Make New Friends, But Keep the Old? Turkey’s Precarious Balancing Act
When Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his new term as Turkey’s president earlier this month, the Turkish press heralded it as the beginning of a new, triumphant era in the country’s foreign relations. As evidence, the Turkish state news agency shared an infographic touting the heads of state who would be attending Erdogan’s inauguration. And indeed, the guest list offered a revealing look at what might be in store for the future of Turkish foreign policy.
Among those joining Erdogan were the heads of nearby states such as Bosnia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Georgia, as well as leaders from Islamic and African countries such as Pakistan, Sudan, Qatar, Somalia, Mauritania, and Zambia. Russia sent Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, while Nicolas Maduro traveled from Venezuela on behalf of the revolutionary left. The United States was represented only by the American embassy’s chargé d’affaires. Western Europe declined to send any current heads of state, but Gerhard Schröder and Silvio Berlusconi, two former leaders with a less than stellar reputation for their private and business dealings, showed up in a personal capacity.
Erdogan’s guest list, and its absences, highlight the global constituencies he has been successful in cultivating as well as those he’s alienated in the process. During Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey has positioned itself as the anti-imperalist champion of the powerless and marginalized, as well as a friend to those regional powers who reject the current global order. This has created newfound opportunities for Turkey, and serious dangers as well. The fundamental question facing Turkish foreign policy now is: Can Erdogan be the champion of the world’s downtrodden while staying on good terms with those he claims are doing the trodding?
Having been invited to the annual BRICS meeting in South Africa last week, Erdogan declared that the “current global system satisfies no one other than a minority whose interests have been guaranteed.” There are many in the world who would agree. The problem for Erdogan, though, is that in challenging this system too aggressively, he risks many of the interests that Turkey has secured as one of the states that helped build it over the past half century.
Ankara faces variations of this dilemma on all sides. In the Middle East, for example, Erdogan has used righteous religious rhetoric in taking the side of the Palestinians in Israel and the deposed Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Most recently, his high-profile stance on Jerusalem has won him admiration around the region, and if Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ever lost power, the Turkish president’s stubborn support of the Brotherhood could well be rewarded. But standing with the stateless and out of power has also cost Turkey its relations with a number of wealthy and powerful states that collectively carry considerable weight: among those absent at the inauguration were not just Israel and Egypt but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.
Turkey faces an even more complicated trade-off in Syria, where Erdogan’s opposition to Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues to hinder his efforts to improve ties with Russia and Iran. Erdogan has not hidden his ideological affinity for members of the axis of resistance, yet in Syria his sympathies and interests lie with their victims. This conflict will intensify rather than dissipate as the war enters its final phase. If Assad moves to retake Idlib with Russian and Iranian backing in the coming months, Turkey will be faced with the final defeat of the rebel groups it sponsored in Syria, as well as a massive influx of refugees and armed extremists. To effectively confront Russia and Iran in Syria, Ankara would need Western support; to achieve its aims by appeasing them, by contrast, risks further straining relations with Washington.
Beyond Syria, Turkey could soon face a more profound choice over its relationship with Iran. With Washington re-imposing sanctions on Tehran, and perhaps moving toward a regional confrontation with the Islamic Republic, Turkey risks being forced to pick sides in a way it has worked hard to avoid doing in the past. Turkey’s state-run Halkbank is already facing fines for helping Iran evade earlier sanctions, and Ankara has now announced it will not cooperate with future U.S. sanctions either. Amidst a number of pre-existing disputes with Washington, this could well provoke a more serious crisis, particularly if Turkey’s already fragile economy faced the threat of secondary sanctions.
While Erdogan may clash with his Western partners, though, it’s not just Berlusconi and Schroeder who can see the geopolitical and financial value of finding a way to keep working with him. Despite the public spats, for example, Turkey’s trade ties with Israel are doing just fine, and Turkey recently patched up its relations with the Netherlands after a period of strain. Following his re-election, Erdogan seemed hopeful his critics would finally realize he was here to stay and agree to deal with him accordingly. But Erdogan’s instincts have consistently led him to run afoul of Western hypocrisy instead of exploiting it. Put bluntly, if you want the benefit of the West’s “good dictator” treatment, you have to be the kind of dictator the West wants. Erdogan’s penchant for provocative rhetoric and symbolic acts of defiance have generated a level of anger in Western capitals that human rights abuses alone would not. To take only the most striking example, Turkey now faces intensified U.S. sanctions not for jailing the country’s most prominent Kurdish politician, almost a hundred journalists or tens of thousands of other citizens on dubious charges, but because it refuses to release a single American pastor.
Erdogan’s political position also creates unique challenges in working with anti-establishment movements in the West that might otherwise help offset his growing estrangement. Where many mainstream politicians in Europe and America have grown increasingly critical of Erdogan’s authoritarianism, there are those further toward both ideological extremes who are far less concerned. Like Maduro, who has embraced Erdogan from the far left, right-wing populists like Viktor Orban have also seen Turkey as a potential partner in challenging the liberal status quo. Yet while some on the far left are happy to defend Assad, their sympathy for the Kurds makes Erdogan less palatable. With the far right, in turn, the problem is racism and Islamophobia, as shown most recently in the reactions to Mesut Ozil’s retirement.
Of course, diplomacy is the art of transcending such dilemmas, raising the question of just how successful Erdogan might be. Can Turkey have its anti-imperialist cake and eat it too? Can it ride the wave of anti-Western resistance while remaining anchored in the West? Can it keep one foot in the Global North and one in the Global South? In short, can it successfully mix its geopolitical alignments like so many ill-thought-out metaphors?
In addition to intensely nationalistic and ideological self-confidence, Ankara has based its hope for success on the upending of U.S. foreign policy and the accompanying sense of upheaval in the global order. Indeed, the convoluted and changing contours of U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to NATO, Russia and Iran , might offer Turkey more room to navigate. U.S.-Russian cooperation in Syria could unexpectedly make it easier for Ankara to achieve its interests in Idlib without alienating either side. And if the Trump administration overreaches in trying to impose secondary sanctions against Europeans doing business with Iran, the backlash could give Turkey cover for its own refusal to cooperate. At the same time, the fallout from Brexit has already made London increasingly solicitous of Ankara, while turbulence within NATO makes the risks of alienating Turkey appear that much greater.
Still, if the world is changing, it may not be changing quickly or completely enough to resolve the contradictions facing Turkey. Turkey, if not always all of its citizens, benefitted enormously from over a half century of close integration into the economic and security infrastructure of the West. This infrastructure has become increasingly strained, but Turkey’s interests remain closely tied up with it, no matter how steadfastly Erdogan resents or rejects this fact. Voluntarily breaking these ties in pursuit of an alternate ideological agenda would be risky even if carried out with the utmost precision. Carried out erratically, amidst the domestic turmoil and high emotions in Ankara, the risk of miscalculation is even greater.
CORRECTION: This article previously misstated the title of the U.S. embassy official on the inauguration guest list. The official in attendance was the chargé d’affaires, not the deputy chief of mission.
Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.