Turkey has moved a long way from being an essential pillar of NATO during the Cold War, a reliable member of the Council of Europe, and a promising EU candidate country to adopting the posture of a disruptive partner for the West. Disputes with European countries and the United States have recently mushroomed, while Turkey’s rule-of-law architecture has been steadily dismantled and its economy is suffering from incongruous policies and years of cronyism.
The year 2020 marked a watershed for Turkey’s relations with its traditional Western partners. The country’s foreign policy became heavily militarized in an attempt to affirm Ankara’s power in its near abroad and fuel a fiercely nationalist narrative.
Turkey’s deliberate disruption has major consequences for its relationships with its Western allies and NATO. In response, the new U.S. administration and the EU should take a series of steps in early 2021 to protect their interests and those of the North Atlantic alliance while offering to maintain close relations with Turkey.
DISRUPTION AS THE NEW NORMAL
In late 2019 and 2020, Turkey’s assertive foreign policy reached a watershed moment with its traditional allies due to a string of initiatives. In November 2019, Turkey signed a bilateral agreement with Libya on maritime boundaries in exchange for a security pact involving military trainers and advisers as well as deliveries of equipment. That triggered a serious crisis with Cyprus, Greece, and the entire EU. A Turkish naval deployment to support research and drilling activities in contested waters in the Eastern Mediterranean led to a major incident with a Greek frigate in August 2020, followed by NATO efforts to establish a deconfliction mechanism between Athens and Ankara.
Similarly, Turkey’s massive air and sea deliveries of armaments to Libya’s Government of National Accord continued despite Ankara’s commitment at the January 2020 Berlin Conference to stop delivering arms to all parties in the conflict and an arms embargo unanimously approved by the UN Security Council. This situation ended in several incidents at sea.
Furthermore, Turkey proclaimed in November 2020 that efforts to negotiate a comprehensive agreement for Cyprus had become futile. Instead, Turkey stated that a two-state solution was now its favored option, rejecting a bicommunal, bizonal federal model.
In implementing this foreign policy, Ankara ditched the dialogue-and-compromise approach expected among European neighbors and instead fueled permanent tensions, despite occasional statements to the contrary. In the case of maritime boundaries in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara received an offer of dialogue from the European Council but did not follow up on it, with the ironic result that the EU’s willingness to negotiate on this key issue for Turkey was wasted. In other cases, Turkey’s leadership resorted to verbal attacks on Dutch, French, and German politicians—an astounding attitude reminiscent of similar incidents in March and September 2017 with Germany and the Netherlands.
The December 10–11, 2020, European Council meeting decided to impose sanctions on Turkey because of its research and drilling activities. Acting on sanctions sent a powerful signal, although their impact will likely be minimal because they are limited to Turkey’s gas operations.
Arrival of Biden changes Ankara’s tune, but not behavior
The November 2020 election of Joe Biden as U.S. president sent an alarming message to Ankara that the era of a strong personal relationship between the Turkish president and his U.S. counterpart might be over. This bond had spared Turkey from many of the possible sanctions it could have incurred for its purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles and the Halkbank scheme, in which a Turkish state-owned bank evaded U.S. sanctions against Iran. Yet, on December 14, 2020, the administration of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump announced sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act in response to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 missiles.
Roots of new diplomatic approach
For all the intellectual efforts to demonstrate strong consistency rooted in geography and history, Turkey’s current foreign policy is in reality deeply grounded in domestic politics—and this at a time of a persistent economic crisis, a severe global pandemic, and poor governmental approval ratings in opinion polls.
To the national audience, the Turkish leadership offers new narratives based on a spirit of conquest and references to the formation of modern-day Turkey in 1923. Speaking on the country’s Victory Day in 2020, Erdoğan said, “We are determined to welcome 2023, the centenary of the Republic, as an economically, militarily, politically stronger, more independent, more prosperous country.” The president cited “critical accomplishments from Syria to Libya, from the Black Sea to [the] Eastern Mediterranean” as the “clearest indication of our will to protect our country’s rights and interests.”
As a vivid illustration of this statement, Turkey’s efficient use of tactical drones in Azerbaijan, Libya, and Syria proved that these assets were not only a military but also a political game changer, helping Ankara acquire greater influence in these conflicts. As a result, Turkey emerged as a regional partner nobody could ignore and few could confront.
The overarching objective is clear: 2023 is the year of a presidential election the leadership cannot lose and of the Republic’s centennial celebrations, which it cannot miss. This domestic political imperative will continue to shape Turkey’s foreign policy in the near future.
DISRUPTION LEADS TO POLITICAL UNRELIABILITY
Whether justified from a conceptual standpoint or driven by domestic political necessities, disruptive economic, foreign, and security policies from a NATO member and a country industrially integrated with the EU lead to massive unreliability and uncertainty. Turkey’s economy has suffered blows from wary investors, bankers, traders, and tourists.
In November 2020, Turkey narrowly avoided a monetary crisis after spending massive amounts of hard currency to no avail: it is estimated that Ankara spent up to $140 billion over two years to defend the Turkish lira. Then, Turkey launched a brisk charm offensive with the EU and the new U.S. president. A case in point was Erdoğan’s speech on November 22, 2020, in which he said, “We see ourselves as an inseparable part of Europe. We have always been the strongest member of Western Alliances, NATO in particular.” The message was repeated on January 12 by the Turkish president. These statements are in stark contradiction to the deployment of Russian missiles and fierce anti-EU and anti-American declarations in 2019 and 2020.
