President Joe Biden attends a bilateral meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the NATO Summit, Wednesday, June 29, 2022, at IFEMA Madrid in Madrid. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
Image: Flickr/The White House
By Aiden Zhang
The U.S.-Turkey security relationship, forged at the outset of the Cold War and formalized through Turkey’s accession to NATO in 1952, was, for decades, a cornerstone of regional stability. However, with the political ascension of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the early 2000s, Turkey has turned away from the ideological legacy of its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and assumed a more conservative, Islamic, and imperial posture. Modern Turkish security policy has become progressively more unilateral, defined by the pursuit of strategic autonomy. As a result, American and Turkish interests have diverged such that the scope of feasible cooperation between the two has become severely limited. Given its detrimental effects on NATO’s ability to operate, Washington would be wise to recognize this shift in Turkish strategic thought and reassess and deinstitutionalize the relationship accordingly.
In the Erdogan era, Turkey’s foreign policy is primarily driven by the development of a strategically autonomous, “Turkey First,” and nationalistic foreign policy. This stands in stark contrast to Turkey’s 20th-century consensus in which Turkey remained a generally unproblematic member of the Western bloc as its political class attempted to modernize, which in their minds meant to westernize, the country. This rise in nationalist sentiment has even been reflected in the attitudes of individual Turks. In a 2017 poll of Turkish voters, 84 percent of respondents either strongly or somewhat agreed with the statement, “Global economic and political elites have too much power over Turkey and should be resisted.”
The results of this new approach have been twofold. First, Turkey has shown an increased willingness to operate unilaterally. The clearest instance of this is Turkey’s 2019 invasion of northern Syria following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American soldiers from the region. Another instrument of Erdogan’s unilateral foreign policy has been the sale of Bayraktar drones, which Turkey has used to shape events throughout the Black Sea and Caucuses. Turkish drones played a key role in Ukraine’s defense against Russia in the early stages of the invasion and have also been deployed in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The second effect has been Turkey’s distancing itself from the United States to take a more geopolitically flexible position. Turkey’s aforementioned invasion of Syria was in stark defiance of Washington’s wishes. Additionally, in 2017, Turkey purchased $2.5 billion worth of Russia’s S-400 missile defense systems, despite the express opposition of multiple NATO members. Similarly, while the United States and most NATO members have stood strongly behind Ukraine in its war against Russia, Turkey has positioned itself as more of a mediator in the conflict.
As a consequence, Turkey’s security cooperation with the United States has become increasingly constrained. The two may cooperate when Turkish and American interests align, but Turkey is unafraid to undermine American interests when they diverge from Turkish ones. Erdogan’s pursuit of strategic autonomy requires that Turkey, despite being the smaller power, demonstrably assert a foreign policy independent of its more powerful strategic partner.
However, the formal terms of the U.S.-Turkey relationship simply do not reflect this reality. As an institution, NATO relies on the near total overlap of its members’ strategic interests: the efficacy of Article 5’s collective defense guarantee hinges on member states believing strongly in some collective political interest. Turkey is currently an unreliable strategic partner, and U.S. policymakers should downgrade the existing security relationship to better reflect the realities of the partnership. Turkey would perhaps be a better “global partner” for NATO, in the vein of Japan or Australia, than it would be a full-fledged alliance member. Washington should furthermore not worry about pushing Ankara towards Moscow, given that the two are structurally inclined towards competition due to their competing interests in the Black Sea and Caucuses regions. Turkey has, for instance, historically been one of the strongest advocates of expanding NATO membership to nations victimized by Russian aggression, such as Georgia and Ukraine. Simply put, barring some geopolitical cataclysm, Russia and Turkey will never be close allies, and such has been the case since one was ruled by a Sultan-Caliph and the other by a Tsar.
Besides being more consistent in principle, the United States should also consider downgrading the U.S.-Turkey security relationship because of the identifiable harms Turkey’s NATO membership generates. Turkey frequently quarrels with Greece, another NATO member. These intra-bloc conflicts divert attention and political capital away from more pertinent European security issues while undermining the credibility of Article 5 and hence the efficacy of NATO as a whole.
The greatest source of friction in Turkey’s NATO membership, however, comes not from conflicts over European affairs but from America’s support for, or lack of strong condemnation of, various Kurdish groups. For decades, Turkey has been engaged in a sporadic conflict with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in the southeast of the country. While both the United States and European Union formally declare the PKK to be a terrorist organization, Turkey both deems Western efforts to combat the group insufficient and opposes Washington’s cooperation with Kurdish groups in Syria, specifically the People’s Defense Units (YPG). In a 2021 interview, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar criticized Turkey’s security partners in the West, saying, “NATO members have fought relentlessly against terrorist organizations in many parts of the world, but unfortunately, they have not shown the same resolve in taking on the PKK terrorist group and its Syrian wing, the YPG.”
Turkey has prioritized these concerns to such an extent that it now leverages its position in NATO to extract concessions from the West. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Turkey blocked NATO’s defense plans for Poland and the Baltics, hoping to force concessions on the classification of the Syrian YPG, and more recently, Turkey has raised objections to Sweden’s membership bid citing concerns over PKK members in Sweden.
Devastated by earthquakes and spiraling inflation, Turkey now stands at a turning point. This year’s general election will play a crucial role in determining the character of the Turkish state on both the domestic and international levels for the next decade. Should the opposition triumph and Turkey’s posture return to its pre-Erdogan status quo, the security relationship between the United States and Turkey may yet be salvaged; however, if Erdogan maintains his grip on power or if Turkey returns to the path that he has charted, the alliance will only become more strained and nonsensical over time. As Turkey “goes it alone” on the world stage, Washington must recognize this fact and not sacrifice its European security architecture in the name of the myth of common interest.
Aiden Zhang is a student at Tufts University. This essay was an honorable mention in the 2023 John Quincy Adams Society Student Foreign Policy Essay Contest