The real target of Turkey’s soft power during COVID-19 is domestic

As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, Turkey has garnered global attention with its “generous and benevolent” medical donations. Ankara has sent medical supplies to more than 70 countries across the globe during the pandemic, including to the United States and to Britain.

Many experts and analysts consider the aid to be part of Ankara’s strategy to leverage its soft power. At first glance, Turkey's efforts may look like a smart tactic to repair its tarnished image in the West.

Yet, Ankara's soft power diplomacy comes at a time when Turkey’s global reputation has sharply declined in the aftermath of rising authoritarianism, growing economic crisis, and worsening diplomatic relations.

The Turkish authorities are fully aware that the nation-branding efforts of a country with so deeply rooted internal contradictions will not resonate with the international community, especially in the West. In this regard, Turkey’s projection of soft power seems driven by more domestic political concerns than international ambitions.

In political scientist Joseph Nye’s definition, soft power simply stands for the ability to “making others want what we want”, rather than coercing or financially inducing them. Nye also highlights the importance of a free and autonomous civil society for the countries that seek to promote a positive image beyond their borders. Moreover, soft power is based on certain domestic standards and liberal norms in the nations seeking to enhance their influence abroad.

Needless to say, Turkey significantly lacks many requisites to sustain a positive image among a foreign audience. Democracy, the rule of law, and human rights in Turkey have been severely undermined for many years.

Beyond that, Turkey’s international reputation has been seriously damaged over a range of issues, including the incursion against the Kurdish forces in Syria, military activities in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the purchase of the Russian S-400 defence system.

In this context, Turkey's ability to enhance its reputation among an international audience is highly limited.

So, what might be the main motivation for the Turkish authorities to dispatch medical assistance around the world?

First, the Turkish government is seeking to rally and mobilise domestic support to secure the regime’s legitimacy. Now more than ever, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs to increase his public appeal at home in the face of the growing economic downturn. Given the economy has become a major vulnerability for Erdoğan, renewed economic turmoil could be a serious blow to his slowly crumbling political power.

Against this backdrop, Erdoğan has seized the opportunity to present himself as a capable leader in the struggle against the pandemic in order to galvanize domestic support. To achieve this, pro-government mouthpieces consistently propagate the narrative that Turkey is not only well-positioned to successfully tackle the pandemic at home during a time of chaos in the rest of the world, but that it also has the capacity to offer aid to major nations abroad.

Erdoğan is still struggling to convince the public of his ability to keep Turkey strong, since the economic indicators point to the country heading in the opposite direction. In the meantime, Turkey has launched a series of massive operations to repatriate its citizens from all over the world since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Both aid campaigns and repatriation operations provide fertile ground for Erdoğan to portray Turkey as politically and economically strong.

The medical aids also seek to achieve the long-standing goal among Turkish elites to strengthen the sense of national pride and self-esteem by cultivating neo-Ottoman nostalgia. As ‘the successor to the Ottomans’, the government has crafted a national narrative that primarily appeals to the public’s sense of charity.

The narrative that has taken hold among many supporters of the government is that the ‘benevolent’ Turkish nation is once again extending a helping hand to people in need across the world, as happened in the ‘glorious past of Ottoman Empire’. 

In short, Turkey’s nation-branding efforts during the pandemic are unlikely to yield tangible results anytime soon beyond its borders.

Without a liberal democratic order and steady economic growth, Turkey’s aid diplomacy will neither appeal to the foreign audience nor repair its tarnished image of the country in the West, but it will help bolster the New Sultan Erdoğan’s eroding popularity at home.

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