Dani Rodrik is the Rafiq Hariri professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. His father-in-law, Cetin Dogan, is a lead defendant in Turkey’s Sledgehammer trial.
Harvard Political Review: How has Turkey responded to the recent events and uprisings in the Middle East?
Dani Rodrik: Turkey was caught unaware by the Middle East revolutions. Turkey’s relationship with the countries of the Middle East was largely based on a strategy of establishing good relationships with the existing political leadership. To that extent, I think that Turkish leadership was at a loss as to how to respond and they did so in a relatively ad-hoc manner.
HPR: Do you think Turkey would like to see democracy throughout the Middle East, in an ideal situation?
DR: I think ultimately Turkey would like to see itself as a leader in a broadly democratic Middle East. There are a couple of things mitigating against that: Some economic interests with existing governments played a conflicting role. Part of the reason Turkey was behind the ball in Libya was that a significant amount of Turkish investment existed in Libya, and Turkey wanted to ensure the safety of those investments, thus delaying their willingness to be on the side of popular protests.
I think the second important factor that’s going to make it hard for Turkey to lead is that if Egypt does become a democratic country, it is going to be a much more central focus in a democratic Middle East, given its size and importance. Turkey could find itself in competition with Egypt if Egypt, as one hopes, emerges as a robust democracy.
HPR: You published a book in December on the trials of a broad range of individuals allegedly part of the “Sledgehammer plot” to overthrow the Turkish government. You wrote on your blog that you never imagined yourself having to write this book. Is this a sign of how much Turkey has changed recently?
DR: Turkey faces huge problems in terms of its political system. I think it is unfortunately going in an authoritarian direction, just as the rest of the region is going in the opposite direction.
I was hopeful until two years ago that the current government was interested in deepening democracy in Turkey and in strengthening the rule of law. Unfortunately, having watched the ongoing political and military trials closely, it is clear that the rule of law is being systematically undermined and that this would be impossible without the support of the government behind the scenes. Therefore, I see that the government is moving Turkey in a direction that is increasingly authoritarian rather than more democratic. I think the Western media missed this because of Turkey’s story—it looked like a straightforward and appealing narrative of a popularly elected government finally prevailing and enabling the judiciary to address the transgressions of the secular old guard. However, these trials are much closer to show trials. Look at them closer, and what you find is that the evidence used to lock defendants up ranges from the circumstantial to the demonstrably fabricated. Their real purpose seems to be to demonize the opposition, mobilize domestic support and ensure that state institutions remain under the control of the government for a very long time, rather than to enforce the rule of law.
HPR: Could you describe Turkey’s current political situation in greater detail?
DR: There are three groups you need to consider to understand Turkish politics. The first are the representatives of the old order—the military, and the ultra secular groups of the past, which tended to dominate the universities, state institutions, and the higher courts until recently. This group has been the big loser during the last decade.
That leaves the other two groups in charge. One is the governing party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), led by Prime Minister Recep Erdogan.
And the third group, which very few people know much about, is a religious network—the Gulen network—directed by an Islamic preacher, Fetullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. This is a vast network, very wealthy and very influential, which runs an educational and media empire. Its representatives occupy key positions in the national police and the judiciary. The Gulenists and the AKP have made common cause against the old guard. But given that the old guard has now lost its power, it may turn out that the tension between these two groups will come out into the open in the form of direct competition. I see neither Erdogan nor the Gulenists as a force for democracy.
HPR: Does the AKP have an Islamist agenda to turn Turkey into an Islamic state? Is that something that people should fear, either about the AKP, or about the Gulenist movement?
DR: I’m more worried about the Gulen movement, because it lacks transparency and much of the dirty tricks in Turkish politics and judiciary seem to be linked to it. Gulenist police and prosecutors have mounted sham trials under the guise of cleansing the system from coup plotters. Gulenist media are engaged in systematic disinformation about these trials. These activities are very difficult to reconcile with the moderate, liberal and humane version of Islam that the movement preaches. As for the AKP, I worry less about its Islamist leanings, and more about an ingrained authoritarianism. My worry is less that Turkey will become the next Iran, but that Turkey will become a worse version of Russia, where the media and the judiciary are effectively controlled and manipulated by pro-government forces.
HPR: Do you think the central tenets of your most recent book, The Globalization Paradox—that economic globalization, national sovereignty and democracy are incompatible—can be applied to the current situation of the Turkey and the Middle East?
DR: The Middle East crisis reminds us of the centrality of national governments in people’s lives, in economic, political and social affairs, and of the need to have good governance at the national level.
Despite all the talk about how the world has become “flat” and national borders don’t matter anymore, the well-being of people by and large still revolves around what national governments do and don’t do. The countries that are in the best position to reap the rewards of economic globalization are in fact the ones that have strong, well-governed states and national governments.
This interview has been edited and condensed.