Turkey has moved a long way from being an essential pillar of NATO during the Cold War, a reliable member of the Council of Europe, and a promising EU candidate country to adopting the posture of a disruptive partner for the West. Disputes with European countries and the United States have recently mushroomed, while Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture has been steadily dismantled and its economy is suffering from incongruous policies and years of cronyism.
The year 2020 marked a watershed for Turkey’s relations with its traditional Western partners. The country’s foreign policy became heavily militarized in an attempt to affirm Ankara’s power in its near abroad and fuel a fiercely nationalist narrative.
Turkey’s deliberate disruption has major consequences for its relationships with its Western allies and NATO. In response, the new U.S. administration and the EU should take a series of steps in early 2021 to protect their interests and those of the North Atlantic alliance while offering to maintain close relations with Turkey.
From Economic and Governance Reforms to Democratic Decline and Military Buildup
Turkey’s contemporary history is one of deep engagement with Europe and the West. The country’s Western orientation has long been a guiding principle in Ankara’s international posture—from its participation in the 1950–1953 Korean War to its accessions to the Council of Europe in 1950 and NATO in 1952; from its 1963 association agreement with the European Economic Community to the 1995 EU-Turkey Customs Union; and from its elimination of the death penalty in the early 2000s to the agreement to open EU accession negotiations in 2004.
During this period, Europe and the United States had a reliable partner on the Bosporus. More recently, relations have taken on a much more challenging dimension.
A Reformist AKP
Initially, the tenure of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which secured its first electoral victory in 2002, was marked by economic progress and governance reforms. At current prices, Turkey’s GDP per capita almost tripled between 2002 and 2019. However, this impetuous growth was far from linear, with ups and downs that betray an unbalanced—and, at times, dysfunctional—political and economic system.
The first years of AKP rule brought about major institutional and political change. Breaking with the past and engaging in positive talks with the EU, the new government started a series of structural reforms that pushed the economy to unprecedented levels of growth. When Turkey’s EU accession negotiations started in 2005, the country aligned with European norms and standards in many domains, with financial and technical support from the EU.
The 2007–2008 global financial crisis and the successive rebound only partly masked a period of slow growth that originated in the mid-2000s. When Cyprus entered the EU in May 2004 and Ankara refused to normalize relations with its government, EU-Turkish relations started degrading. Brussels imposed restrictions on Turkey’s accession process in December 2006, followed by Cyprus and France. In the second half of the decade, the AKP strengthened its pervasive grasp on the country’s power centers to create an environment conducive to corruption and cronyism.
A Turn to Authoritarianism
Since the beginning of the 2000s, Ankara has made no further serious attempt to reform its economic and financial system. Even at the peak of its growth, Turkey’s reliance on hard-currency borrowing and foreign investment exposed the country to external shocks. A slowdown in economic reforms was accompanied by a step-by-step democratic decline, which accelerated dramatically in 2013.
The brutal response to the 2013 Gezi Park civic protests and the spectacular fallout between Turkey’s then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen, until then his political ally, marked a turning point. That led to purges in the police, the judiciary, and the public administration and to the deterioration of Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture, including the muzzling of the media and the harassment of civil society organizations, free thinkers, and lawyers.
Later, after the failed July 2016 coup, corrective measures took on the dimensions of a massive and seemingly endless purge: around 150,000 civil servants have been fired, while some 70,000 others remain detained, many without any indictment. Among thousands of others, the baseless detentions of the journalists and authors Ahmet and Mehmet Altan, the Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtaş, the journalist Nazlı Ilıcak, and the businessman and philanthropist Osman Kavala illustrate the fundamental rift between Turkey and its Western partners. These cases are clear violations of Ankara’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
That Turkey’s democracy kept deteriorating is no surprise. Since the outset, Erdoğan, who became prime minister in 2003 and president in 2014, has practiced a form of democracy centered on ballot-box legitimacy. This narrow concept has never included a genuine role for the traditional checks and balances seen in Western democracies.
With the 2017 constitutional referendum and the 2018 presidential election, a new power system became a reality in Turkey: the head of state gained almost limitless powers and the position of prime minister was eliminated. However, the massive successes of opposition parties in the 2019 municipal elections—despite the government’s efforts to overturn the outcome of the Istanbul mayoral race—are a telling sign of Ankara’s increasing difficulties in holding onto power in liberal cities amid an economic crisis.
Made necessary by the AKP’s declining public support, in February 2018 the AKP and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) created a People’s Alliance, predictably resulting in a hardening of positions on a host of subjects. On the internal front, the country’s democratic norms and relations with the Kurds have deteriorated further, with democratically elected mayors and parliamentarians from the Kurdish-origin Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) being targeted in particular. Externally, Turkey’s assertive foreign policy has included the expansionist Blue Homeland doctrine in the Eastern Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, continued disputes with Cyprus, and an enhanced military role in Turkey’s perceived sphere of influence.
