On Turkey

Turkey Is Grappling with the Aftershocks of Systemic Rivalry

October 21, 2021
Fatih Ceylan
Tacan Ildem
7 min read
Photo credit: Photographer RM / Shutterstock.com
As the frame for systemic strategic competition between the West and China and Russia takes shape, Afghanistan became collateral damage for the transatlantic world with forces stationed there for the last 20 years withdrawing in chaos, and many questions being raised among allies and non-allies as to the credibility of the United States as the leading power of the West.

Meanwhile, the paradigm of resorting to large “coalitions of the willing” when divergences surfaced among Western allies in the past has been replaced by that of “ensembles of convenience” designed to overcome differences in dealings with Russia and China. Policies pursued by Turkey in recent years under the guise of “autonomy” backfired in many instances and culminated in its isolation in its region and beyond. Under these circumstances, how Turkey could steer its future course will continue to be a subject of close interest domestically as well as for its allies and partners.

The withdrawal from Afghanistan on a tight calendar was indeed a serious setback to the image and credibility of the United States and its allies and partners. Soon after, another blow was dealt to the transatlantic community when the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia signed their AUKUS pact. Convening of the Quad—the grouping of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States—in Washington nine days after concluding the AUKUS pact was another sign of Washington’s shifting focus to the Indo-Pacific.

The United States’ choice to prioritize the China challenge at a time when the Euro-Atlantic region is still preoccupied with the continuing pattern of aggressive behavior by Russia and with regional challenges by state and non-state actors has caused deep concern in the transatlantic community. The post-Cold War ambition to establish lasting peace and stability from Vancouver to Vladivostok has been put aside for the long term as systemic strategic competition starts to drive events.

All of this will strengthen the calls for EU countries to further explore options for expanding the scope of strategic autonomy. The latest developments will certainly be reflected in the Strategic Compass of the EU that is being developed. They may also present serious challenges in drafting the Strategic Concept of NATO in the coming months.

Regional Cauldron and Hard Choices

Against this background, Turkey stands in the middle of an arc of instability and is faced with conflicts from almost all directions. The multitude of challenges posed by state and non-state actors surrounding the country have no easy solutions in the short term. They may even deteriorate if the regional players, including Turkey, do not reach a coherent strategy predicated on a set of compromises and inclusive of all stakeholders with an interest in peace and security for the region. This objective is very elusive at the moment and necessitates serious diplomatic efforts by all concerned.

Turkey has always been at a strategic crossroads geographically and culturally. 

Turkey has always been at a strategic crossroads geographically and culturally. The main tenets of culture prevalent in the country cannot, therefore, be reduced to a single set of values taking religion as the sole basis for governance. The goal of achieving a modern, democratic, and secular Turkey—the pillars of which were laid down when the republic was founded— remains intact. And these foundational values resonate highly and overlap with those of the West. Attempts at eroding the basis of those ideals and values deriving their strength from the republic are destined to remain temporary and cannot chart the future course of Turkey.

At a time of heightened strategic competition and the rise of populist tendencies—not only in Turkey but in many other countries—to score points in domestic politics and to take hostage the institutional structures where foreign policy is defined, it will be of the utmost importance for the political cadres of Turkey to reorient the country’s policies without losing sight of its foundational traditions and principles. Deviations from these, however transient, cannot be the recipe for pursuing Turkish foreign and security policies.

World politics nowadays stand on shaky grounds. Fissures within the transatlantic frame will exist for the foreseeable future, particularly in the aftermath of the debacle of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the dent made by the AUKUS pact in cohesion within NATO. The effects of these developments will not immediately subside and will present challenges as well as opportunities also for Turkey.

Where Lies the Pendulum?

In recent years it has become more apparent that the pendulum of Turkey’s statecraft is not in one of its regular swings between reliability and unpredictability, a mode of behavior the country has been keen on upholding in its region and vis-à-vis its allies. The traditional anchor of Turkish foreign policy, now loose, should be restored to prevent further aggravation in its relations with other powers in the West or in the East, creating fertile grounds for distrust for its endeavors and expanding the scope of instabilities surrounding it.

Members of the Western community may individually or collectively make mistakes in pursuit of their national interests—some with serious consequences, others causing minor injuries among their friends and partners. Either way, such mistakes should not be at the expense of weakening their cohesion and solidarity as the main center of gravity, particularly under the present circumstances plaguing the global agenda.

In that context, the recent decision by the European Commission to reclassify the status of Turkey as being part of the Middle East and North Africa is unacceptable for many in the country. Equally unacceptable is the indifference displayed by the United States toward Turkey’s concerns in its immediate neighborhood. Washington’s proclivity to put those concerns on the backburner is creating a toxic atmosphere in Turkish society.

Turkey continues to pay a heavy price for being in a region whose extreme volatility also directly has consequences for Euro-Atlantic security and stability. Some of its choices that are not in sync with the decisions made by NATO, such as the purchase of S-400 missile defense batteries from Russia, indicate there is a serious challenge to be overcome to reconstitute trust with the United States and other NATO allies. That requires forsaking the use of that alien S-400 system and reverting to an interoperable asset designed to meet Turkey’s missile-defense deficit. That said, any sanction imposed by a NATO ally against another would not serve any purpose except damaging the unity of the alliance at a time when NATO considers it as a priority issue to deliver. It is therefore incumbent upon the allies to resolve these serious differences that may exist between them with constructive engagement and purposeful dialogue.

The recent visit of Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Paris demonstrates the United States’ willingness to iron out the differences with France caused by the AUKUS pact. The same willingness should be applied to the difference of opinion between Turkey and the United States on the ongoing U.S. support for Kurdish groups like Democratic Union Party/People's Protection Units (PYD/YPG) in Syria that are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Ankara and Washington classify as a terrorist organization.

The United States should understand that this approach is perceived by almost all segments of society in Turkey, independent of their party affiliation, as detrimental to the country’s national security. The Turkish public expects its ally to uphold the principle of solidarity while it fights against an existential terrorist threat. The United States should not fail to see that, with the second-largest army in NATO, Turkey is a key ally making substantial contributions to all operations and missions. All the decisions that have strengthened NATO’s deterrence and defense since 2014 to make it fit to respond to threats coming from Russia and terrorism were taken with Turkey’s support and intellectual contributions.

The current state of affairs is a cause for serious concern in terms of the policies being implemented in different theaters. This is further compounded by the parochial approaches adopted by some allied countries that are unable to formulate a galvanizing vision inclusive of Turkey. Given the already high level of mutual distrust driving relations between Turkey and its allies, it is likely that the situation could worsen, if left to thrive on a collision course, before it gets any better. Under such circumstances the powers seen as strategic competitors to the Western alliance, notably China and Russia, would be the ultimate beneficiaries. Indifference to meeting the current challenges shaping the international agenda on a common ground cannot be the recipe for Turkey or its traditional allies in the West.   

Fatih Ceylan is a former deputy undersecretary of Turkey’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a former permanent representative of Turkey to NATO.

Tacan Ildem is a member of the NATO 2030 Independent Experts Group, a former NATO assistant secretary general, and a former permanent representative of Turkey to NATO.