GMF Transatlantic Trends Survey: Mutual Distrust Complicates Türkiye’s Relations With Its Allies
Türkiye’s relations with both the United States and the European Union have experienced a sustained deterioration over the past decade. Growing distrust between Türkiye and its allies has reduced these relationships to little more than transactional cooperation. Although there have been occasional openings for reversing this trend, pervasive mutual distrust has consistently undermined the allies’ ability to capitalize on these moments of opportunity.
The findings of GMF’s Transatlantic Trends 2023 survey reveal the extent of the distrust between Türkiye and its allies. Türkiye is the least reliable partner nation, according to the respondents in every country where the survey was conducted. At the same time, Turkish respondents were the least likely to find other allies reliable.
Public opinion is hardly the main driver of foreign policy, but it is consequential, and increasingly so given the influence of social media on politics. Moreover, mutual distrust between Türkiye and its allies in the sphere of public opinion is a reflection of the same problem among policymakers.
In situations marked by mutual distrust, engaging in strategic cooperation becomes exceedingly difficult, often giving way to transactionalism. Presently, we are witnessing this dynamic in the relationship between Türkiye and its Western allies. This is precisely why an otherwise simple issue such as the sequencing of Türkiye’s ratification of Sweden’s NATO Accession and the US sale of F-16s to Türkiye has become such a headache.
President Erdoğan's greenlighting of Sweden's NATO accession presented a fresh opportunity, but Türkiye on the one hand and the EU and the United States on the other have yet to seize it.
At NATO’s summit in Vilnius in July 2023, Erdoğan made endorsement of Sweden's NATO accession conditional upon the restoration of Türkiye’s EU accession process. Yet it is nearly impossible to treat Türkiye’s EU accession process as credible, given the extent of the democratic backsliding in the country and Ankara’s tense relationships with some EU member states. However, positive developments in areas such as customs union modernization and visa liberalization could be possible. More significantly, restored foreign policy dialogue between the EU and Türkiye would benefit both sides. Brussels has not yet provided prospects to Türkiye, and it missed a good opportunity to do so when it did not invite Turkish foreign minister Hakan Fidan to the August 31 Gymnich Meeting in Toledo, Spain. Meanwhile, despite expectations, Türkiye has not taken any steps to reverse the democratic backsliding that is complicating relations with the EU.
Despite consistent statements from both Turkish and US officials asserting that Sweden's NATO membership was unrelated to Türkiye’s longstanding request for a new fleet of F-16s from the United States, the connection was readily discernible to astute observers. President Biden implicitly made this connection when he said during a press conference following the Vilnius Summit, "I'm confident that Türkiye will continue to support Sweden getting into NATO, and I'm confident that we'll be able to sell F-16s." However, Erdoğan has not yet sent Sweden's NATO accession protocol to the Turkish Grand National Assembly, and Biden has not notified the US Congress of F-16 sales to Türkiye. While the Biden administration wants to use Turkish ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership to convince the Congress not to oppose F-16 sales to Türkiye, Ankara is hesitant to relinquish its sole remaining bargaining chip until there is a concrete development in the F-16 file.
Against the backdrop of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the prospect of Sweden joining NATO and creating a positive momentum between Türkiye and its Western allies should not seem overly optimistic. But in fact it is too optimistic given the pervasive distrust between Türkiye and its allies. Public support and trust will not be strong elements of Türkiye’s cooperation with Western allies for the foreseeable future. Yet, responsible political leadership in Ankara, Washington, and European capitals can alleviate the problem in the longer term.
There are steps that need to be taken now, however, so that Türkiye and its Western allies can cooperate effectively to address mutual challenges. Ankara should ratify Sweden’s NATO accession without further delay, take steps to reverse democratic backsliding, and continue constructive dialogue with Greece and other EU members states with which it has bilateral disputes. Brussels should decide if it wants to see Türkiye as a competitor or as a partner, and if the latter, should stop excluding Türkiye. As a first step, it should cancel the 2019 Council Decision to “suspend negotiations on the Comprehensive Air Transport Agreement, [and] not … hold the Association Council and further meetings of the EU-Turkey high‐level dialogues.” Washington should deliver the F-16s NATO ally Türkiye wants to purchase from it and extend to Erdoğan a long overdue invitation to the White House to discuss future steps for carrying the relationship forward. Ankara and Washington should address the question of Türkiye’s purchase of S-400 missile defense systems from Russia and seek a compromise solution that would also facilitate Türkiye’s return to the F-35 program as a buyer, if not as a co-manufacturer.
While fully restoring trust between Türkiye, EU Member States, and the United States would take time and might never actually happen, these measures would at least restore a functioning relationship, albeit not an easy one.