Few political phenomena are as well known as the “Rally Around the Flag” effect. Tragic events or instances of conflict can shift public opinion in favor of ruling authorities. Much of the time, this can be a mixed blessing for the authorities in question. More cynical leaders, however, may help start crises in order to solidify support for the regime. In Turkey, this appears to be happening more and more often.
A key reference for artificially constructed “Rally” moments is the 1982 Falklands War. Argentina’s military government was suffering from rising discontent over economic recession and human rights abuses. To distract the public from the country’s internal problems unite it behind the regime, Argentina decided to launch an invasion of the British controlled and inhabited, but Argentinian claimed, Falkland Islands. Of course, this decision backfired immensely when Britain, rather than abandoning its citizens and territory, responded with a military offensive that swept the Argentinian forces from the archipelago. The Argentinian junta faced massive public unrest as a result of the defeat and ultimately collapsed.
This event shows the inherent risks involved with starting a crisis for political gain. And yet, this strategy remains an attractive tool for autocrats who believe they can manage these risks. A look at Turkey makes this apparent.
Turkey has had a particularly colorful 2020. In the Mediterranean, Turkey intervened militarily in Libya’s second civil war, obstructed UN arms control missions, and sent the Turkish fleet prospecting in Greek waters. In the Middle East, Erdogan’s forces have continued skirmishing with Kurdish, Russian, and Syrian troops in northern Syria and renewed attacks on Kurdish separatists in Iraq. In Europe, Turkey has obstructed NATO functions and encouraged a boycott of French goods. Last but not least, Turkey provided key support to Azerbaijan’s offensive against Armenian-governed territories in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Of course, these conflicts are multi-faceted, and Turkey does not bare sole responsibility for many of them. Turkey’s actions in these conflicts, however, clearly show a level of belligerence that goes beyond normal levels. It is certainly an immensely far cry from Erdogan’s original foreign policy vision, which was summarized as “no problems with neighbors“. So what is the cause of such a dramatic change in policy?
No doubt, part of this shift can be attributed to the turbulent international environment. The region has seen an upswing in wars and instability in general since the 2011 Arab Spring. However, Erdogan’s government has a history of exaggerating foreign threats, such as in 2018, when Turkish government sources overstated attacks coming from Syria’s Afrin by several orders of magnitude, or 2019, when the government inexplicably complained about American efforts to reduce Turkish-Kurdish clashes along the Syrian border. These idiosyncrasies suggest that Turkey’s foreign belligerence is not solely a necessary response to genuine crisis. What, then, is driving Turkey’s wars?
The answer is domestic politics. Erdogan is facing a mountain of issues at home: an economy in recession, a vast refugee population, and a re-invigorated political opposition. The Turkish President’s always-escalating political repression and populist rhetoric can put a salve on these wounds, but not heal them entirely. As such, Erdogan’s government is always looking for new opportunities to distract from the country’s woes, and finds these opportunities abroad.
It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Turkey has stepped up military intervention in the Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, regions rich with gas deposits and other economic opportunities, as Turkey’s economy continues to limp along. Likewise, escalating conflict with Kurdish PKK and YPG militants provides a convenient excuse to crack down on the Kurdish political opposition. Invasions of YPG territory in Syria, in addition to removing an unfriendly Kurdish group from the border, relieve Turkey’s refugee crisis as Erdogan resettles Arab refugees in areas purged of Kurds.
Seeking more than material benefits, however, the Erdogan regime is also driven by political gains associated with nationalism and the “Rally Around the Flag” effect. Some of Erdogan’s critical support at home comes not only from his Justice and Development Party, but also from ultranationalist groups, such as his coalition partners in the Nationalist Movement Party. These ultranationalist constituencies have strongly influenced Erdogan’s foreign policy, “driven by a maximalist sense of sovereignty and intangibles, such as identity, national pride, and thirst for prestige abroad“. Assertiveness against Turkey’s real and perceived foes, especially assertiveness of the military kind, thus rallies support to Erdogan’s regime.
But it’s not just ultranationalists who are appeased by military action. As Turkish ties with Europe and America fray, Erdogan can appeal to widely popular sentiments about Turkish sovereignty and public suspicion of the West. These foreign adventures strengthen Erdogan’s image as a pugilist for Turkey’s interests, regardless of whether such belligerence is actually best for Turkey in the long run. Opposition groups, meanwhile, can be painted as unpatriotic or even treacherous for not wanting to infuriate all of Turkey’s neighbors and allies in return for short term gains.
Turkey’s current foreign policy is not constructive- not for Turkey, not for the region, and not for the international community. But it doesn’t need to be constructive to accomplish its goal, and that goal is to take the heat off of Erdogan at home. As long as democratic erosion continues in Turkey, Turkey will likely continue to run into problems with its allies. In Turkey, conflict and authoritarianism feed into one another, and solving either will require solving both. Only then can Turkey set itself on a path to freedom, peace, and prosperity.