Erdogan’s intent, however, appears divorced from purely military considerations. Instead, he seemed to be using nuclear weapons as a straw man to make a broader argument about Ankara’s place in the world, and how the American and Western systems with which Turkey had long associated itself are unfair and require change. The Turkish president was not actually signaling an imminent decision to develop nuclear weapons. Instead, he was expounding on a more personal, deeply held grievance about Turkey’s global role. For the United States, both outcomes are bad given the importance Washington attaches to Turkey as a NATO ally and potential enabler of American interests in the Middle East and the Black Sea.
To understand the future of foreign policy under Erdogan, it is critical to internalize Turkey’s shifting view of the so-called liberal international order, and Ankara’s role within transatlantic institutions that established many of the norms with which Ankara is now uncomfortable. It is changes in how Turkish political elites view Ankara’s role in the world, and how the world order should be defined, that explain much of the country’s recent decision-making, the concerted top-down effort to decouple from the United States, why Ankara views certain international norms as antithetical to its own interests, and how it hopes to balance relations with Washington and Moscow.
Likewise, it may be tempting to ascribe the problems in the U.S.-Turkish relationship to events in Syria and, more specifically, the American decision to partner with the Syrian Kurds. Indeed, this narrative is comforting because it suggests that the current downturn can be fixed, either with creative diplomacy to address Turkish concerns in Syria, or, cynically, to stand aside and say nothing when Ankara eventually decides to destroy Kurdish targets after U.S. forces leave the country.
Unfortunately, the downturn in relations is far deeper than any one event and is instead a culmination of Ankara’s changing view of the global balance of power, including a sense that American and European influence is declining relative to competitors in Asia. This worldview coincides with Erdogan’s consolidation of authoritarian power, palace politics, and the elimination of any functional bureaucratic counterweight to challenge the president’s policy instincts. The result, especially since the failed July 2016 coup attempt, has been a Turkish foreign policy unchecked by dissenting voices within the government, allowing Erdogan and a close group of advisors to make policy as they see fit.
The United States cannot fix this, it can only hope to manage problems as they arise and continue to engage with Ankara to ensure American interests are not too negatively impacted. Rather than explaining away Turkey’s entente with Russia, for example, it is important to seriously grapple with how Turkey now makes policy. Erdogan’s quip about nuclear weapons, in this regard, may yield useful insight into how Erdogan believes that the old rules of the road are inadequate and unfair, and, importantly, that Turkey should be a central player in rewriting them. It further highlights why this matters for U.S. foreign policy.
Great Power Competition: Ankara’s Balancing Act
Turkish foreign policy under Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has espoused a point of view that Ankara’s regional interests differ from those of the United States — and that Turkey should not be constrained by its alliances. Instead, those alliances should be additive to Turkish interests, and, when they are not, Turkey should be free to cast them aside. This approach is, at its core, a transactional view of global affairs, similar to how President Donald Trump views American alliances. However, the two countries have not been able to capitalize on the ideological overlaps between Trump and Erdogan because, fundamentally, the two sides do not share many interests and have vastly different policy priorities.
With regard to the Middle East, the AKP’s foreign policy elite view the constellation of American allied governments, and U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria, as antithetical to Turkish interests. These officials further view Washington’s support for Gulf Arab monarchs as the root cause of regional instability. The United States, even under Trump, instead views its presence in the region as vital for its own national security, and it views the region’s monarchs as critical to enhancing American power. In contrast, the AKP believes that the United States’ relationships with the region’s autocratic leaders enable these rulers to oppress their people, which catalyzes regional instability, prevents political change, and is the actual root cause of terrorism.
This highlights something important: the AKP does not believe it is authoritarian and bristles at any suggestion to the contrary. Instead, the party sees itself as a democratic vanguard fighting against regional political oppression in the Muslim world. While AKP elites never say Turkey is a political model, the party does, in fact, think its story is one of democratic triumph that should be replicated. This may be hard to swallow for Western observers that can clearly see a sharp democratic decline in Turkey, but it is a deeply held point of view and shapes the AKP’s thinking about the world.
Beyond its own region, the Turkish government has sought to adapt to what it perceives as a changing global order. As the United States debates how to prepare for great power competition, a euphemism for the emergence of peer competitors, Ankara views China’s rise and, to a lesser extent, Russian revisionism as indicative of American decline. To prepare for this new distribution of power, Turkey believes it should no longer be beholden to the West, as the United States will soon be surpassed by competing states. Instead, Turkey should be an independent actor working to advance its own self-interest, even when those interests clash with its traditional allies. This approach to global affairs explains Ankara’s dealings with Moscow. Erdogan was reluctant to side with the West even after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, defeated Turkish proxies in Syria in 2016, and launched chemical weapons attacks in England in 2018.