Such abrupt reversals in positions have left a mark in Western capitals: Turkey’s leadership is prone to repeatedly adjusting its foreign policy narratives to suit domestic political requirements. This creates massive foreign policy uncertainty for Ankara’s European and U.S. partners because Turkey simultaneously plays friend and foe or acts both with and against NATO. In turn, this requires a strategic rethink in the West.
A STRATEGIC RETHINK IN THE WEST
On the political side, Turkey’s partners will have to assess the strategic risk of a leadership that routinely uses anti-Western, conspiracy-based, nationalist narratives while ignoring several of its international commitments. Turkey’s arbitrary treatment of opponents, free thinkers, and human rights activists will also constitute a major factor in Western assessments. Another source of political uncertainty will be the date of the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 2023 and their potential cancellation by the leadership.
On the security side, the West’s strategic assessment of Turkey’s interactions with Russia in Azerbaijan, Libya, and Syria is bound to raise many questions, as could be foreseen in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 coup attempt. The stark reality is that, directly or indirectly, Ankara has helped further Moscow’s objectives against NATO and the EU—a posture many in the West see as a game changer more than a balancing act.
Due to the constant bargaining between Ankara and Moscow on multiple fronts, Turkey’s behavior in case of potential tensions between Russia and NATO in, say, the Baltics, Ukraine, or the Black Sea has inevitably become a factor of uncertainty. Ankara’s recent proclamations of its strong bonds with NATO are not enough to dispel this uncertainty, especially in circumstances in which Russia can impose political and economic constraints or inflict military damage on Turkey.
On the economic side, the EU will have to assess whether further integration with Turkey through the customs union makes sense when none of the basic prerequisites exists: a level economic playing field, an independent judiciary, or basic freedoms. Conversely, the EU will have to examine the benefits, if any, of canceling the current customs union, as some in the EU have called for.
It is probable that Turkey will want to stay anchored to the EU, mostly for economic reasons, but with no conditions linked to the rule of law. The country has very few alternatives in terms of trade, short-term finance, foreign direct investment, or technology—even if a degree of diversification will occur in energy supplies and weapons procurement. The strong linkages between citizens of Turkey and their Western European counterparts will remain active in the fields of culture, education, and civil society, but fundamental freedoms will increasingly be at risk in the present political context.
SIX STEPS FOR A REBALANCED RELATIONSHIP
The transatlantic partners face the same challenge: how to strike the right balance between containing Turkey’s actions when they are most hostile to Western interests, on the one hand, and maintaining the appropriate level of economic and security cooperation while enticing tangible improvements in the rule of law, on the other.
In doing so, Western governments will have to factor in multiple parameters: Turkey’s continued strategic importance for NATO; Russia’s sustained pressure on Turkey to diverge from NATO and the EU; the risk that a Russian assault in Syria’s Idlib province will trigger a new wave of refugees toward Turkey; Erdoğan’s domestic priorities; a potential aggravation of Turkey’s severe economic crisis; and the political impossibility for European leaders to meaningfully discuss Turkey’s EU accession path at a time when Turkish constitutional order is as far away as ever from EU rule-of-law standards.
With these factors in mind, the EU and the United States need to take a series of steps to protect their interests and those of the transatlantic alliance.
First, they should send coordinated signals that disruptive unilateral decisions and hostile narratives are no longer tolerated. This would at least avoid Ankara playing its allies off against one another.
Second, Brussels and Washington should devise measures to minimize the adverse impact of Turkey’s deployment of non-NATO assets and avoid a degradation of the alliance’s strength vis-à-vis Russia. Such measures could at best include the complete removal of the S-400 missiles—or, otherwise, contingency procedures in NATO.
Third, the Euro-Atlantic partners should limit exports of military components to Turkey if Ankara’s disruptive policies remain unchanged, its relations with Russia are not clarified, and Western calls for dialogue go unheeded. Such a move would send a powerful signal that critical Western supplies cannot be used to increase security risks for Western allies.
Fourth, the EU and the United States should sanction the Turkish individuals most involved in dismantling the rule of law and interfering with the domestic politics of Western countries. This would be consistent with Turkey’s commitments under the NATO and Council of Europe charters.
Fifth, the EU should delay the introduction of a new cooperation framework until Ankara makes a measurable return to a rule-of-law status that corresponds to Turkey’s commitments as a member of the Council of Europe and a partner of the EU. Preparatory work should take into account the newly signed EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which is now the most advanced treaty between the EU and a third country. The union should also opt out of the idea of an Eastern Mediterranean conference, which would give Turkey de facto recognition of Turkish-occupied Northern Cyprus.
Finally, the EU should maintain tangible offers of negotiation on maritime boundaries and of support for Syrian refugees at the Turkish-Syrian border and in Turkey. These offers, which should come with precise time frames and methodologies, would demonstrate that mutually beneficial cooperation is possible when hostile behavior subsides.
Carnegie Europe is grateful to the Center for Applied Turkish Studies (CATS) at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) for its support of this publication. CATS is funded by the Mercator Stiftung and the German Federal Foreign Office and is the curator of the CATS Network, an international network of think tanks and research institutions working on Turkey.