Seeing like an (Islamist) state

I’m not an expert on Turkey and so I don’t have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I’ve been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
609170_130604_Seeing-Like-a-State-Scott-James-C-97803000781522.jpg
609170_130604_Seeing-Like-a-State-Scott-James-C-97803000781522.jpg

I'm not an expert on Turkey and so I don't have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I've been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with whom I've had the pleasure of interacting over the past five years or so. In particular, I've often found their views on regional affairs to be insightful and well-informed, though of course not infallible.

But there's also been a worrisome authoritarian undercurrent to the AKP's rule, including assaults on press freedoms, badly-run prosecutions of political opponents and alleged coup plotters, and PM Erdogan's tendency to think that he knows what's best for Turkey's citizens, even when they disagree. And it's always a worrisome sign when a leader blames internal opposition to his policies on "foreign agents" and Twitter.

But let me offer a few (relatively uniformed) thoughts on recent events. The first is that the current upheaval may -- repeat, may -- turn out to be a salutary development in Turkey's political evolution. Turkey's democracy is still a work-in-progress, and both its formal institutions and the guiding norms are in flux. (Remember: Turkey was a politically moribund, economically stagnant, and sometimes brutal military dictatorship not so very long ago). The current backlash against the Erdogan government is a reminder to the AKP that a Parliamentary majority is not a license to impose whatever the ruling party leadership wants; at least not if those same leaders also want a reasonably tranquil society. And if the current tug of war eventually leads Turkey to develop institutions that limit the "tyranny of the majority," it will be a salutary development in the history of Turkish government. Stay tuned.

I’m not an expert on Turkey and so I don’t have much to add to the chorus of commentary about recent events there. My own view of the AKP era in Turkey is mixed: I’ve been impressed by its economic achievements and by the energy, creativity and acumen of the various foreign policy officials with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting over the past five years or so. In particular, I’ve often found their views on regional affairs to be insightful and well-informed, though of course not infallible.

But there’s also been a worrisome authoritarian undercurrent to the AKP’s rule, including assaults on press freedoms, badly-run prosecutions of political opponents and alleged coup plotters, and PM Erdogan’s tendency to think that he knows what’s best for Turkey’s citizens, even when they disagree. And it’s always a worrisome sign when a leader blames internal opposition to his policies on “foreign agents” and Twitter.

But let me offer a few (relatively uniformed) thoughts on recent events. The first is that the current upheaval may — repeat, may — turn out to be a salutary development in Turkey’s political evolution. Turkey’s democracy is still a work-in-progress, and both its formal institutions and the guiding norms are in flux. (Remember: Turkey was a politically moribund, economically stagnant, and sometimes brutal military dictatorship not so very long ago). The current backlash against the Erdogan government is a reminder to the AKP that a Parliamentary majority is not a license to impose whatever the ruling party leadership wants; at least not if those same leaders also want a reasonably tranquil society. And if the current tug of war eventually leads Turkey to develop institutions that limit the “tyranny of the majority,” it will be a salutary development in the history of Turkish government. Stay tuned.

Second, Americans ought to recognize that their influence over these developments is limited. President Obama reportedly has a good working relationship with Erdogan and can offer constructive advice if asked, and he should make it clear that a continued drift toward authoritarianism will make it harder to maintain close U.S.-Turkish relations in the future. (Yes, I know the U.S. has close ties with other authoritarian governments, but we already expect more from Turkey and Ankara doesn’t have lots of oil). I have tried to make this point in my own conversations with Turkish officials, journalists, and scholars, though I doubt my words carried a great deal of weight. Turkey’s leaders are likely to follow their own counsel; the big question is whether they will begin to recognize that no leader or party is infallible and that listening to popular sentiment-including the sentiments of those who didn’t vote for you — is almost always a smart political strategy.

As I tweeted yesterday, if I could assign the AKP leadership one book to read, it would be James Scott’s Seeing Like a State: Why Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. It’s long been one of my favorite books, because it shows how authoritarian governments get into trouble when they adopt ambitious plans for social engineering (often based on some sort of far-reaching “modernist” ideology) and when there are no political mechanisms available to check their ambitions. The results are uniformly disastrous, as the cases of Stalinist collectivized agriculture or Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” attest, largely because overly ambitious schemes inevitably generate unintended consequences and tone-deaf authoritarian leaders won’t recognize things are going wrong until it is too late.  (That can happen in democracies too, by the way, as the Bush administration’s sorry experience in Iraq shows all too well).

Turkey under the AKP is a very long way from Stalinist Russia or Maoist China, of course, but the lessons of Scott’s book are still useful. Democracy is a messy form of government, and as the current state of American and British politics shows, it has its own forms of gridlock and dysfunction. But healthy democracies do tend to be self-correcting (as the 2008 presidential election showed), and so are less likely to drive themselves completely off a cliff. Does anyone know if Seeing Like a State  is available in Turkish?

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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