President Erdogan is a Threat to U.S. and NATO Security
This week, after many warnings, the U.S. officially suspended delivery of F-35 fighter jets and other relevant equipment to Turkey until that country reverses course on its decision to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan does not seem willing to surrender to pressure from Washington. In recent months, he told Turkish reporters that backing out of the deal with Russia “would not be ethical, it would be immoral,” while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlutoglu referred to Russia as a strategic partner. The irony must be lost on Mr. Erdogan. The real ethical crisis here is a NATO country’s attempts to integrate sophisticated weaponry, developed by an adversarial power, into the NATO defense system. The potential integration of the S-400 missile defense system into Turkey’s defense infrastructure can expose crucial information and intelligence to Russia, jeopardizing the integrity of the U.S. and NATO security.
Whether Turkey moves forward with its plans, one thing is certain: The U.S. can no longer count on Turkey’s cooperation to achieve effective, long-lasting international security solutions; pretending otherwise would be naive. This is not new nor is it groundbreaking - Turkey’s slow and steady departure from the U.S. sphere of influence has been the proverbial flogging a dead horse in academic and policy circles since the invasion of Iraq. Yet, countless attempts to understand why the U.S.-Turkey strategic partnership is failing and how it can (if at all) be saved overlook two important factors. First, the new security ecosystem that is typified by irregular, asymmetric (gray zone) conflicts raises questions regarding the applicability of international cooperation models such as strategic partnership. Second, there is a strategic and operational misalignment between the U.S. and Turkey caused by their different perspectives on not only how to address mutual security challenges but the nature of their relationship.
Mr. Erdogan has proven to be an unreliable regional partner as he often employs tactics that undermine the U.S. power and influence - namely, disinformation campaigns, threats and intimidation, and deception. His fixation on a strategic vision that is based on neo-imperialist fantasies of regional dominance nullifies all hope for a stable and reliable future for U.S.-Turkey relation. The U.S., therefore, should move away from the blanket strategic partnership model that comes with strings attached, reevaluate its existing relationship, and prioritize a transactional cooperation model based on the alignment of interests on individual issues that are vital to U.S. grand strategy - rather than entertaining President Erdogan’s antics to keep a failing partnership alive. Denying Turkey F-35 jets is a great start in sending a message that U.S. and NATO security is not a bargaining chip.
Turkey has long enjoyed a privileged status the U.S. bestowed on few other nations – as a strategic partner. Within the Cold War security context, this type of partnership made sense. Directly bordering Warsaw Pact countries, Turkey was to expand the U.S. influence to contain the threat of Soviet communism in the region. In exchange, Turkey received long-term U.S. diplomatic, economic, and defense assistance which helped modernize its military capabilities, improve its democracy and economy, and further integrate Turkey into the NATO and U.N. frameworks to “protect Europe against any further expansion of the Soviet Union’s area of influence and interference.” The result, however, was less of a partnership and more of a marriage of necessity between unequal allies; hence, creating a fallacy that continues to influence bilateral relations. Barring the Cold War context, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is “no strategic rationale” for this partnership since the two never had much in common. Recent developments further illustrate the growing chasm between the U.S. and Turkey and trying to bridge these differences leads to serious wasting of U.S. political and financial capital.
This piece does not advocate for cutting ties with Turkey in any capacity, we must recognize Turkey’s value to the U.S. and NATO. Under more realistic views of Turkish leaders, it has allowed the U.S. military presence in geopolitical hotspots, proved useful in U.S. and NATO military and stabilization campaigns in Korea and Afghanistan, and was instrumental in the U.S. victory during the Gulf War by providing logistical support. Not to mention Turkey hosts important equipment under NATO’s nuclear burden-sharing agreement. Over the past 16 years, however, President Erdogan developed a foreign policy that is very much influenced by domestic dynamics (one can argue that it is a botched version of former Prime Minister Davutoglu’s “strategic depth” doctrine, which argues that Turkey can emulate the peak dominance of the Ottoman Empire by harnessing its geopolitical and geostrategic position), and is often at odds with Turkey’s long-standing partners. President Erdogan has cultivated a narrative, which has gained significant domestic support, that western nations, including the U.S. and the E.U. are conspirators in inciting anti-government/anti-Erdogan protests in an attempt to undermine the economic and political transformation of Turkey into a major world power.
The truth is, however, as ugly as it may sound, Turkey is not a major world power. President Erdogan is painfully aware that Turkish political and military power is as relevant as the superpower to whom he can hitch his wagon - whether it is the U.S. or Russia. Hence, he continues to play a dangerous game of Russian roulette (pun is definitely intended) to gain more leverage with both countries to get what he wants. Mr. Erdogan believes the F-35 program will fall apart if they do not deliver the parts produced in Turkey. That would certainly delay the program, but it can recover.
The U.S. government, in a “whole-of-government” approach, must refuse to let Mr. Erdogan take advantage of America’s dedication to normal, healthy, and reliable relations with Turkey - whether it is by threatening to buy adversarial defense systems or fighting allied militia groups in Northern Syria and Iraq.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of The University of Maryland, START, and/or any agency of the U.S. government