Problem Yok Run Amok

Earlier, some authors on this blog have advocated going back to the ideas of Thomas Hobbes – here and here – as a tool for understanding the current quagmire in the Middle East. One common misunderstanding about Hobbes’s work is that he paints a picture of man as an entirely selfish creature: Man is selfish, he is only after procuring as many resources as possible and he is willing and able to kill his fellow man (who is of roughly equal strength) in order to get them. Interestingly though, Hobbes doesn’t need that strong a claim to undergird his picture of man descending into a form of life that is nasty, brutish and short in the absence of a monarch to keep the population in check. Not everyone needs to be that selfish for Hobbes’s thought-experiment to come off the ground. We need only to fear one such egoist. The rest will follow.

The problem with having to deal with one egoist is that his presence alone is enough to make each person wary of the others. Even though you know your intentions are just, you are not so sure about the person opposite, since he might be trying to profit from your honesty. Thus, the best defence even for the upright individual will be to turn off his innate trust in mankind and to fend for himself as best he can. Your altruism is thus constrained by your fellow man. Only when you have nothing to fear from your fellow man, will you be free to make your own choices and pursue the good of mankind. In other words: Lofty goals need backing by firm power, one needs to become dictator before one can become benevolent.

One country that has learned this lesson the hard way is Turkey. Over the past decade the cornerstone of its foreign policy has been that of “Problem yok”, or “Zero problems”. Instead of antagonizing its neighbours, it wanted to (and, according to its ministry, still wants to ) “eliminate all the problems from her relations with neighbors or at least to minimize them as much as possible”. Using its fast-growing economic clout it would expand trade with the surrounding countries, while at the same time fostering healthy relations whereby it could exert influence through ‘soft power’. Turkey thereby offered an interesting alternative to the ‘soft power’-politics pursued by Iran. Whereas Iran tried to gain influence amongst the Arab population through populist socialist policies, exploiting grievances Arabs felt against their own governments, Turkey’s aim was to sway countries through investment and Middle-Eastern integration. Interestingly, despite these approaches being very different in character they share one main characteristic: they are both non-sectarian. Iran’s socialist policies, as well as Turkey’s capitalist approach tend to downplay the sectarian divisions in the Arab world as much as possible. The reason for this is obvious enough. Neither of these two regional powers has much natural rapport with the different groups in the Middle East. Turkey is Sunni but with an inherently secular state, it is non-Arab and is still remembered as a former colonial power. Iran is Shii, non-Arab and slightly feared as a future colonial power. Until recently, neither of these regional powers would have benefited from stressing any one of these facts, preferring to score points with the occasional pillory of a common enemy such as Israel.

Although providing an attractive alternative to the Iranian policies, Turkey’s call for “zero problems” has seen its unmaking. Naturally there are many individual reasons for the shift in Turkey’s diplomatic outlook, but underlying these is a fundamental mistaken assumption. It assumed that it could frame its policies unconstrained by those of its neighbours. Turkey assumed that it could exert influence on its own terms, that as long as they would play by the rules, everyone else would. The lesson they ought to have taken from Hobbes is that these good intentions are not enough. As long as you’re not firmly in power, your policies are constrained by your neighbours. When they decide to up the ante, you’d better follow suit.

Eventually, this is what Turkey did. Once Iran decided to fully throw its weight behind Assad it was not up to Turkey to stick to its well-intentioned policies. After initial attempts to bring Assad around using soft power – it took until autumn of 2011 before it even put in place economic sanctions – it came to recognize that, once the other party chooses opposition rather than cooperation, it is prudent to do the same. The tragic outcome of this logic is on display in the Middle East we see today. Once there is a party that chooses discord over concord, it is incumbent on the others to follow. Once it is decided by one that fuelling sectarianism is more opportune than toning it down, the other side will eventually go along tying its own supporters to its cause, rather than seeking to convince both parties of the baselessness of their divisions. Thus despite their decent intentions both Iran and Turkey have left their soft-power neutrality in favour of confrontation. It is a trend that likely to become more pronounced rather than less in a region as fragmented as the modern-day Middle East.


4 thoughts on “Problem Yok Run Amok

  1. Hobbes’ historical context is of crucial importance to understanding his work. His life was dominated by the English Civil war: an immensly traumatic time for the country, pretty comparable to what Syria is going through now. I think it would be a mistake to say that Hobbes started with the axiom that “man is egoistic and rational” and then built up the rest of his philosophical system from that. I think that he rather began with the axiom that civil war was horrific, and worked his way to the conclusion that (pretty much) any government was better than such a state of affairs. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think he started with the intuition “man is selfish” but with the intuition that “a group of men without a power structure are mutually destructive”.

    As to the hard-power\soft-power debate. Every significant player in the Middle East has been arming some faction in the Syria conflict for about two years at this point: Turkey, the US, Israel, the various Lebanese factions, Russia, the UK, France, the Saudi’s, the Gulf States, Egypt and Iran. So you’re right to say that Iran and Turkey are loosing “soft-power” influence, but then so are all of the other players, so the odds are that they’ll come out of the whole thing not looking any worse than the States or the Saudis will.

  2. I believe my contention was not that Hobbes thought that “man is egoistic and rational”, but rather that is a view that is mistakenly attributed to him. On the other hand I do admit that this contention lacks proper referencing. As to the question which intuition he started out with, I will grant you that considering the circumstances of his time he probably had the intuition that “a group of men without a power structure are mutually destructive” before working through the entire argumentation offered in the Leviathan. However, this route does not follow the structure of the Leviathan, which works its way from mechanistic principles of the universe to a mechanistic account of the human mind, to its logical conclusion that life will be nasty, brutish…enfin, the usual. Although I agree that he may have adopted the opinion that society without a sovereign ends in chaos before writing this work, I am not at all certain whether he became a staunch supporter of mechanistic philosophy because of the turmoil of his time. And since this philosophy tends to lead to a rather austere view of altruism I would not be surprised if he really was skeptical of sincere altruism.

    As to your second point: I think that is an excellent illustration of what I’m trying to say, namely that, if there is one bad apple, the whole bunch will turn foul. That is what has happened to Turkey, despite what I think were decent intentions for achieving dominance without turning to divisive tactics. The interesting turn here is on the side of the Iranians and the Turkish, since they had made such a point of not affiliating themselves too much with certain groups so as not to arouse any anti-imperialist sentiment. That was not the case, for instance, with Egypt under Nasser and to a lesser extent under his successors. That country could and did use its Arab identity to create a sphere of influence in the Middle East, opposing the ‘alien’ Persians in the process.

  3. Great piece. There was a significant degree of self-satisfied smugness in the problemyok policy. Although one could also say that Turkey didn’t sufficiently protect this policy in its attempt to become a big Sunni power by taking the stand it did with Syria. If Turkey had been more cautious perhaps problemyok could have been preserved.

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