Is Turkey Drifting Again? A Missile Deal Gone Bad & Internal Shifts in Ankara

November 13, 2013

Editor’s Note: WOTR is proud to welcome Joshua Walker as a regular contributor.


Turkey today is at a crossroads. It is more globally engaged than at any time since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.  Yet in the wake of the “Arab Spring” and the massive domestic “Gezi Park” protests against the decade-long rule of Prime Minister Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ankara’s international relationships are strained. Predictably, given this turmoil, an announcement concerning a highly anticipated missile system – which will be Turkey’s largest military procurement to date – has taken on a life of its own. Unfortunately, in the midst of all the analysis and prognostications, policymakers and commentators are missing internal shifts in Ankara that have broader implications for the age-old debates about Turkey’s orientation and U.S.-Turkey relations.

Turkey announced in September that it had chosen the China Precision Machinery Export-Import Corporation (CPMIEC) to buy its first long-range anti-missile system, estimated to be worth over $4 billion. The announcement raised more than a few eyebrows and is symptomatic of evolving dynamics in Turkish domestic and foreign policy. The move irritated its NATO allies, particularly the United States, which had put together competing bids from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, as well as the Italian-French consortium Eurosam, not to mention Russia’s Rosoboron. To add insult to injury, the winning Chinese company is facing sanctions for selling arms and missile technology to Iran and Syria at a moment when Turkey continues to benefit from NATO-provided missile defense systems in its southeast on the Syrian border.

Western officials were swift in their criticism and words of caution, and Turkish officials reacted strongly to any suggestion that their “national rights” and “sovereignty” were being undermined by outside pressure. The rhetoric surrounding the decision has been discounted as being typically bombastic and emotional for domestic consumption, but there is more than meets the eye in this case. Recent visits to Turkey by Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Jim Miller and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland for bilateral consultations signal the extent to which this missile deal has become a litmus test for the broader U.S.-Turkish partnership that has ebbed and flowed over the last decade.

Recently, the civilian leadership of Prime Minister Erdoğan has been dictating to the Turkish military the terms of engagement and procurement. As such, the missile deal should be understood as a symptom rather than a cause of evolving domestic Turkish politics. Except for a few Turkish defense industry-watchers, few international observers have followed the gradual shift in power from the highly bureaucratic and technocratic world of the National Defense Ministry’s procurement agency to the highly politicized Prime Minister’s office. As a result, pro-American defense lobbyists, former Turkish and American generals among them, became more of a liability than an asset.  These lobbyists are no longer the most effective influencers for Turkish procurement decisions.

Warning signs of this shift have abounded over the course of recent bilateral U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation. For instance, American military strategists often found their Turkish counterparts hamstrung and unable to fully engage, a result of strong political pressure from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Prime Ministry, which oversaw such exercises directly in order to manage political sensitivities in Ankara. The cultural nuances of doing business in Turkey have also been lost. In Turkey, emotional rhetoric is deployed publicly to gain political support, and there is little appreciation for the more bureaucratic and constrained nature of American negotiations, which involve tedious interagency buy-in and planning to reach specific parameters. Top Turkish officials have expressed surprise at what they see as an overreaction on the part of Western officials, without fully appreciating how long many top officials have been biting their agency’s bureaucratic tongue until a moment such as this. Poisoning the well as a concept does not translate well in Turkish politics, where bitter rivals can suddenly reconcile and negotiate on items from the trivial, such as carpets, to the important, such as missiles.

Putting rhetoric aside, China is not Turkey’s natural global partner, but it is a useful foil for Ankara’s global ambitions. Having stalled in its European Union membership quest over the last several years, Turkey’s flirtation with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was met with apathy and ridicule rather than the attention Turkish officials may have expected.  China pragmatically focused on concrete areas of cooperation such as energy and military procurements while Turkey continued to make grand international pronouncements on issues over which it had little control. Ankara, like Washington, faces a new world in the aftermath of the “Arab Spring” and challenges in its neighborhood, both as a result of poor choices it has taken in unabashedly backing Morsi and extremist Syrian rebels as well as the rhetoric that it has deployed towards this effect.  Having built and reoriented itself into a regional power, Turkey aspires to lead at the very moment in which NATO and U.S. partnership has never been more needed. Unlike a decade ago, when Ankara empowered itself by telling Washington “no” on a U.S. proposal to send troops through Turkish territory to invade Iraq, Turkey today finds itself more isolated and marginalized internationally.

Turkey’s isolation in its neighborhood is a largely self-inflicted problem of emotional rhetoric, unrealistic ambitions, and miscalculation of its own capabilities. For example, its brash support for deposed Egyptian President Morsi in the face of mounting domestic opposition to his rule, empowerment of the Al Nusra front in Syria, and dismissive snubs to Cypriot and Israeli entreats have all backed Turkey into a corner. Washington is uniquely positioned to help Ankara avoid similar provocations in the future, but the Turkish government has few genuine friends left. Refocusing attention on its potential relationship with the West will allow Ankara to constructively engage its immediate neighborhood again, while simultaneously drawing closer through business ventures and private sector allies that can help rebuild its role as a regional leader it so desperately craves. Without an overarching holistic strategy of coordinating and targeting opportunities for the United States with Turkey, the U.S.-Turkish alliance will continue to be an important historic factor, but miss its full potential.

Rather than seeing the September missile decision as being final, it should be seen as the beginning of real negotiations that will be triggered by the attention this controversial decision caused and a warning to the West about taking Turkey for granted. Given the extent to which CPMIEC catered to Turkish requests for joint production and domestic partnerships – often at levels thought to be unrealistic for the type of sophisticated technology – Ankara has set a very high bar for further negotiations with Western defense contractors who had banked on NATO inter-operability and government support to win the contract. If these companies are to have any real chance they will need to actively engage in Turkish politics to understand how decisions are now being made in Ankara, and not put their collective eggs in any one interlocutor’s basket.

U.S. policy on Turkey is in need of greater attention and focus not just because of recent domestic events and this decision, but also because the paradoxes of the country continue to divide US policymakers internally. The Obama administration focused on its relationship with Erdoğan in its first term without gaining much in return. Meanwhile, fissures within the bureaucracies at the Pentagon and the State Department, along with regional and functional groupings within many of these agencies such as the Near Eastern or European and Eurasian Affairs Bureaus, competed internally to the detriment of broader strategic objectives. A more centralized and personal node for policymaking on Turkey needs to precede the type of creative re-thinking needed on a country that has changed so dramatically in the last decade.

Ankara is taking Washington’s displeasure seriously, as illustrated by the recent dispatching of a dizzying array of top officials – including the Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Finance Minister, and various undersecretaries – all within the span of less than a month. This signals Erdoğan’s underlying need to reset his internal policies to reunite domestic politics and sustain economic growth rates so that he has a platform for a positive foreign policy.  If the AKP loses its home field in next year’s municipal and national election or there is an economic crisis, Erdoğan will not be able to extend his influence outward.  The region and China in particular knows this and will play on it.  Similarly, if the United States starts pulling liquidity out of the markets, the Turkish economy will contract from its record growth rates and cause destabilization. Therefore Washington needs to learn how to negotiate with Ankara and reframe this critical relationship before decisions such as this one unleash further rhetoric that could eventually become self-fulfilling prophesies if not adequately addressed. As Turkey’s foreign minister gets set to travel to Washington next week, it’s well worth preparing the ground for a constructive discussion on this deal and many other areas of mutual cooperation moving forward.

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a Fellow at the Truman National Security Project and previously served as a Senior Adviser to the U.S. Department of State. He is a contributor to War on the Rocks.