Meltdown at the Nuclear Security Summit: Erdoğan, Brookings and ‘Free’ Press

*Source: AFP ©

*Source: AFP ©

Despite its infant nuclear industry, Turkey was invited to the Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington DC last week.

Participation in the summit was considered as an opportunity to improve Turkey’s, and moreover, President Erdoğan’s, image abroad. Diplomatic efforts to this end included an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, a controversial figure for the AKP who was blamed for provoking the Gezi Park protests and Erdoğan’s now infamous speech at the Brookings Institute.

Tension between Turkey, the US and European countries was evident during the president’s visit. Recent events in south east, increasing pressure on the press and business and the seizure of Zaman newspaper have been highlighted as worrying signals that Turkey is deviating from its democratic path.

Obama reportedly told President Erdoğan that the government’s “approach toward the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling”, statements that the government were quick to condemn; accusing his US counterpart of going behind his back as parts of continuing efforts to “divide” Turkey.

Prior to the arrival of the Turkish president in Washington DC, speculations arose regarding the deterioration in Turkish-US bilateral relations. Turkish officials reportedly attempted to get an appointment with President Obama, however the US President had no plans for a formal meeting with his ally in the fight against Islamic State, which was perceived as a diplomatic slight.

Further fuelling such speculation, there was no official welcoming ceremony upon Erdoğan’s arrival in Washington. Later during the visit, the German ambassador in Turkey was summoned due to a video broadcasted on the German TV channel ARD that satirically criticized the Turkish president. Despite strong initial reactions from Merkel’s party however, the video was subsequently removed.

Importantly, the perceived ‘cold shoulder’ Erdoğan received from DC de-thawed slightly as a 50 minute one-on-one between the two world leaders was arranged last minute for March 31.

Clashes at Brookings

Erdoğan’s speech at Brookings Institute to address on the global challenges facing the Republic of Turkey as it approaches its 100th anniversary in 2023 was met with clashes between his security forces and journalists attending the event, as well as tensions between pro and anti-government protesters.

Brookings Institute’s usual Q&A session caused yet another controversy during the president’s short visit, as journalists and some members of the public were blocked from asking questions. Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy Ambassador Martin Indyk argued that “this is not a press conference” in response to criticism over this move, declaring that he would only take questions from policy professionals.

Brookings have issued a statement in response to accusations that they gave President Erdoğan a “free ride”, claiming that: “Brookings is committed to freedom of expression and to the vital role of a robust free press in a democratic society. These principles are fundamental to the mission of the Brookings Institution and we oppose any effort to silence or harass members of the media.”

However, for a think tank with the motto: “Quality. Independence. Impact”, the block on open discussion and journalistic inquiry as well as their limited public engagement following this conflict appears most unusual.

The Nuclear Security Summit and the diplomatic activities surrounding it were optimistically held up as the scene where not only Turkish citizens but the world could achieve some answers, particularly regarding Erdoğan’s perceived attacks against the press. President Erdoğan’s interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour came as a particular disappointment in this sense, as the president effectively evaded most of Amanpour’s challenging questions.

Amanpour cited the summoning of the German ambassador following the release of the controversial satirical video and asked the President why he was so threatened by this and other domestic satirical publications. To which President Erdoğan answered somewhat cryptically: “Well, We shouldn’t confuse criticism with insult and defamation.”

Similarly, when pressed by Amanpour over the recent clamping down of press freedom in Turkey including the government seizure of Zaman newspaper and the arrest of journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, the President responded by stating: ““I’m not at war with the press. Should spies be included in the freedom of the press?”

Once again, analysts and Turkey-watchers are left with more questions than answers: however Erdoğan’s PR trip in Washington DC was also an evident failure. Turkey had a hard time explaining its domestic issues as well as the problems the country is going through in its foreign policy.

Tensions with Germany and the US came to the fore but both eventually succumbed to the leveraging power of Turkey as the gatekeeper of the refugee crisis, once again highlighting the ever increasing impunity of President Erdoğan.

In fact, President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington, including his efforts to arrange an exclusive one-on-one meeting with President Obama, can be viewed as the Turkish leader’s attempt to reassert the country’s place as an important global player, despite the increasing distance growing between Turkey and it’s European and American allies.

Perhaps the Erdoğan administration perceived the visit as a successful display of Turkish diplomatic pomp and circumstance. However following the Brookings Institute fiasco and the assault of journalists by the President Erdoğan’s guards, the visit seems to have only widened the gap between Turkey and its uneasy Western allies.

Additional reporting by Harriet Fildes and Benjamin Bilgen

Leave a Reply