For Turkish decision-makers, Washington’s disapproval is not enough to alter Ankara’s outreach to Moscow. Take Erdogan’s decision to purchase the S-400 air and missile defense system. From the outset of Turkish cooperation with Russia, the United States cautioned Ankara that an agreement with the Russian government would have serious consequences. As the deal proceeded, but before actual delivery, American warnings became more pointed, with Washington warning that Turkey would face economic sanctions and lose access to the F-35 fighter jet — an aircraft Ankara had helped produce and from which it stood to benefit through its role in future co-production contracts. Instead, when forced to choose between the S-400 and F-35, Ankara chose air defense over a stealth fighter. This decision was not made in a vacuum. Ankara has a policy process, and that process resulted in the top-down choice to purchase Russian rather than American equipment.
In the short term, this decision will make Turkish armed forces weaker, but could also position Ankara to break free of Washington’s influence over defense decision-making and future defense exports. The nascent Turkish discussion about purchasing the Russian Su-35 is a good example of this dynamic. Faced with the loss of the F-35 and the inevitability of Turkish F-16s reaching the end of their service life beginning in the 2020s, Ankara will have to decide how to procure aircraft for its air force. American export controls give Washington considerable say over potential replacement fighters made in Europe and over Turkish defense exports. Ankara’s efforts to sell attack helicopters to Pakistan, for example, are complicated by the T-129’s use of an American-made engine, which means that Washington must grant an export license. Faced with longer-term concerns about a virtual American veto over exports, the AKP could decide that it is in the party’s interest to deepen cooperation with Moscow and to purchase the Su-35 or Su-57. This choice would deepen Turkish relations with an American competitor and free Ankara from the potential threat of American sanctions and/or U.S. export control restrictions on the export of a Turkish-made jet with Russian components to third countries.
Turkey believes that China’s rise is something to be cultivated to enhance its own national interests, not resisted in the name of transatlantic solidarity. This has played out in Turkey’s approach to China’s treatment of Muslims. Traditionally, the AKP has sought to derive domestic and international legitimacy from political Islam. Just as the AKP does not see itself as authoritarian, but as an inspiration for the Middle East, it also has sought to position itself as a voice for the world’s Muslim-majority countries. And yet, when faced with obvious Chinese oppression of its own Muslim minority, the Turkic Uighur population, Ankara has compromised on these purported core values in favor of narrow self-interest. The Turkish government received Chinese financing to help overcome a recent downturn in the economy, and in return, Turkey offered to whitewash the level of Chinese oppression by offering to send a delegation to “inspect” the concentration camps Beijing established to imprison its own Muslim citizens. Likewise, in an overlooked gesture before Erdogan’s last visit to America in May 2017, the AKP went out of its way to point out that the Turkish president was travelling to Washington via a stop-over in Beijing. Ankara designed the messaging to signal that it was engaging both the world’s great powers.
The Future: Transatlantic to Transactional
For Washington, the concern about Turkey is often framed in terms of Ankara’s axis, and whether foreign policy elites are oriented toward the East or the West. In an article for War on the Rocks, Nick Danforth wrote about the longstanding American fear of “losing Turkey” and the AKP choosing to “turn East.” Instead, as Danforth argued, “Turkey [has] turned against the West without necessarily having anywhere else to turn.” This choice appears to be by design or, if an accident, a consequence of the pursuit of a more independent foreign policy and calculated choices to downgrade ties with America.
The binary framing of “East or West” may not be useful to capture what’s happening. Instead, it may be worth thinking about Turkish decision-making as a set of variables, with a certain value attached to how Ankara’s policies will impact ties to Washington, Brussels, Moscow, and Beijing. Historically, Ankara assigned considerable value to ties with America, which weighted decisions in favor of U.S. interests. It chose to do so because foreign policy elites believed that Turkey had much to gain from America. This has clearly changed.
The AKP’s recent foreign policy shows the devaluation of the United States in its strategic calculus, and the assigning of coequal values to other capitals around the world. In fairness to the AKP, Washington, too, has decreased the value it assigns to Turkey. America no longer views Ankara as critical to its counter-terrorism goals in the Middle East, and, in Europe, Turkey is no longer the sole actor on NATO’s eastern flank bordering Russia. Instead, many in Washington view Ankara as an irritant, and an ally to be planned around, rather than seriously consulted. Ankara views Washington in much the same way — an irritant that upends the regional order and undermines Turkish security.
