Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy

This is the first in a series of posts by several guest authors The Disorder Of Things on Ali Bilgic‘s new book Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, released in late 2016. This is an introductory post by Ali Bilgic. Ali is a lecturer at Department of Politics, History and International Relations, Loughborough University.  Following this introduction, there will be posts by Aida Hozic, Terrell Carver, Swati Parashar, and Clemens Hoffmann, as well as a response by Ali Bilgic posted during the course of this week. The full series is collected here.


‘What is this research really about?’ is a question we ask ourselves. Naturally it often invites more questions: what is the importance of this research? Why am I doing it? And finally, what is so puzzling about it? When I was writing Turkey, Power and the West: Gendered International Relations and Foreign Policy, I asked myself these questions and tried to produce academically sound answers. The book is about gendered power hierarchies between the West and non-West and the insecurities that these power hierarchies generate. More specifically, it examines how the changing standards of hegemonic masculinities in global politics are predominantly defined by the West(s) and how the inability of ‘subordinated’ non-Western masculinities to catch up with these changing standards becomes a source of insecurity. I define this ‘gendered ontological insecurity’: the anxiety about not being accepted as ‘man’, or better to say, ‘state’ enough by the West(s). A corollary objective is to situate domestic politics in a non-Western country in the context of foreign policy and evaluate it through the prism of gendered ontological insecurities.

Among these questions, one particular question, ‘what is so puzzling about this research?’, took me some time to answer. It was a question that I started to address when my research, irrelevant to the book, took a different path towards emotions and politics. In a forum (one of the participants of which is also in this symposium), feminist IR scholars discussed how ‘our’ emotions as IR scholars affect what we studied and how we studied, and the emotional toll it took on us.[1] This eye opening forum made me think more deeply and self-reflectively about the book. The last page I added to the work was the ‘Acknowledgements’, which begun with a story of a teenager, myself, who sought wholeness (in a Lacanian psychoanalytical way) in his political identification with the imagined identity called ‘Western’. When this completeness was denied mainly by the West(s), he took shelter in ‘non-Westernness’: an oscillating political subject between the West and non-West, an embodied hybrid. This, however, was a frustrating process, full of anger, anxiety, and even hate. He was angry when the Western media showed women in the headscarf in Turkey. His anger targeted the women in question, who obscured his Westernness. 

One of the most important contributions of feminist IR was and still is, ‘the personal is political’, or global political. International relations have implications for the everyday lives of individuals, who reproduce or challenge global relations of domination and oppression. What made a non-western young man get angry with headscarf women in his own country became my own research puzzle.    


There are a myriad ways of studying gender in global politics, as feminist IR scholarship has so far shown. Notwithstanding their differences, feminists in IR unequivocally engage with power and power relations critically. According to my reading of feminist IR, power takes many different forms, and these forms of power slide from the individual to the global and back, generating political implications. Deriving from Barnett and Duvall,[2] power sometimes becomes coercive and tangible as in practices associated with (neo)colonialism, which target non-White women and men. However, power often takes a ‘productive’ form, meaning producing individuals, societies, geographies, and histories as objects and subjects of power.  My ultimate objective is to analyse the ways in which gender works in the construction, normalization and legitimization of power hierarchies between the West and non-West in a changing historical context by producing hybrid political subjects.

Gender plays a fundamental part in the (re)production of non-Western political subject. ‘Devalorization’[3] by coding certain individuals, groups or states through feminized characteristics is one of the main conceptual tools in the book because its discursive performance produces and normalizes power hierarchies between the West and non-West. However, feminization is not the only political discursive tool employed in these power relations. The non-West is often reproduced as ‘barbarian’, ‘excessively aggressive and militarist’, and ‘authoritarian’, which were not conventionally at ease with femininity’s alleged passivity and weakness. This prompted me to shift to a gender analysis that goes beyond the constructed dichotomy between masculinity and femininity, towards an analysis of power relations between masculinities. The theory of hegemonic masculinities with its Gramscian roots offers a better prism through West/non-West power hierarchies are analysed. I argue that the subordination of non-Western masculinities is performed through devalorization as both feminization and hypermasculinization of the non-West, as well as the production of a non-Western political subject that is yearning to catch with the standards of hegemonic masculinity. The case explored in the book is Turkey.

