The dismal failure of Turkey’s public diplomacy

The dismal failure of Turkey’s public diplomacy

It is doubtful that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s bodyguards feel even an inkling of remorse over the recent public relations disaster they caused for Turkey.

The violent fight they engaged in Washington with sympathizers of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) - which is outlawed by Turkey and the U.S. – and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria – which Ankara has failed to convince Washington is a terrorist organization, has done little to improve Turkey’s international image.

The bodyguards have been primed for such moments at home and are therefore more likely to feel a sense of satisfaction for having “shown Turkey’s enemies that they will give them no respite anywhere in the world, even the U.S. capital.” 

The diplomatic fallout of their actions is clearly of no concern to them either. They live in the domain of impulsive rather than rational behavior, and acting in the manner they did comes naturally to them.

Considering the continued sense of outrage among Americans that it caused, the ramifications of this event, which elicited a non-binding resolution from the U.S. Congress condemning Turkey, will linger. 

It should not be hard for Turks to understand this outrage if one reverses the situation in one’s mind.

 Imagine the reaction among Turks if U.S. presidential body guards attacked anti-American demonstrators in Turkey – of which there are always plenty – during a high-level state visit, leaving them bloodied and bruised. 

The bottom line is that whatever little success Erdoğan’s visit to Washington had - and there was not much of that anyway - was seriously overshadowed by this incident. 

For Americans, the fight outside the Turkish Embassy was a concrete example of Erdoğan carrying his authoritarian tendencies to Washington. 

For the Turkish side it was just another example of Western collusion with anti-Turkish terrorists, and therefore the response to the demonstrators outside the embassy was totally justified. Ankara insists that the U.S. police did not take the necessary precautions against the demonstrators, leaving the Turkish side with no choice but to do this.

The problem with this argument, however, is that angry demonstrators chanting angry slogans against a visiting dignitary cannot be legally prevented in the U.S. unless the demonstrations turn violent and endanger lives. 

We are dealing therefore with two diametrically opposed and seemingly irreconcilable understandings of democracy.

The effects of the ugly scenes outside the embassy will no doubt be felt in future visits by Erdoğan, or members of his cabinet, to the U.S. For one thing, the police in Washington D.C., and indeed anywhere else in the U.S., will be ready the next time around against Turkish bodyguards, even if they carry diplomatic passports, after having been left looking incompetent during this incident.

The U.S. administration – which has lodged a formal protest with Ankara - will also be more alert the text time, since the situation caused a public outcry and resulted in a Congressional resolution. Erdoğan will probably be unable to take the same body guards on his next U.S. trip, whenever that might be, and will face other U.S. precautions. 

What’s more, sympathy among Americans, especially in the U.S. Congress, for the Kurdish groups that Turkey considers to be terrorists will also have soared. 

In short, Ankara’s already difficult job in the West has only become harder with this incident, which has also stoked more anti-Turkish sentiments among Americans and Europeans, spurred by their deep dislike of Erdoğan. 

One cannot help wonder who is running Erdoğan’s public diplomacy operation these days, a time when Turkey’s international image is already sufficiently tarnished. Whoever it is, they are not doing a very good job.