Compared with the early 2010s, the years leading up to 2020 saw Turkey acting on the international stage with a very different outlook. Overall, the European Commission’s 2020 assessment of Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture was pretty bleak. The European Parliament’s draft assessment was equally negative.
A Military Buildup and Cooperation With Russia
A strong military buildup—planned since the early years of the AKP’s rule and made possible by a major drive for innovation and performance in the country’s defense industry—is now showing its effects. This buildup is a decisive factor in enhancing Turkey’s external operations capabilities and is allowing the leadership to establish itself as a more assertive foreign policy player.
More equipment is slated to come into operation from 2021 onward, in particular a helicopter carrier, the Bayraktar Akıncı high-altitude long-endurance armed drone, and an unmanned naval attack vessel. However, the country depends on Western suppliers for engines, radars, countermeasure systems, optics, and missile-defense systems. This structural weakness—and the associated risk of these components being embargoed—will likely be overcome thanks to the dynamism of Turkey’s national defense industry and its diversification of supplies from foreign governments, such as those of South Korea, Ukraine, or the United Kingdom (UK). In this context, Turkey’s deployment of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles introduced a political contingency in the form of dependence on Russian personnel for training and maintenance.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s participation in NATO policies and operations continues—albeit with major limitations linked to the Turkish leadership’s political objectives, as in 2020, when it blocked NATO support for Poland and the Baltic states.
Simultaneously, Turkey did not hesitate to hamper the alliance’s missile-defense architecture by deploying the S-400 missiles at the heart of its military, which is one of NATO’s largest and hosts several alliance facilities. Given that these weapons systems are oversize compared with the potential threats to Turkey in its region, their deployment is more a political statement than a military measure. In addition, Turkey granted overflight rights to Russia’s air force, considerably shortening the route from Russia to the Russian-operated Hmeimim Air Base in Syria and onward to eastern Libya, thus facilitating Moscow’s policies in the region. However, the Turkey-Russia relationship is complex and composed of not only cooperation but also divergences and conflicts.
Disruption in an Expansionist Framework
Turkey’s current foreign policy is both disruptive and deeply rooted in domestic politics. This produces political unreliability.
Disruption as the New Normal
In late 2019 and 2020, Turkey’s assertive foreign policy reached a watershed moment with its traditional allies due to a string of initiatives. In November 2019, Turkey signed a bilateral agreement with Libya on maritime boundaries in exchange for a security pact involving military trainers and advisers as well as deliveries of equipment. That triggered a serious crisis with Cyprus, Greece, and the entire EU. A Turkish naval deployment to support research and drilling activities in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean led to a major incident with a Greek frigate in August 2020, followed by NATO efforts to establish a deconfliction mechanism between Athens and Ankara.
Similarly, Turkey’s massive air and sea deliveries of armaments to Libya’s Government of National Accord continued despite Ankara’s commitment at the January 2020 Berlin Conference to stop delivering arms to all parties in the conflict and an arms embargo unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. This situation ended in several incidents at sea.
In February–March 2020, Turkey’s Ministry of Interior launched a paramilitary assault at the country’s land border with Greece. This operation, which was conducted by 1,000 Turkish special forces officers, consisted in busing to the frontier about 5,800 refugees who had been recruited in Istanbul with the false promise of an open border with the EU. Because of the EU’s solidarity with Greece, which had blocked the border, the Turkish authorities repatriated the refugees across the country.
Furthermore, Turkey proclaimed in November 2020 that efforts to negotiate a comprehensive agreement for Cyprus had become futile. Instead, Turkey stated that a two-state solution was now its favored option, rejecting a bicommunal, bizonal federal model.
In implementing this foreign policy, Ankara ditched the dialogue-and-compromise approach expected among European neighbors and instead fueled permanent tensions, despite occasional statements to the contrary. In the case of maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara received an offer of dialogue from the European Council but did not follow up on it, with the ironic result that the EU’s willingness to negotiate on this key issue for Turkey was wasted. In other cases, Turkey’s leadership resorted to verbal attacks on Dutch, French, and German politicians—an astounding attitude reminiscent of similar incidents in March and September 2017 with Germany and the Netherlands.
The December 10–11, 2020, European Council meeting decided to impose sanctions on Turkey because of its research and drilling activities. Acting on sanctions sent a powerful signal, although their impact will likely be minimal because they are limited to Turkey’s gas operations.
The November 2020 election of Joe Biden as U.S. president sent an alarming message to Ankara that the era of a strong personal relationship between the Turkish president and his U.S. counterpart might be over. This bond had spared Turkey from many of the possible sanctions it could have incurred for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles and the Halkbank scheme, in which a Turkish state-owned bank evaded U.S. sanctions against Iran. Yet, on December 14, 2020, the administration of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump announced sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in response to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missiles.
