemal Kirisci (Contact Author)

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