What’s wrong with U.S.-Turkey relations? For over a decade, ties between the United States and its NATO ally have been a rollercoaster ride, leading some in the United States to conclude that Turkey has either lost or is losing its value as a strategic partner. Observers have offered various explanations for the tensions, including Aykan Erdemir and Merve Tahiroglu in War on the Rocks and Steve Cook, who gave a long list of disheartening reasons in a recent colorful article.
But at its essence, the problem is more systematic. Turkey does not think in terms of national interests because it has almost completed its transformation into a Russian-style kleptocratic “guided democracy.” In such a system, the political survival of a power elite becomes the sole strategic objective and the institutional means of safeguarding national interests are delegated to mere tactical tools. This makes it nearly impossible for Turkey to pursue more static geopolitical objectives and to participate effectively in the strategic partnership that the United States might seek.
Turkey has never been a well-functioning democracy, not even during the Cold War when it aligned itself with the West. Back then, the government engaged in rampant human and minority rights violations and experienced military coups. Still, during that era, with the exception of periods of military control, Turkey had fierce political competition with some level of meaningful scrutiny of the state and politicians. Its democracy index score remained relatively high.
Things started to look even better during the early years of the Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration at the beginning of the 2000s. Like the other growing economies of the world, Turkey grew at a breakneck pace. The country took considerable steps toward European Union membership, and there was ample reason to be hopeful that Turkey would become a functioning democracy. This picture started to get less rosy by the 2010s. The government, led by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) slowly alienated sections of society with its divisive policies, the economy began to falter, and, following the failed coup attempt by members of a religious cult in 2016, all hope was lost. Since the early 2010s, especially after the Gezi protests in 2013, the AKP and Erdogan realized that there was a possibility of their losing power, and Turkey started its journey towards becoming a “sovereign democracy.”
What is a sovereign democracy? Jeffrey Herf called the unique conservative worldview of the Nazi movement “reactionary modernism.” According to Herf, Nazis embraced modernism selectively: They were exhilarated by modern science and technology whilst rejecting the enlightenment values of modernism. In a similar vein, today’s Russian ruling elites are “reactionary liberals.” They enjoy the economic benefits of the liberal international order and globalism whilst strongly resisting the social and political changes that come with it. Vladislav Surkov, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, termed the phrase “sovereign democracy” to describe this unique view, which has evolved into a quasi-ideology for the Russian Federation.
The German reactionary modernists believed Germany was neither West nor East, neither a democracy nor a complete autocracy. They therefore claimed that Enlightenment ideas of democracy could not work in Germany. Today, Russia advocates a parallel view: The country has a distinct history that is incompatible with the idea of liberal democracy, so Russia should develop its own unique type of democracy. Following the same playbook, Erdogan and the AKP in Turkey rely on the buzzwords of “yerli ve milli” (“local and national”) to define their autochthonous government style.
However, despite ideological pretenses, at its essence sovereign democracy is a model in which a powerful elite retains permanent dominance over the country through the manipulation of politics and the media whilst preserving the illusion of the existence of rule of law and a competitive electoral landscape. This model gives the elite immunity from responsibility and from inspection of their affairs. Corruption is at the core of the model, in which politicians, bureaucrats, and individuals of private wealth with good connections exploit public resources without scrutiny.
The playbook of sovereign democracy dictates a clampdown on traditional media and the internet to establish a countrywide echo chamber. Turkey’s brisk decline in the freedom of press and internet freedom indexes to “not free” is the result of this process. For traditional media sources, this is achieved through the involvement of private individuals with close connections to the administration who acquire media outlets and hand over control of their broadcasting/printing policy to ruling parties’ public relations consultants. In return, these private individuals gain access to lucrative long-term government contracts. As all these transactions happen through private means; the ruling party preserves plausible deniability.
An early example of this process playing out was the acquisition of Turkuvaz Medya, one of the largest media organizations in Turkey, by the Çalık Group in 2008. Berat Albayrak, the son-in-law of Erdogan, was at the time CEO of the Çalık Group and, following the acquisition, his brother became CEO of Turkuvaz Medya. Not surprisingly, Turkuvaz’s policy became increasingly pro-government. The organization’s news channel, aHaber, started to spread anti-western and, in some instances, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Meanwhile, opposition quietly begins to disappear from mainstream media. Slowly the government’s propaganda becomes the overwhelmingly repeated message. Journalists who criticize the government lose their jobs even though they work for private enterprises. Although some enclaves of opposition media are left alone, they work under the continuous threat of court cases and prison time, being labeled terrorists, or being threatened by mafia elements.