A Foreign Policy Rooted in Domestic Politics
To the West, Turkey’s foreign policy may appear labyrinthine because of Ankara’s pursuit of a vast array of economic, military, security, and ideological objectives. Turkey’s foreign policy certainly disconcerts Western leaders, but the country’s official narrative is that its membership in the North Atlantic alliance does not prevent it from having relations with Russia, China, or Middle Eastern states.
Scholars have described Turkey’s foreign policy as “filling the voids and correcting the wrongs,” meaning that it builds on the accelerated U.S. disengagement from the Mediterranean and the Middle East; the EU’s absence as a diplomatic actor across the region; and the persistence of unresolved disputes in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus, which Turkey sees as crucial for its interests.
Domestic politics in Turkey has led Ankara to focus its foreign policy choices on topics on which there is consensus at home: the Kurdish insurgency, access to Eastern Mediterranean waters, the rights of the Turkish Cypriot community, and Azerbaijan’s rights over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. This has helped rally several opposition parties around the flag.
As a result, a large segment of Turkey’s domestic audience sees the country as having risen to an international status on a par with the EU, Russia, and the United States—a valuable prize for many. In this logic, the Turkish leadership claims a wider role on the international stage, at an equal distance from all major powers, instead of confining itself to a narrow framework.
Analysts have tried to put Ankara’s recent foreign policy shifts into a strategic and historical perspective. For some, like Galip Dalay, writing for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, “Turkey believes that its interests are better served through a balancing act between traditional ties to the West and recently improving relations with countries like Russia and China,” while its memberships in NATO and the Council of Europe no longer provide “the framework—or even a point of reference—for Turkey’s foreign and security policy choices.” For others, like Hugh Pope and Nigar Göksel, writing for Chatham House, Turkey has always done its own thing: “rejection of subjugation to the West has long been the bedrock of Turkish politics, whether its leadership was religious or secular, leftist or rightwing.”
For all the intellectual efforts to demonstrate strong consistency rooted in geography and history, Turkey’s current foreign policy is in reality deeply grounded in domestic politics—and this at a time of a persistent economic crisis, a severe global pandemic, and poor governmental approval ratings in opinion polls.
To the national audience, the Turkish leadership offers new narratives based on a spirit of conquest and references to the formation of modern-day Turkey in 1923. Speaking on the country’s Victory Day in 2020, Erdoğan said, “We are determined to welcome 2023, the centenary of the Republic, as an economically, militarily, politically stronger, more independent, more prosperous country.” The president cited “critical accomplishments from Syria to Libya, from the Black Sea to [the] Eastern Mediterranean” as the “clearest indication of our will to protect our country’s rights and interests.”
As a vivid illustration of this statement, Turkey’s efficient use of tactical drones in Azerbaijan, Libya, and Syria proved that these assets were not only a military but also a political game changer, helping Ankara acquire greater influence in these conflicts. As a result, Turkey emerged as a regional partner nobody could ignore and few could confront.
The overarching objective is clear: 2023 is the year of a presidential election the leadership cannot lose and of the Republic’s centennial celebrations, which it cannot miss. This domestic political imperative will continue to shape Turkey’s foreign policy in the near future.
Disruption Leads to Political Unreliability
Whether justified from a conceptual standpoint or driven by domestic political necessities, disruptive economic, foreign, and security policies from a NATO member and a country industrially integrated with the EU lead to massive unreliability and uncertainty. Turkey’s economy has suffered blows from wary investors, bankers, traders, and tourists.
In November 2020, Turkey narrowly avoided a monetary crisis after spending massive amounts of hard currency to no avail: it is estimated that Ankara spent up to $140 billion over two years to defend the Turkish lira. The ousters of the finance minister and the central bank governor were accompanied by a spectacular reversal of monetary policy, with a substantial rise in interest rates, contrary to the president’s preferences. But because Ankara continues to hint at high interest rates being the cause of high levels of inflation, international financial circles and Turkey’s citizens have reserved judgment on the government’s approach.
Then, Turkey launched a brisk charm offensive with the EU and the new U.S. president. A case in point was Erdoğan’s speech on November 22, 2020, in which he said, “We see ourselves as an inseparable part of Europe. We have always been the strongest member of Western Alliances, NATO in particular.” The message was repeated on January 12 by the Turkish president. These statements are in stark contradiction to the deployment of Russian missiles and fierce anti-EU and anti-American declarations in 2019 and 2020.
Such abrupt reversals in positions have left a mark in Western capitals: Turkey’s leadership is prone to repeatedly adjusting its foreign policy narratives to suit domestic political requirements. This creates massive foreign policy uncertainty for Ankara’s European and U.S. partners because Turkey simultaneously plays friend and foe or acts both with and against NATO. In turn, this requires a strategic rethink in the West.