The research is built upon five pillars:

  1. Power hierarchies between the West and non-West are (re)produced and normalized through the politics of masculinities, in which the West represents the ‘standards’ of hegemonic masculinities of global politics by subordinating non-Western masculinities. Deriving from Gramsci, this is a cultural hegemony, or domination by consent, which is produced through/within social organizations.
  2. Gendered power hierarchies between the West and Turkey have been a source of ‘ontological insecurity’ for Turkey’s policy-makers, who are both objects and subjects of power relations.
  3. Methodologically, gendered ontological insecurity can be detected through a phenomenological approach by investigating narratives of policy-makers with the purpose of understanding how they historically articulate the West, the non-West, and Turkey.
  4. These articulations can be sought in speeches (in tandem with related policy performances) both in Turkey’s foreign and domestic political contexts, as the West(s) has been (re)produced and/or challenged in both spheres of politics.
  5. Gendered power hierarchies between the West and Turkey have implications for non-Western individual and societal insecurities. These insecurities can be studied in the framework of hyperfeminization of society. This refers to the process in which non-Western individuals and social groups are constructed in the service of the state, which is in the process of modernization, development, and economic growth. Hyperfeminization produces a non-Western society as passive and irrational entity, and always in need of guidance of the state. It involves excessive and violent intervention in some social groups more than others. These groups are subject to ‘dual otherization’, which is another non-Western insecurity.

Gendered Ontological Insecurities of the Non-West

The book starts with two letters of an Ottoman soldier to his German girlfriend, sent in 1911 from the front of Tripoli, the last territory of the Ottoman Empire in North Africa under Italian occupation: ‘I hope, my dear friend, that we will show civilized Europe that we are not barbarians that are not entitled to rights, and that we deserve respect’. In another letter, he wrote: ‘True, I hate my European enemies, but I also admire them because they showed me that I was right during our conversations with Hans, when I said ‘only interests matter in the game of nations, there is no role for emotions.’

The author of the letters was Enver Pasha, one of the leading figures of the Committee of Union and Progress, which ruled the last few years of the Empire until 1918 and engaged with an extensive modernization process as well as an aggressive foreign policy towards the West, i.e. Europe. Almost eighty years later, a young man, myself, was also in the same quest of proving myself/ourselves to Europe that ‘I am not a barbarian and I deserve respect’. I was claiming that, on the one hand, ‘there is no role for emotions in the game of nations’, and on the other hand, that both men’s emotions strongly shaped their way of thinking about themselves, their country, people, and history. What had got into me/us that transcended time and space and become part of my/our subjectivity? What type of power was this that made me/us both its object and subject? And who were ‘the others’ that I/we loved and admired at the same time while trying to comprehend who ‘I’ am and ‘we’ are?

Deriving from feminist and postcolonial literatures in IR, the book develops three hegemonic masculinity models of the West(s), with which a non-Western masculinity has tried to catch up during changing historical periods. ‘Civilizational hegemonic masculinity’ marked the period of the early Republic. Carrying the legacy of the devalorization of the Empire with all its insecurities, the early Republican policy-makers adopted policies that aimed to position Turkey within the West (Europe) as an equal and respectable member. This had a strong domestic policy dimension, in which a paternalistic and hypermasculinized state with a homogenous nation was constructed through hyperfeminization of society. This was followed by the period of ‘Cold Warrior masculinity of the West’. The fall of Eurocentric global politics and the rise of USA as ‘the West’ engendered a new hegemonic masculinity, which was highly aggressive, rational, and militarist, while at the same time economically liberal, conservative, and religious. This period was peculiar. With the reappearance of Europe as the West in the 1960s, Turkey’s policy-makers articulated two distinct Wests and, therefore, two types of masculinities to catch up with: the civilizational and Cold Warrior masculinities. Turkey’s decision-makers were oscillating between and sometimes playing these two sets of standards against each other.

One of the most important contributions of the book, in my eye, is the formulation of a new hegemonic masculinity for the neoliberal age, whose standards the non-Western states in contemporary global politics strive to meet. Through this conceptual prism, neo-Ottomanism, as an effort of Turkey to become ‘valuable’ for the neoliberal West(s), is evaluated. The new neoliberal hegemonic masculinity, which has been most influential in Turkey since 1980, and for this reason gave birth to the book cover, has two dimensions. Economically, the neoliberal ‘man’ is aggressive, entrepreneurial, risk-prone, and consumerist. He does not approve of state regulations that intervene into the market because they hinder the flexibility of ‘homo economicus’. Politically, this market man is conservative, religious, and nationalist. Turkey’s policy-makers’ attempts to catch up with the economic standards of neoliberal masculinity were accompanied by the rise of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis as a political ideology that was shared by almost all mainstream political parties in Turkey.This ideology became a shelter of the non-Western hybrid political subject when his Westernness was denied. One of the interesting findings in the conceptualization of neoliberal masculinities of the non-West concerns Islam. In domestic politics, the rise of political Islam was produced as a threat to Turkey’s civilizational masculinity, reminding us of the early Republican decades, whereas Islam itself was repeatedly used as a factor that articulated (and convinced the West(s) about) Turkey as a ‘different’ member of the West(s). According to policy-makers, this difference, including those in contemporary governments, rendered Turkey ‘valuable’ and ‘non-expendable’.  The synthesis prepared the foundation for neo-Ottomanism in both domestic and foreign policy. The neo-liberal/Ottomanist decades in Turkey have been the stage of extreme hyperfeminization of society.