When constituents can only access one side of events, it becomes easier to solidify the electoral base. In a highly regulated and oppressive environment, it becomes nearly impossible for the opposition to reach a meaningful number of constituents. Even when they can reach them, they get imprisoned or the elections get cancelled via political manipulation. Like in Russia, electoral competition and constitutional legal practice are kept alive, but in a vegetative state, to maintain the illusion.
Accordingly, both Putin and Erdogan represent themselves not as mere politicians but as the main pillar of survival of their countries. The possibility of these individuals losing power is represented as a potential catastrophe. Behind the veneer of its nationalistic appeal, the actual reason for this rhetoric is that the whole model works for the predatory minority only as long as certain politicians remain in power and provide cover for them. Accordingly, the only national strategic aim becomes the political survival of those individuals. Policy decisions and definitions in the fields of national security, economics, and foreign affairs are reduced to mere tactical tools in the service of this strategic goal and are subject to constant fluctuations.
Take, for instance, Erdogan’s willingness to jeopardize Turkish-Dutch relations in 2017. Despite the Netherlands being an important economic partner and source of foreign direct investment, Erdogan had few qualms about sparking a diplomatic spat in order to win votes during the presidential referendum campaign. It started when Erdogan and AKP ministers signaled their desire to hold campaign rallies in Germany and the Netherlands in order to reach expatriate Turks residing there. Both the German and the Dutch governments refused this request. Erdogan, seeing an opportunity to kindle the nationalistic feelings of his constituents and solidify his base, escalated the situation by taunting both countries as “Nazis.” A Turkish minister then attempted to enter Netherlands by land to hold rallies, resulting in her expulsion. Then-Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım threatened the Netherlands with economic sanctions and the Dutch ambassador was barred from returning to Turkey. Erdogan got the results he wanted from the referendum. A year later, four of Erdogan’s AKP ministers appeared before the cameras to announce Turkey’s intent to renew the talks towards E.U. membership in an apparent attempt to remedy the previous year’s politically expedient whim.
In the same year, the Turkish government once again exhibited its propensity to fluctuate in foreign policy when Erdogan made an ill-fated attempt to woo foreign investors in the United Kingdom. At the time, the Turkish economy was faltering and he hoped to shore up investor confidence by discussing his economic policy. His speeches had the opposite effect. A few weeks later, Turkey sent Minister of the Treasury Berat Albayrak to the United Kingdom to do damage control, but to the surprise of his audience, the policies he promoted directly contradicted what Erdogan had said earlier. Similarly, the Turkish leader’s abrupt halt to the peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the ongoing saga of the acquisition of S-400 weapons systems from Russia are further evidence of the government prioritizing political expedience over long-term strategy.
Essentially, sovereign democracies must constantly change their minds in foreign relations, economics, and national security to make these policies align with the domestic necessities of the moment rather than more unmoving national interests. This is the main reason it is hard for Turkey to remain a strategic partner of the United States. Turkey’s parameters are constantly changing, and there is no long-term predictability. As long as the United States has no strategic interest in the survival of the regime in Turkey (as it does in the case of Saudi Arabia), it remains impossible for these two countries to share a common language of cooperation.
This doesn’t mean the model will prevail in Turkey for the long term. Strategic partnership may be possible in the future. The main flaw of the sovereign democracy model is the rampant inbuilt corruption and erosion of institutions, which ultimately leads to stagnation and decay. For countries like Russia, natural resources provide a cushion for the fall. Turkey, however, has no such cushion. Like the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s and Venezuela in the 2000s and 2010s, the impact of rising levels of corruption, stagnation, and decay will be inescapable in the long run.
The model itself, then, has intrinsic qualities that one way or another lead to fundamental change. But this change may not occur in a way that restores Turkey’s democratic institutions and makes it a predictable strategic partner. Whether or not this happens will depend on how much the country’s institutions and social fabric decay while sovereign democracy reigns in Turkey.
Nadir Firat lectures on military history at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. You can find him on Twitter: @nadir_firat. These views are those of the author and do not represent the positions of Nanyang Technological University.