A Pirouette, Not A Pivot
Recep Tayyip Erdogan now appears certain to be elected Turkey’s next president. His victory will have profound and predictable effects on Turkey’s relationship with the United States. The two countries were already in the process of decoupling, and Erdogan’s re-election will hasten this decade-long process.
In both the United States and Turkey, political and national security elites believe that the other country is not vital for the pursuit of their national security interests. More to the point, leaders in both countries also believe that the other is actively sabotaging their regional goals and ambitions. As a result, the relationship is now propped up merely by institutional inertia and the very real fact that the two countries are treaty-bound to defend each other — even if they disagree over what it is that they should jointly pledge to fight.
Erdogan’s looming victory, coupled with political dynamics in his country, expose what has long been evident: The two historic pillars of the U.S.-Turkish relationship have collapsed. The first and most basic U.S. policy priority was to strengthen Turkey. The second was to deepen its integration into the Western alliance. These goals explain why Washington was both a vocal supporter of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union on the one hand, and its efforts to kill Kurdish militants on the other.
Over the past three decades, both of these pillars have become areas of contestation. Turkey will not join the European Union and has increasingly sought to use its firmly entrenched position in NATO to play the spoiler. More importantly, Erdogan and his government have come to see the United States as an obstacle to defense autonomy, and are committed to breaking the country’s reliance on the United States for defense imports. Finally, the United States has backed — and will continue to support in Syria — the local branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is the militant group Washington and Ankara had pledged to jointly fight.
Despite the unrelenting optimism of some observers, these dynamics will have serious ramifications for key U.S. foreign policy priorities in the near future. After every election in Turkey, a cadre of analysts predicts Erdogan will moderate. Erdogan, the logic goes, has a 5-year mandate, and in that timeframe will seek out Western cash and investment. This will naturally lead to a moderation of Turkish foreign policy. The West, some argue, should make Western investment easier, so as to incentivize this moderation. Unfortunately, this never happens. Erdogan has been governing Turkey for over 20 years. He has cultivated and developed an anti-Western cadre of the electorate and, for close to two decades, has defined Turkish interests in opposition to U.S. and European foreign policy objectives. This means continued disagreement over U.S. arms sales to Turkey, NATO expansion, and the nature of Turkish-Russian ties.
Future Fighters and NATO Expansion
Erdogan has benefited from decades of investment in Turkey’s defense industry. Turkey has programs designed to build key platforms in order to enhance its independence from the United States. For the most part, these efforts make narrow strategic sense for the country. However, these trend lines speak to the direction of the country’s foreign policy and underscore how leadership views its relationship with the United States and Europe.
Turkey’s Air Force had planned to acquire 100 F-35A fighters, which were slated for use alongside modernized F-16s and a slew of indigenous unmanned platforms. Turkey’s participation in the Joint Strike Fighter Program stemmed from the country’s history of cooperation with American aerospace firms, including on the F-16, dating back to the early days of the Cold War. Following Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, the United States Congress imposed an arms embargo on Ankara. The result, in the short term, was a severe shortage of spare parts for Ankara’s largely American-equipped forces. The half-decade-long embargo hardened Turkish policymakers’ efforts to gain more independence from the United States and to hasten efforts to develop an indigenous defense industry to insulate the country from economic coercion. Ironically, this policy began with the negotiation for the F-16, which included agreements with U.S. defense companies to localize production of airframe and engine parts.
This agreement paved the way for Turkish aerospace development — and explains why Ankara was keen to join the international consortium building the F-35. The difference between these two programs, however, is significant. In the case of the F-16, the agreement to produce aircraft components inside Turkey stemmed from the terms Ankara negotiated with American industry as a condition of sale. In the case of the F-35, Ankara provided an upfront investment in the aircraft’s development, making Turkey a member of the multi-national consortium that was designing and building the jet. This meant that Turkish industry could design and integrate indigenous weapons on the jet, while also carving out a presence for local defense firms to manufacture parts for the aircraft. As a result, Turkish firms would receive direct economic benefits, and establish a presence inside the aircraft’s supply chain.
A mixture of Turkish nationalism and poor decision-making upended this program. In 2017, after decades of indecision about the purchase of long-range air and missile defense, Ankara selected the Russian-made S-400. The purchase came just after U.S.-Russian relations cratered, following Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election, and President-elect Donald Trump’s announcement that he would suspend sanctions put in place to punish Russia for its meddling. In response, Congress passed almost unanimously the Countering America’s Adversary Through Sanctions Act, which mandated sanctions on actors that purchased a significant amount of equipment from Russian state-owned defense entities. The S-400 purchases qualified as a significant transaction. In addition, American defense officials worried that co-locating an S-400 with the F-35 risked divulging secrets about the aircraft’s stealth characteristics. These twin issues — sanctions and espionage concerns — ultimately led to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program that it had bought its way into, and thus led to the removal of the indigenous firms from the aircraft’s supply chain.
The removal also upended the Turkish Air Force’s plan to transition from its legacy fleet of F-4 fighters and to retire some of the country’s oldest F-16s. Turkey’s 2019 invasion of Syria, on top of the S-400s, led to a de facto Congressional arms embargo on military sales. Ankara is now forced to extend the life of its older F-16s and has sought to replace the F-35 with domestically produced fighters. Turkey’s 5th generation fighter program began more than a decade ago. In the weeks before the May 14 election, the first prototype — dubbed Kaan — was revealed to the public. The long lead time from the start of the program to the completion of the first prototype suggests that Turkish firms have not solved the production speed problems that have accompanied the development of other modern fighters. The reported cost per copy of each aircraft, too, is comparable to the F-35, and the aircraft’s eventual integration into the Turkish Air Force will not take place until 2030. And this is all happening amidst a self-inflicted currency crisis, which is certain to impact large, state-funded projects that are pegged closely to the dollar exchange rate.
