Nothing personal, Mr Biden

Nothing personal, Mr Biden

Have you seen the latest Pew Attitudes Survey on Turkey? Only 19 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. The Americans I talk to appear to be offended by this. No need. Just read on in the same survey. Only 14 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of Iran. China? 21 percent.

And only 20 percent harbor pleasant feelings for Brazil. So our American friends can find solace in knowing that Turks don’t have anything against them in particular. It turns out we are "equal opportunities misanthropes," disliking everyone across the world more or less equally.

Does that mean that Turks enjoy the company of other Turks? Not really. Just look at the figures of the World Values Survey. “Generally speaking, would you say that most people can be trusted or that you need to be very careful when dealing with other people?” goes one question. People can answer with either (a) Most people can be trusted or (b) you can never be too careful in dealing with others. 
According to the survey, less than 5 percent of Turks said (a). In the “most people can be trusted” list, Turkey is the third to last country, out-pessimized only by Trinidad & Tobago and Cape Verde. Turks even have a hard time trusting each other, according to the survey. Norway, Sweden and Denmark lead the “most people can be trusted” camp, and before you say it’s a per-capita income thing, consider that China ranks fourth.

So why don’t we like others? Is it that we feel threatened, or is it about Turkey’s rule of law deficit?  I will argue the latter case.

If it was about feeling threatened, we would have seen precautionary measures to counter the threat. Instead, Turks have a constructive attitude when under militarily threat, according to a 2012 study by Philippe Aghion et al. According to the study, countries revert to education reforms when they feel foreign military threats. The number of students enrolled in the education system increases after the country faces a military defeat or feels under military threat. Enrollment in the Ottoman education system peaked between 1886 and 1906 and the second Russo-Turkish war was between 1877 and 1878. It was a traumatic time for the Empire – we lost Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. The Russian armies advanced all the way to Ayastefanos, today known as Yeşilköy, where Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is located. That means hostile foreign forces just a few kilometers outside the Ottoman capital. It was the last time we really felt the heat, and it led to a significant increase in primary school enrollment in the country, according to the paper. 

When we felt foreign rivalry in the past, we did something. Today, we are fearless in the face of our exorbitant current account deficit. We should consider that our fiscal deficit could be linked to our trust deficit, each pulling the other down. The lack of a collaborative culture means fewer firms work together and learn less from one other. Only 3.6 of firms in Turkey have reported that they collaborate with other Turkish firms on innovation. This is the lowest rate among OECD countries, except for Luxembourg.

Why? It is the rule of law deficit in the country, if you ask me. If a modern economy tries to function without a system to enforce contracts in a timely and appropriate fashion, people are going to have bad experiences. Go ahead ask any Turkish entrepreneur how he gets paid for his projects, but make sure to set aside a chunk of time, because it will take him a while. I bet the other countries in the “you-can-never-be-too-careful-when-dealing-with-others” list aren’t too different in that regard.

Mr. Biden should not take it personally if his visit doesn’t run as smoothly as planned.