Some Congressmen are seeking to block the Biden administration from selling F-16 jets to Turkey and have a long list of grievances against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — from human rights violations and his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin to his blocking Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Turkey, a wayward NATO ally, has been a frequent irritant, most recently because of its purchase of Russian S-400 defense system.
Erdogan and his Islamic-oriented Peace and Justice Party (AKP) have dominated Turkish politics since 2003, first as prime minister and then, since 2014, as president. During his time in power, Erdogan has evolved from democratic modernizer to a repressive authoritarian with his own agenda. That agenda is poorly understood in the U.S. Erdogan is proving to be a master of Realpolitik of Kissingerian dimensions, driven by geography, history, culture, religion and ambition.
Turkey’s location at the crossroads of Eurasia, Islam and Turkic ethnicity has enabled Erdogan to build influence across Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and the Caucuses. He compartmentalizes economic and geopolitical ties to Russia and Iran, maintaining working ties with both.
Ankara has had military or peacekeeping forces in a dozen nations, from Bosnia to Qatar. It has intervened in civil wars in Libya and Syria, and threatens war with Greece, also a NATO ally. Its military drones are a hot commodity, aiding Azerbaijan in turning the tide against Russian ally Armenia in a conflict over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Ukraine war has brought Erdogan’s independent realpolitik into sharp relief. He criticized NATO for not deterring the war and then for provoking it; he condemned the Russian invasion, but rejected Western sanctions and expanded economic ties to Moscow. Yet Erdogan, with strong economic and military ties to Ukraine, provided Kyiv with effective drones, negotiated the opening of Ukrainian wheat exports via the Black Sea and has positioned himself as a mediator, actively calling for a ceasefire. Under the 1936 Montreux Convention, Ankara controls the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, linking the Black and Mediterranean Seas. The Black Sea is a vital shipping lane for Russia as well.
There are obvious contradictory implications for U.S. interests. On the one hand, Turkey has given military aid to Ukraine and helped negotiate an opening to wheat exports through the Black Sea. On the other hand, Ankara has distanced itself from the U.S./NATO response and has deep economic ties to Russia.
There is a strain of non-aligned Turkish nationalism in Turkish rhetoric and in public opinion, evident in clashes with the U.S. over Cyprus, Syria and weapons sales issues. Yet Erdogan has achieved a balancing act, underscoring his independent foreign policy with anti-U.S. nationalism and pursuit of his interests, regardless of those of the U.S.
Similarly, Erdogan’s efforts to be a major player in the Middle East amid perceived U.S retrenching is complicated. Turkey has militarily intervened in Libya against UAE and Russian-backed forces. Turkey has some 10,000 troops in Syria, sometimes working with Moscow, sometimes against. Erdogan’s main concern are Turkey’s Kurdish minority. He is concerned that if Kurds in Syria have too much autonomy, it will spill over into Turkey’s internal politics.
Erdogan’s regional activism in the Islamic world over the past several years has angered Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In recent months, however, due to shifting regional alignments and economic necessity, he has repaired ties to Riyadh, the Gulf states as well as with Israel.
Back to the F-16 issue. What does it all mean for U.S. interests? Erdogan seems to think NATO needs Turkey, an anchor in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea, more than the other way around. Ukraine appears to reinforce that view. The U.S. needs to grasp that Washington and Ankara have different agendas and interests. NATO ally or not, there is – whether it is Russia, Ukraine, Syria or blocking NATO expansion – a limited intersection of U.S. and Turkish interests.
Some argue for expelling Turkey from NATO, though there is no formal mechanism to do so. If NATO is about shared values, from illiberalism at home to behavior abroad, Turkey’s prickly nationalism and Erdogan’s global ambitions may not be compatible with NATO. Recall that the White House did not invite Turkey to Biden’s global democracy summit. Erdogan certainly doesn’t quite fit into Biden’s “democracy vs. autocracy” ideology.
Nonetheless, Turkey is an important regional and global actor whose interests intersect enough with those of the U.S. that cooperation, where possible, necessitates at minimum a business-like relationship. Arguably better in the tent than outside it.
The point is to lower U.S. expectations of Turkey under Erdogan. Rather than view Turkey as an errant ally that needs to be brought back into the fold, some strategic empathy is required. Understand how Ankara sees its interests, what its bottom lines are and what is possible. That would make for a more realistic relationship, cooperating on an issue-specific basis with limited expectations.
Such a reconsidered view of Erdogan and Turkey should be the basis for deciding whether the proposed F-16 sale should be approved. Is an F-16 ban to demonstrate moral opprobrium warranted, even it won’t change behavior? Banning F-16 sales to punish Erdogan for his repressive policies at home and undesired actions abroad is unlikely to change Erdogan’s policies. Ankara can find alternate sources of combat fighters.
More broadly, Turkey is a good example of the need to accept the limits of U.S. power in an increasingly multipolar world. The Turkey dilemma suggests that to successfully lead in the post-post-Cold War world emerging, the U.S. needs more humility, more diplomatic agility and a more imaginative statecraft.
Robert A. Manning is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. He served as senior counselor to the undersecretary of state for global affairs, as a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s policy planning staff and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group. Follow him on Twitter @Rmanning4.