Shortly upon arriving in Ankara, I was informed that Europeans in Turkey often feel like they are in Asia, while Asians often feel like they are in Europe.  As an American who has spent some time in Asia, I can definitively say that, on my visit to Ankara, I felt like I was in Europe.

Other than the terrifying traffic, Ankara is much like a hilly, inland Helsinki.  Its climate is warmer and drier of course, but in mid-winter that's not so obvious beyond the regularity of heat-lamped outdoor restaurant patios.  Signs are in Turkish rather than Finnish, but stores are either the same or advertise similar products and services with similar signage.  Mosques dot the city instead of churches, but they are equally underutilized.  There are fewer blonde people, but they dress in similar clothes.  The cities’ architectures and layouts are pretty much the same, probably because they developed over a similar period.  Granted, Ankara is overlooked by a Seljuk castle built, over Roman ruins, in the 12th century, but that's hard to reach.  The main drags bear the names of different leaders (Mannerheim; Ataturk) but feature virtually identical statues.  The level of development strikes one as roughly equivalent at first glance, but there is seems to be greater inequality in Ankara, accompanied by far more construction.

There are more women wearing headscarves in Ankara than in Helsinki.  I did a rough count on a rush-hour walk one day.  There were about the same number of head-scarved women as knee-high-boots-and-tights wearing women.  If you include high-heels-and-skirts in the secular count, though, there's no contest.  All equally ignore the call to prayer faintly noticed over the traffic noise at sunset.

There are a remarkable number of Turkish flags about, more even than there are American flags in a US city.  And statues or portraits of Ataturk are everywhere.  Generally Ataturk is shown in a top hat and tails, rather than a uniform, which is somehow comforting.  Even more comforting is the excellent cuisine, which reminds one of Finland as much as does the architecture.  That was unexpected.

 Soft Power and Public Diplomacy

The Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs brought me to Ankara to discuss public diplomacy (PD), a tactic used by diplomats to harness so-called soft power.   At Harvard we define soft power as the power to achieve foreign policy goals without resorting to force, coercion, or bribery.  In foreign policy circles Turkey is widely perceived to have shifted from a "coercive regional power" to a "soft regional power" over the past two decades.  This is tied to Turkey's emergence as a full-fledged "trading state" yet also connected to the regional popularity of Turkish soaps and, as Minister Davutoglu would note, Turkey’s widely appreciated, often envied, democracy.

Which brings me to public diplomacy.  Public diplomacy can be thought of as the instrument or tactic by which soft power is put to concrete use.  It's sometimes necessary to emphasize that PD is not the same thing as soft power.  The former is an active process; the latter is a fluid substance of good will.

I define PD as "purposeful international communication."  All three of those words are important.

"Purposeful" means, for example, that Turkish soaps, however useful as a source of soft power, are not public diplomacy.  Another example, from the USA: CNN is not a tool of public diplomacy, but Voice of America is.  It's a question of intent.

The second word, "international," demonstrates the difference between PD and public affairs or politics: if you are talking to your own people, it's not PD.  Tactically it may look exactly like PD, but the question of audience is paramount.  This is a question that came up twice with diplomatic audiences in Ankara, I recall.

The third word, "communication," is pretty straightforward.  If you're not communicating, you're not doing PD.  Negotiating a trade deal, for example, is not PD.  Influencing public opinion to build support for that trade deal, however, is PD.  Sending aid to Greece after an earthquake is not PD.  Making sure the Greek people know the aid came from Turkey is PD.

Start like a Turk, Finish like an Englishman

A few months ago, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs began restructuring the country’s public diplomacy program.  This will take some time to accomplish and involve a number of structural, communication, and strategic challenges.  I look forward to working with the MFA over the coming years on the structural challenges and sharing lessons learned from the PD efforts of other nations.  In this post, however, I want to mention a couple of strategic challenges.

  1. Wiser scholars have noted that external regional events may dictate Turkey’s PD more than proactive policy stances, at least in the medium term.  Iran, Syria, and Israel, the US election: things may get worse before they get better. If the Arab Spring begins to yield fundamentalist Islamic governments, this might push Turkey in a particular direction. If the Euro-zone deteriorates further, that could have a different effect, potentially weakening support for the European element of Turkey's identity.  There are a great many unknowns, some of which may prove stronger than Turkey’s independent levers of power.
  2. The question of Turkey’s identity is core to Turkish public diplomacy.  I’m not sure that there is a general agreement within the country as to “what defines Turkey” as we approach the Republic’s centennial in 2023. Understanding the Turkish story, and guiding it from a leadership level as necessary and possible, will be required before the MFA can run an effective PD program.  Knowing the national narrative is required to control, or even portray the national narrative.  So long as a large number of traditional elites are suspicious of Turkey’s new direction, internal dissonance will impact efforts to influence the outside world.  Turkey is by no means unique in this respect.

In April 1951, the US Advisory Commission on Information noted to the US Congress,

Sometimes policy is “made” by the junior officer who writes an original memorandum. Sometimes it is made by an unexpected utterance at a top-level press conference. But the information consequences of policy ought to always be taken into account, and the information man ought always to be consulted.

Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is engaged in a learning process: learning how to meld communication to policy; learning how to effectively describe what is truly a new Turkey.  The energy to do so successfully is clearly there.  Clarity and structure should follow.