A Strategic Rethink in the West
In 2021, Turkey’s Western partners and NATO will ask many questions about the country’s disruptive and expansionist policies.
On the political side, Turkey’s partners will have to assess the strategic risk of a leadership that routinely uses anti-Western, conspiracy-based, nationalist narratives while ignoring several of its international commitments. Turkey’s arbitrary treatment of opponents, free thinkers, and human rights activists will also constitute a major factor in Western assessments. Another source of political uncertainty will be the date of the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 2023 and their potential cancellation by the leadership.
On the security side, the West’s strategic assessment of Turkey’s interactions with Russia in Azerbaijan, Libya, and Syria is bound to raise many questions, as could be foreseen in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. The stark reality is that, directly or indirectly, Ankara has helped further Moscow’s objectives against NATO and the EU—a posture many in the West see as a game changer more than a balancing act.
In this context, the continued development of Turkey’s military industry under current programs is not necessarily perceived as an asset for NATO. Due to the constant bargaining between Ankara and Moscow on multiple fronts, Turkey’s behavior in case of potential tensions between Russia and NATO in, say, the Baltics, Ukraine, or the Black Sea has inevitably become a factor of uncertainty. Ankara’s recent proclamations of its strong bonds with NATO are not enough to dispel this uncertainty, especially in circumstances in which Russia can impose political and economic constraints or inflict military damage on Turkey.
On the economic side, the EU will have to assess whether further integration with Turkey through the customs union makes sense when none of the basic prerequisites exists: a level economic playing field, an independent judiciary, or basic freedoms. Conversely, the EU will have to examine the benefits, if any, of canceling the current customs union, as some in the EU have called for.
It is probable that Turkey will want to stay anchored to the EU, mostly for economic reasons, but with no conditions linked to the rule of law. The country has very few alternatives in terms of trade, short-term finance, foreign direct investment, or technology—even if a degree of diversification will occur in energy supplies and weapons procurement. The strong linkages between citizens of Turkey and their Western European counterparts will remain active in the fields of culture, education, and civil society, but fundamental freedoms will increasingly be at risk in the present political context.
Six Steps for a Rebalanced Relationship
The transatlantic partners face the same challenge: how to strike the right balance between containing Turkey’s actions when they are most hostile to Western interests, on the one hand, and maintaining the appropriate level of economic and security cooperation while enticing tangible improvements in the rule of law, on the other.
In doing so, Western governments will have to factor in multiple parameters: Turkey’s continued strategic importance for NATO; Russia’s sustained pressure on Turkey to diverge from NATO and the EU; the risk that a Russian assault in Syria’s Idlib province will trigger a new wave of refugees toward Turkey; Erdoğan’s domestic priorities; a potential aggravation of Turkey’s severe economic crisis; and the political impossibility for European leaders to meaningfully discuss Turkey’s EU accession path at a time when Turkish constitutional order is as far away as ever from EU rule-of-law standards.
With these factors in mind, the EU and the United States need to take a series of steps to protect their interests and those of the transatlantic alliance.
First, they should send coordinated signals that disruptive unilateral decisions and hostile narratives are no longer tolerated. This would at least avoid Ankara playing its allies off against one another.
Second, Brussels and Washington should devise measures to minimize the adverse impact of Turkey’s deployment of non-NATO assets and avoid a degradation of the alliance’s strength vis-à-vis Russia. Such measures could at best include the complete removal of the S-400 missiles—or, otherwise, contingency procedures in NATO.
Third, the Euro-Atlantic partners should limit exports of military components to Turkey if Ankara’s disruptive policies remain unchanged, its relations with Russia are not clarified, and Western calls for dialogue go unheeded. Such a move would send a powerful signal that critical Western supplies cannot be used to increase security risks for Western allies.
Fourth, the EU and the United States should sanction the Turkish individuals most involved in dismantling the rule of law and interfering with the domestic politics of Western countries. This would be consistent with Turkey’s commitments under the NATO and Council of Europe charters.
Fifth, the EU should delay the introduction of a new cooperation framework until Ankara makes a measurable return to a rule-of-law status that corresponds to Turkey’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and a partner of the EU. Preparatory work should take into account the newly signed EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which is now the most advanced treaty between the EU and a third country. The union should also opt out of the idea of an Eastern Mediterranean conference, which would give Turkey de facto recognition of Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus.
Finally, the EU should maintain tangible offers of negotiation on maritime boundaries and of support for Syrian refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border and in Turkey. These offers, which should come with precise time frames and methodologies, would demonstrate that mutually beneficial cooperation is possible when hostile behavior subsides.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Center for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) for its support of this publication. CATS is funded by the Mercator Stiftung and the German Federal Foreign Office and is the curator of the CATS Network, an international network of think tanks and research institutions working on Turkey.