By Abraham Thicke
Research suggests that as individuals become more powerful their ability to empathize is impaired. If true, it is worth considering whether a lack of empathy might help explain the actions of Turkey’s long serving and increasingly authoritarian President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Empathy is critical for maintaining healthy relationships. So evidence of an impaired sense of empathy might be provided by evidence of relationship problems.
In Erdoğan’s case, such evidence is not hard to find. Turkey’s recent political history is littered with examples of breakdowns in relationships involving Erdoğan. Indeed, his relationships with political figures are increasingly characterized by their transience and the often acrimonious circumstances in which they break down. This is in marked contrast to earlier times, when Erdoğan was able to maintain such relationships over long periods of time.
Further, because Turkish foreign policy revolves around Erdoğan, the state of Turkey’s international relations can be linked fairly directly to Erdoğan. The same pattern emerges. Turkey is increasingly unable either to maintain old relationships or build meaningful new ones.
One way a lack of empathy might make relationships difficult involves the role empathy plays in enabling assessment of the contributions made by each party within a relationship. In healthy relationships, both parties’ contributions/costs are commensurate with the benefits they receive. In unhealthy relationships this balance does not exist. To accurately assess whether a relationship is healthy, a functioning sense of empathy is required.
But imagine an individual whose assessment of relationships is skewed such that he or she always feels short-changed, even in relationships that are actually well-balanced. An impaired sense of empathy could lead to such a systematic bias by causing an individual to overestimate the benefits received by the other party and underestimating the costs that party has incurred.
To put it another way, an empathy deficient individual might entertain the fantasy of being constantly shafted. This, however, implies gullibility and people do not generally self-ascribe negative traits. So, that individual might rationalize what is happening in terms of more favorable traits. They would perhaps come to see themselves as someone who is, all too often, a victim of their own generosity.
This description seems to fit Erdoğan well. When he talks about relationships, he frequently adopts the tone of someone who has been dealt with unfairly, as a man who keeps his word and is let down by the other side.
Sometimes in fact, Erdoğan feels not merely let down, but duped or even betrayed. The most recent example involves the independence referendum organized by Masoud Barzani, the leader of Iraq’s Kurds. There are many similar examples.
In explaining these betrayals, it is notable that Erdoğan focuses heavily on what he perceives to be various acts of giving, on his part, that precede each breakdown. He neglects to mention the benefits he has received.
Accusations of betrayal may serve partly political purposes. They may be the least damaging explanations that can be offered to account for various events that demand explanations. For instance, it is unlikely that Barzani’s administration would ever have been able to hold its referendum without Turkey’s considerable economic support. This support now looks like a strategic error — anything that increases the probability of an independent Kurdish state is a direct threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity. By claiming to have been betrayed Erdoğan may seek to draw a line under events and avoid difficult questions. It is the same with the Gülen movement, which Erdoğan has also accused of betrayal. Such accusations sidestep the awkward issue of explaining how and why Erdoğan could have co-operated so closely and for so long with a group that many believe was responsible for the bloody failed coup attempt of 2016.
Even so, it is likely that Erdoğan’s accusations of being let down, deceived and betrayed by erstwhile allies are not just political strategies. Someone lacking in empathy would merely be speaking their mind.
Given the above, it may not be long before Erdoğan extends the already long list of those he believes have betrayed or deceived him.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin looks a likely candidate given the deepening but always precarious nature of Turkish-Russian relationships.
Reza Zarrab, currently in US custody over an alleged scheme to circumvent US sanctions on Iran in which Turkey was heavily implicated, might find the prospect of a US jail more appealing than that that of being returned to Turkey, particularly if has revealed any information that implicates Erdoğan.
Melih Gökçek, Ankara’s mayor who is currently resisting Erdoğan’s call for his resignation has even more reason to be worried. He might soon find that Erdoğan’s call changes to one for his head. Unlike the others, he is in Turkey.
If what is described above provides any insight into Erdoğan’s psychological state, then Turkey is unlikely to experience improvements, either in its international relations or in the domestic functioning of the regime, anytime soon. A civil service staffed by level-headed, realistic individuals with executive powers would help. But Turkey is heading in the opposite direction.
In Erdoğan’s regime officials, from the prime minister down, function increasingly as water carriers.
So what lies ahead for Turkey is likely more of the same; more deceits, more betrayals and more disappointments.
If they do not already do so, nations that have dealings with Turkey might benefit from framing them in unconventional terms — that is as transactions with an individual whose understanding of cost and benefits is skewed. The best that can be done in such relationships is to limit them to rather shallow transactions, and to make clear that each transaction is just what is, with no favors involved.