If one zooms out and focuses on more than just Syria, it’s clear that the AKP elite assign less value to the West than any previous Turkish government. This partly stems from increasingly divergent interests with Washington, and a Turkish backlash to frequent European criticism of its authoritarian governance. It also speaks to the reality that AKP Turks do not see themselves as Western, and therefore do not feel the need to change. Instead, the AKP argues it should be accepted as a coequal “other” because Turkish participation in Western institutions is additive to European power.
This point of view does not signal an imminent change in Ankara’s membership in NATO or Turkish willingness to bandwagon with the United States and Europe when it is in the country’s self-defined interest. Nor does it mean Turkey will soon develop its own nuclear deterrent. It also helps to explain the root cause of Erdogan’s nuclear comment. The ironic thing is that although Turkey hosts American nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Force Base, it has made a series of choices to de-emphasize nuclear weapons for its own security.
Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 and, as a consequence, lose the F-35, means that Ankara will soon be unable to operate the future NATO aircraft designed to carry the nuclear weapons stored in Turkey. While it made a political decision to decertify the pilots slotted to carry these weapons in the mid-1990s, Ankara still participated in NATO nuclear weapons exercises and was part of the smaller, elite grouping of “nuclear NATO” members. But what now? Without the F-35, and with a future S-400 system operating near Ankara, the AKP has essentially ensured that it cannot ever again return to an arrangement that would give it some semblance of control over nuclear weapons on its territory, once Ankara has to consider beginning the retirement of F-16s.
If Turkey chooses to deepen cooperation with Russia and purchase the Su-35 and/or Su-57, it is unclear how the air force would even be incorporated into NATO nuclear exercises in the future. In this sense, the S-400 purchase is certain to have long-term ramifications for Turkey’s role within NATO. However, the purchase is also consistent with Ankara’s post-Cold War emphasis on acquiring and developing conventional, long-range precision strike capabilities backed by some semblance of missile defense. This policy de-emphasized nuclear weapons, a trend consistent with U.S. thinking about the future of combat.
The AKP, however, broke with Turkey’s traditional reliance on the United States for these capabilities when it purchased a Russian system and, importantly, abandoned its demands for the transfer of critical technology as condition of its weapons purchase. Ankara’s decision to purchase a missile system “off the shelf” was part of its broader effort to deepen ties with Moscow, a choice analysts in Washington should carefully study for what it portends about future AKP foreign policy decision-making. The reality is that, for the past 30 years, Turkish decision-makers (including the AKP) have devalued nuclear weapons for Turkish defense, but, more recently, increased the value assigned to relations with Moscow.
Observers should treat Erdogan’s recent comments instead as a window into his worldview and his resentments, wherein he argues the West is not treating Turkey equally. To right the wrong, Erdogan wants to remake the system, and to have a seat at the table to dictate the rules when that day comes. This is a fundamental argument against America’s current role as the dominant global power. This points to a broader problem for Washington — the political elite in Ankara no longer view America’s role in the world as good for Turkey.
Implications for the United States
The United States, therefore, cannot count on Turkey to support its effort to confront China and Russia — the underpinning of current U.S. national security policy. Ankara’s point of view differs, considerably, from other U.S. allies. While many countries in Europe may express frustration with Trump, their criticism of America is that it is operating outside of the international order, and that American unilateralism is undermining a system that is beneficial to their own interests. In many ways, it would be easier for Washington to deal with a Turkey concerned about the credibility of the U.S. nuclear guarantee. There are ways to address that, ranging from discussions about Ankara rejoining the nuclear mission in the alliance to increasing the rotation of U.S. dual-capable aircraft like the F-15E from bases in Europe to Turkey.
Erdogan’s nuclear comments, however, signal a more profound problem for Washington. And neither administration officials nor Congress can solve this problem with diplomatic visits and more fighter jets. Instead, to rectify this problem, a Turkish leader will have to decide if he or she wants to give more weight to Washington and Brussels in his/her decision-making calculus about foreign policy. That is, and will remain, an internal Turkish decision. The problem is that Erdogan remains formidable, and, by the time he leaves office, Ankara could be both a major purchaser of Russian defense equipment and another country enmeshed in financing arrangements with China.
Turkey has changed. Washington has also changed. The trends point to considerable friction and a murky bilateral future. Ankara is not leaving NATO, nor will it turn East. Instead, the current leadership rejects the current rules of the road and wants to change them. That may actually be worse for Washington.
Aaron Stein is the director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Image: The Kremlin