7 February 2018

Will Turkey Abandon the West?

Since the Second World War, Turkey has maintained closer political, economic and defensive ties with the West in a bid to boost its level of economic development and security.  Most notably, Turkey established very close defense ties with the United States and even joined NATO, all in a bid to offset what was perceived as the great threat to Turkey’s territorial integrity that was posed by the Soviet Union.  At the same time, Turkey moved to establish close economic ties with Europe, knowing that it needed European investment and export markets to pull itself out of poverty.  While these strong ties lasted for more than 70 years, they have been increasingly strained in recent years, with Turkey moving closer to abandoning many of the strategic and economic ties that have dominated Turkish policy-making for decades.  While some of the fault lies with the policies towards Turkey enacted by the United States, the European Union and other Western actors, much of the blame for this split lies with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose efforts to dominate Turkish politics have put him at odds with Turkey’s Western partners.  Is this the end of Turkey’s ties with the West and a beginning of a new era in Turkish foreign and economic policy?

A number of developments have taken place in recent decades that have led to the increasing split between Turkey and the West.  One of the first of these developments was the United States’ support for the Kurds in Iraq after the First Gulf War (1990-91), as this raised fears in Turkey of the potential creation of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, one that could eventually move to claim Kurdish-populated areas of eastern and southern Turkey.  At the same time, the collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically reduced Russian power, lessening the threat posed by Russia to Turkish territory, notably Turkey’s control of the waters connecting the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea.  Later, as the United States reduced its presence in the Middle East after the Second Gulf War (2003-2011), a power vacuum formed in the region, awakening Turkish ambitions in a region that it had largely ignored since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following the First World War.  While these political developments were taking place, Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union were also floundering, as many EU member states opposed Turkey’s potential membership at the same time as Turkey’s interest in joining the EU waned.  While each of the above developments gradually weakened Turkey’s ties with the West over a period of around 25 years, it has been the efforts to consolidate political power within Turkey by the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that have driven the largest wedge between Turkey and the West in recent years.  As President Erdogan grew tired of the West’s criticism of his erosion of Turkish democracy, and as his grip on power in Turkey strengthened, he simply moved to turn Turkey away from the West and towards its less-critical partners to the north, east and south.

As President Erdogan’s control of all levels of political power in Turkey has been consolidated in recent years, particularly after thwarting 2016’s attempted coup and seeing his powers strengthened by 2017’s constitutional changes, it has been his personal relationship with the West that has been the single greatest split in Turkish-Western relations.  Even in his early days in politics, President Erdogan has been critical of the West, accusing it of seeking to weaken and secularize Turkey and turn it into a base for US ambitions in the Middle East.  Nevertheless, while his power was much weaker than today, he did little to weaken ties with the United States and Europe, aware of the strong ties between Turkey’s armed forces and the US, and Turkish business’ close ties with Europe.  However, now that President Erdogan has dramatically strengthened his grip on power, he no longer feels beholden to his erstwhile Western partners, particularly in the wake of their criticism of his maneuvering to consolidate his grip on power in Turkey.  Add to this the fact that President Erdogan has established closer ties in recent years with countries that are far more willing to ignore his efforts to weaken Turkish democracy, most notably Russia and Iran.

For the time being, it appears that ties between Turkey and the West will remain strained, as disputes over the conflict in Syria, the Kurds and the erosion of democracy in Turkey will continue to divide the two sides.  However, it is clear that Turkey will need to maintain some degree of ties with the West, as its future will be far less secure without these ties.  For example, while Turkey’s current relationship with Russia is better than it has been in recent memory, there are a large number of issues that divide Ankara and Moscow and these issues will not disappear just because of the recent rapprochement between these two long-time adversaries.  As such, Turkey will need to maintain some level of defense ties with the United States in order to offset Russian ambitions in and around Turkish territory.  Meanwhile, Turkey’s neighborhood is likely to remain chaotic for the foreseeable future, forcing Turkey to maintain ties with the West, at least when concerning issues in which the two sides can find common ground.  Economically, Turkey still needs access to European export markets to boost growth in its large manufacturing sector and to attract foreign investment, even if Turkey’s recent run of strong economic growth might convince Ankara that it no longer needs these ties.  Therefore, it is clear that, while the interests of Turkey and the West may have grown apart in recent years, the two sides need each other, while Turkey must understand that the country’s need for ties with the West outweigh President Erdogan’s interest in breaking these ties for his own personal gain.