The recent cease-fire in Gaza between Hamas and Israel marks yet another occasion in which Turkey's claims and self-image do not correspond to its actual power.
This is becoming an acute problem in Turkish foreign policy. Instead of adjusting its rhetoric and objectives to its capabilities, the Turkish government has raised the stakes by challenging the international order. Increasingly, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his speeches has described the international order as “unjust” and calls for a change in the distribution of power within the international system.
The structure of the UN Security Council is particularly targeted as an example of “injustice” in the current international order. For Erdoğan “injustice” in today's world has gained a structural feature. Structural injustice is clearly seen in the functioning of several international organizations, especially of the United Nations Security Council. Thus for him: “It is time to change the structures of international organizations, especially the UN Security Council. A structural transformation which is more just and suitable for equity is required.”
These are fine words and fair criticism of the current international system. However, put forward by a political leader and not an academic or civil society organization, these words may sound like a revisionist stand against the established norms, rules and institutions of the international system.
The Turkish leaders should understand that revisionism does not have positive connotations in international relations. It reminds one of radical states and leaders of the 20th century that led the world to wars, chaos and suffering. Therefore, the perception of Turkey as an anti-systemic country will damage its image, prestige and power. To swing from a pro-status quo middle power to a revisionist ambitious power is likely to bring political and economic risks for Turkey.
It seems that over-confidence blended with populism in domestic politics is pushing Turkish leaders to challenge the international order. Turkish people see Turkey as the heir to the Ottoman Empire and as such, they hold contempt for the current status of their country. They believe that Turkey deserves a greater place in the world, a belief shared by and reflected in the rhetoric of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party).
Moreover, the AK Party leadership calculates that a “challenging” position taken against what Erdoğan calls the “hegemonic powers” will strengthen Turkey's leadership claims and increase his popularity among the people both at home and in the region. But this does not mean a greater share of power in global affairs. Confrontation with the world is also likely to give birth to authoritarian leadership at home, a leadership challenging the world would ask full support, obedience and discipline at home.
It is true that “rising powers” in international relations tend to turn revisionists as they are not happy with the established power distribution and wish to change it. But we know that “change” in the international system does not come through rhetorical demands but through actual displays of power mainly in warfare (or capability of warfare) and partly in economic performances that unsettle the already established power relationship. But the risk is that the “rising powers” that call for change might be held back by the established powers if they are not really capable of standing behind their claims.
Turkish leaders, on one hand, challenge the international order and demand a greater share of power in the system, but on the other ask NATO to protect its borders against possible missile attacks coming from Syria. If you do not have the capabilities to defend yourself against a country like Syria and need the help of NATO, the most established institution of the current international order, then your call for a revision in the distribution of power is baseless, or at least premature.