Turkey and Brazil – keepers of peace

Inclusive Politics,Peace & Security03 Jun 2011Jean-Paul Marthoz

Who would have thought of comparing or matching Turkey and Brazil? Well, illustrious Brazilian author Jorge Amado did it when he wrote a great novel about a Turk, in fact an Ottoman Arab migrant, roaming the roads of Brazil in the early years of the 20th century. NOREF director Mariano Aguirre did it when he asked me to write two briefing notes on the ‘new foreign policy’ of these two countries. And finally Turkey and Brazil did it when last year they joined together to propose their mediation in the Iranian nuclear crisis.

Journalists are rather good at covering ‘breaking news’ or ‘events’. But they are rather bad at identifying trends and slowly changing paradigms. No one convened a press conference to declare that Brazil and Turkey were rising to become increasingly influential actors on the global scene.

Most observers knew that that these two countries were involved in peace-keeping, that they had sent blue helmets to unruly or war-torn countries but who would have thought that they would also be increasingly acting as mediators?This role seemed to be the privilege of big powers able to impose their will to impose peace or the preserve of small and peaceful ‘ethical nations’, like Costa Rica, Switzerland or Norway. Ankara and Brasilia’s role in peace-keeping may have always been welcome, but mediation is a totally new game: it means potentially divisive political choices.

Now these two medium-sized powers, both members of the G-20, have been regularly in the news not just as rising economic powers but also as diplomatic actors trying to prevent conflict and reconcile enemies.

Why? These developments are certainly due to external circumstances: the relative decline of the United States, the persistent insignificance of the European Union’s common foreign policy, the rise of China and India, the proliferation of conflicts with a potential to wreck the economic growth that is so essential to these emerging economies have provided a favourable context to the rise of Turkey and Brazil.

But internal factors are also at play. Is it really a coincidence that both countries experienced a political game change in the early 2000s with the accession to the government of new political parties, the PT (Workers’ Party) in Brazil and the AKP (Party of Justice and Development) in Turkey?

Both had a different way of looking at the outside world. Both understood the need to connect domestic reform with international ambitions. The ‘deepening’ of democracy was a substantial ingredient of their ‘soft power’ because there is an intimate link – the rule of consistency – between, as Ambasador Marcel Biato noted, ‘domestic achievements’ and the capacity to exert a role on the international scene.

This equation was behind the will of the Brazilian government to fight extreme poverty, just as it was behind the attempt of the Turkish government to try to create an opening in the Kurdish issue.

Both countries have been successful in profiling themselves as benevolent emerging powers. Turkey in particular has become the most popular country in its Arab neighbourhood, and Brazil enjoys a positive image in Latin America and in the rest of the world. Both are also global cultural players, thanks in part to a powerful media and movie industry reaching audiences far outside of their borders.

Inspired by a diplomatic approach stating ‘zero-problems with neighbours’ as its major goal (a phrase coined by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu), they have logged successes in their conflict prevention initiatives: For instance Turkey normalized its relations with Syria and Iraq; Brazil helped calm down tensions in Bolivia between the government and autonomist movements.

However the rise of these two countries has raised suspicions and even some concerns within their traditional alliances. Turkey, which was seen as a NATO sentinel and an eager EU candidate, suddenly appeared as a country ready to play its own game, even if that meant breaking ranks with the USA or the EU on highly sensitive issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Iran. Suddenly US neoconservatives who used to advocate Turkish links to the West warned that Ankara was ‘looking East’ and emphasizing its Muslim connections at the expense of its Western moorings.

Brazil, which had been a loyal ally, although on its own terms, of the USA in South America, suddenly took the lead in questioning the Northern countries’ predominance on world trade. It also seemed bent on organizing South America around its own national interests and politely excluding the USA from regional alliances.

At this stage, there is still a mismatch between ambitions and capacities. Ankara and Brasilia have not always been successful in all their endeavours. Brazil did not get a permanent seat at the UN Security Council and failed in its attempts to restore ousted Honduran President Zelaya to his throne. Turkey failed in its mediating role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict . Both met with a strong US rebuttal when they tried to find a solution to the Iranian nuclear controversy.

Brazil and Turkey are also being confronted with the dilemmas of influence: while public opinion in their respective neighbourhoods is favourable, many governments are rather concerned by the prospect of these two countries’ potential for regional hegemony.

However, the rise of these two regional powers is a fact that will have regional and global consequences, particularly on relations of power within their own alliances. It will at a minimum force the traditional power centres in Washington or Brussels to see them as senior and not junior partners and it will increase the rationale for more multilateral and complex foreign policies.

At the same time it will provide “peace-making” nations like Norway with new potential allies in trying to forge a new world order based on the search for common ground.

Jean-Paul Marthoz was a particpant at the seminar in Oslo.