However, this is hardly the end of the story. Hyperfeminization of the society has met with societal resistance that transgresses conventional methods of political resistance through producing a non-masculine, non-violent, and intersectional political subject, which also removes the boundaries between the West and non-West. How this new political subject performs herself will be something to follow in the global politics of masculinities.


Turkey, Power and the West is a reading of Turkey’s foreign and domestic policy in a changing historical context and an attempt to understand the puzzle I mentioned in the beginning. Global politics are embodied and embedded in individuals whose daily performances either reproduce or challenge global power relations. I believe that the case of Turkey can offer a same but also different experience of being a non-Western on the edge of the West(s). While enjoying the privileges of being member of or associated with West-centric international institutions such as NATO, OSCE, and the EU, this involvement hardly addresses its historically-constructed gendered ontological insecurity. Its imperial history, the fall from a power position against a rising West, and subsequent attempts to revive rendered Turkey closer to the cases of Russia and Japan. That said, the same history that intersected European, Middle Eastern, and African geographies, histories, and societies has become both a challenge that obscures its ‘Westerness’ and a source of opportunity to prove its ‘value’ to the West(s). Furthermore, gendered ontological insecurity transcending the boundaries between the right, left and political Islam in Turkey has a potential to provide a novel perspective to re-evaluating state-society relations in a Middle Eastern country.

The book aims to offer a new feminist voice from the Middle East to the postcolonial studies, which has been predominantly hosted by invaluable contributions from Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. These works, including – albeit not exclusively – those of L.H.M. Ling, Gayatri Chakravorty  Spivak, Sheila Nair, Sankaran Krishna, Geeta Chowdhry, and Chandra Mohanty, inspired me greatly to write Turkey, Power and the West, and I hope it can contribute to the ongoing dialogue within the feminist/postcolonial scholarship through a new case. That said, the book has the objective to transcend the case of Turkey by making four conceptual points.

Firstly, the theory of masculinities of R.W. Connell has a purchase on detecting, targeting, and problematizing power hierarchies between the West and non-West. If international relations is one of the areas where patriarchy is (re)produced, as feminists have long argued, power hierarchies among masculinities and the ways in which ‘devalorization’ operates to legitimize subordination of peoples, geographies, and histories through questioning their ‘masculine’ credentials cannot be overlooked. Surely, there is no fixed, singular, and non-contingent hegemonic masculinity. Instead, hegemonic masculinities slide, are transformed in time, and co-exist in the articulations of non-Western subjects. However, their subordinating effects that make the non-West so insecure about ‘himself’ persist.

Secondly, it has long been argued that the non-West is imagined and articulated in the West, but less is said about how the West is modulated and produced in the narratives of hybrid non-Western political subjects. The West becomes the Wests in these articulations. Political actors’ modulations of the West reflect their own political interests and ways of positioning their non-Western difference vis-à-vis the West. How to define the West is a question whose answer can be sought in the non-West.

Thirdly, the West is produced in the non-West to legitimize both democratic reforms and non-democratic practices. ‘This is how it is done in the West’ is a repeated narrative shared by policy-makers historically when they need to legitimize certain restrictive policies, especially to hyperfeminize the society. This is an important mechanism that reproduces the West as the source of ‘right’ practices, and therefore, maintains its political and epistemological hegemony.

The final point concerns state-society relations in the non-West. Hyperfeminization of society by the non-Western state in order to address its subordinated masculinity or its gendered insecurity vis-a-vis the West(s), the hybrid non-Western decision-maker performs ‘dual otherization’ of certain societal groups. While the first otherization concerns those societal groups that are represented by the state elite as ‘enemies’ of Westernization/modernization/development, the second concerns ‘others’ that challenge what makes Turkey unique and different from the West. Some individuals and societal groups are caught by both and experience a deep non-Western insecurity. However, it must be noted that the society reacts to hyperfeminization in novel ways. Consequences of these reactions are yet to be seen.

[1] Available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2486.2011.01046.x/full

[2] Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, ‘Power in Global Governance’, in Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall, eds, Power in Global Governance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 13-22.

[3] V. Spike Peterson, ‘Gendered Identities, Ideologies, and Practices in the Context of War and Militarism’, in L Sjoberg and S Via, eds, Gender, War and Militarism: Feminist Perspectives (London: Praeger, 2010), p. 18.



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