Türkiye in the West: Too Soon to Tell?

November 29, 2023
5 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
The Turkish Republic, which just turned 100, was founded on westernization. That process is still unfolding.

In a 1971 conversation with then Chinese Premier Chou En-Lai, Henry Kissinger famously asked his interlocutor for his opinion of the French revolution. Chou reportedly replied, “It is too soon to tell.” (He was likely referring to the events of 1968.) Now that the Turkish Republic is 100 years old, what can we conclude about its relationship with the West? It may also be too soon to tell.

It has been fashionable to criticize the West for “losing Türkiye” and watching it drift from the Euro-Atlantic orbit to an Islamist-nationalist orientation”. The implication is that Ankara would be a different transatlantic actor had its partners behaved more supportively. Both observations are too simple. But they do underscore the persistent European and American discomfort with an ally increasingly at odds with transatlantic values and policies. Declining trust and affinity are at the heart of the problem.

On Ukraine, Ankara continues to pursue a balancing act, supportive of Kyiv without opposing Moscow.

A snapshot of relations in 2023 is not reassuring. EU relations with Türkiye are at a low point, amid well-justified concerns over the state of the country’s democracy, its adherence to the rule of law, and its respect for media freedom. Ankara openly discusses the option of a two-state solution for Cyprus, a move that would effectively end Türkiye’s EU candidacy. The Turkish parliament has yet to ratify Sweden’s NATO membership, and the outlook for doing so remains uncertain despite pressure from across the alliance. On Ukraine, Ankara continues to pursue a balancing act, supportive of Kyiv without opposing Moscow. Türkiye has not imposed sanctions on Russia and instead has become a key conduit for Russian trade and investment. There has been no progress on the vexing issue of Türkiye’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. The list goes on.

From migration to regional security, Turkish policy matters in Brussels and Washington.

To be sure, Türkiye has its own list of grievances with the United States and Europe. It perceives Washington as an unreliable arms supplier and bristles at continued support for Syrian Kurdish militias that Ankara sees as thinly veiled offshoots of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that the United States, the EU, and Türkiye deem a terrorist organization. At the same time, Türkiye is deeply skeptical about EU intentions concerning Turkish membership in the bloc. The forthcoming EU report on Türkiye’s progress toward accession will likely underscore this mutual distrust. Similar sentiment exists within NATO, a critical link for Türkiye given its exposure to security risks on multiple fronts, many involving Russia. The alliance’s Article V commitments are not automatic and rely on political judgment. This should give Ankara an overwhelming stake in being seen as a member in good standing, and its approval of Sweden’s membership is a critical test of that.

It is no secret that most of Türkiye’s Western partners would have preferred a different outcome to the country’s recent presidential election. Yet there is still willingness to work with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan under his new mandate. From migration to regional security, Turkish policy matters in Brussels and Washington. But for the former there is no avoiding a partnership with Türkiye, however dysfunctional it may be. There are simply too many points of connection and too much at stake. For the United States, good relations with Türkiye are, ultimately, optional. The virtual collapse of the bipartisan Washington constituency for closer ties with Ankara has left the bilateral relationship in a precarious state. The current crisis in the Middle East is likely to deepen the estrangement. Türkiye has been a strong supporter of Hamas, and Erdoğan’s description of the group, following its horrific terrorist attack on Israel, as a liberation movement will not resonate well in Congress or in EU circles. They will see the considerable irony in Ankara’s stance, which differs starkly from the pressure put upon allies to condemn cross-border PKK terrorism.

Türkiye’s evolution in the years leading up to the centenary of the republic has not occurred in a vacuum.

One positive development, however, has been the emergence of a precarious détente in the Aegean. The brinkmanship of recent years is in abeyance, at least for now. With so many internal and external challenges, not least the troubled state of its economy, Türkiye seems to have backed away from a confrontational approach to Greece. Preserving and extending this détente is critical to transatlantic interests.

Türkiye’s evolution in the years leading up to the centenary of the republic has not occurred in a vacuum. Many domestic developments are mirrored elsewhere. These include the striking role of political personality in shaping the national outlook, an assertive nationalism, the prominence of identity politics, and a preference for a nonaligned foreign policy. Türkiye is hardly the only “lone wolf” (to borrow Soli Özel’s phrase) on the international scene, and it is good at talking up its strategic autonomy. The country’s sense of exceptionalism is not unique. It is also not new, which has always made Türkiye a difficult partner for allies. To judge by international reactions to the war in Ukraine and the crisis in Gaza, the West seems set for a world with more such challenging partners—countries with shared interests but declining reliability and affinity.

Is Türkiye’s Western orientation at a dead end? An observer with historical sensibility would not bet on it. Türkiye’s evolution since the latter centuries of the Ottoman Empire has been a generally steady march westward. But is this still the case when international debates are increasingly focused on values, alternative models of development, and the erosion of traditional alignments? It is probably too soon to tell.