The advantage Turkey had with both the F-16 and the F-35 is that the sustainment would be optimized by the large numbers of jets produced. This is particularly true in the case of the F-16, which has been exported to dozens of countries and has been produced for close to 50 years. The risk for Ankara, now, is that if it transitions to a small, high-end domestic fighter, produced in small numbers, the fleet will be quite brittle. It is simply quite difficult to reach efficient economies of scale when, as is expected, the total production run may be just 100 craft. This explains why Ankara has sought to hedge its bets and has approached the United States to purchase upgraded F-16s and modernization kits.
The delivery of these new jets and the provision of the modernization kits, however, has been stymied. Officially, the Biden administration supports the sale of jets. However, Congress is opposed and has sought to tie approval of the export to Turkish support for Sweden’s accession to NATO. The Erdogan government rejects this linkage but is ultimately unable to sway U.S. decision-making. To date, Erdogan has refused to bend to American pressures. Instead, he has demanded Sweden alter its laws to enable the extradition of a slew of Turks and Kurds, ostensibly for terror-related offenses. The result, unfortunately, is that amid the largest land conflict in Europe since World War II, the expansion of NATO is hamstrung by nationalist whims in Turkey — and American efforts to try and wrest concessions from a hostile government in Ankara.
The result is stalemate. Ankara may, of course, invent some benchmark for Sweden to meet, and then pivot to allow the country into NATO. This could allow for agreement on the sale of F-16s. But stepping back, Ankara’s willingness to subordinate the interests of NATO to its own indigenous terrorism problems is a clear indicator of how the Erdogan government will conduct foreign policy.
Turkey’s New Right-Wing Coalition and Outreach to Russia
Turkey’s nationalists were ascendant in the May election. As my colleague, Nick Danforth argued in a recent War on the Rocks podcast, Turkey is a nationalist country, with a slew of nationalist parties competing for swathes of the electorate. In this latest election, Erdogan’s future electoral incentives closely align with Turkey’s ethnic and religious nationalists. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party lost votes, and Erdogan, too, proved less popular than in previous elections. While still Turkey’s most successful politician, Erdogan is clearly showing signs of political decline. He now governs the country in coalition with parties that view the United States and Europe as hostile. Erdogan, too, has long sought to draw a sharp contrast between himself and his challengers on this front: he criticized his main rival’s harsh rhetoric on Russian electoral interference and accused them of seeking to subordinate Turkey’s Russia policy to Washington.
Erdogan, in contrast, would ensure that Turkey did not support sanctions, and continue to cooperate closely with Moscow on issues ranging from agriculture to energy to tourism. Turkish policy since the start of the Ukraine war is nakedly mercantilist. Turkey benefits from Russian trade, the influx of foreign currency from both Vladimir Putin’s government and the Russian citizens that have fled conscription, along with the hard currency that Turkish firms get from selling weapons to Ukraine. Officially, Turkey rejects Russia’s invasion. Yet Ankara has also sought to mediate between the two sides, and a mediator, of course, is neutral. Ankara, therefore, has decided to be neutral in this conflict, even as its NATO allies have provided Ukraine — free of charge — the equipment needed to defend itself. This policy makes sense for Turkey. It is simply incongruous with the interests of Europe and the United States.
With Erdogan just days away from another victory, and with parliament tilting to the hard right, outside observers need to accept that Turkey has no political or economic incentive to change course. Turkey’s governing elites frame the country’s Russia policy in opposition to the United States and Europe, and value relations with Moscow. This approach will never preclude Ankara from selling weapons to Ukraine or even cooperating with Ukrainian firms on Turkish defense projects, but Ankara has decided that it is in its interest to be a neutral party.
Of course, many countries have decided to hedge bets, adopt a neutral policy, and act independently of Washington and Europe. But Washington is now devoting resources to ensure that Turkey — a NATO ally — doesn’t emerge as a significant hub for Russian illicit financing and sanctions evasion.
A Pirouette, Not A Pivot
Erdogan believes that the United States and Europe are in decline and that Turkey should not subordinate its interests to its historical allies. Now, as his government seeks to implement a Turkey-first foreign policy, it has explicitly defined this effort as being in tension with U.S. regional and global policies. As Turkey’s right wing has ascended and entrenched its rule, these contrasts have been sharpened and magnified for electoral gain. As a result, no one should expect any major change in Turkish foreign policy after May 28. Ankara will be mercantilist, inward-looking, and beholden to the political whims of a nationalist elite hostile to the United States.
This government will pursue its interests through outreach to Russia and further pressure on Sweden. There may be room for some compromise, perhaps resulting in an agreement on Swedish NATO accession and the export of F-16s. But the broader trend lines are clear. The pillars that anchored the U.S.-Turkey relationship during the Cold War have collapsed. Ankara no longer wants to be dependent on the United States for its defense. Europe and Turkey have no prospect of closer integration on the continent. In the absence of this shared strategic vision, relations are adrift, making them entirely transactional and dependent on the outlook of Turkey’s most important leader: Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has every incentive — from political to personal — to continue to govern Turkish foreign policy as he has for years. It would be naive to think that major changes are coming or that issues that have festered will be miraculously resolved once Erdogan wins his third term in office.
Aaron Stein is the chief content officer at Metamorphic Media.