Over the past decade or so, Turkey, a critical NATO member and once-aspiring candidate for membership in the European Union, has refashioned itself as a revisionist power openly challenging not just its regional neighbors but also treaty allies like France and the United States.
Currently, Turkey’s military—NATO’s largest after the U.S.—is actively involved in a number of theaters, including Syria, Iraq, the South Caucasus, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, with the intention to either steer the outcome of a dispute in its favor or alter the existing order. This behavior represents a radical change from Turkey’s earlier predilection for a foreign policy that embraced the status quo and that mostly eschewed foreign adventures.
The chief engineer of this shift is Recep Tayyip Erdogan, first as Turkey’s prime minister, from 2003 until 2014, and then as president. While the transformation of Turkish foreign policy under his leadership did not follow a linear trajectory, it was dominated by two overriding features: first, Erdogan’s ambition to thrust Turkey, and by extension himself, into a global leadership role; and second, to always utilize Turkey’s new activist foreign policy as a method to enhance the regime’s domestic legitimacy and ensure its survival.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, first took power in the 2002 elections, capturing 34 percent of the vote. From the outset, they faced skepticism, if not outright hostility, from the country’s secular elite and hard-line military leaders because of the Islamist leanings of the AKP’s founders. The party’s early years in power were thus marked by a conscious effort to improve human rights practices and press freedoms while encouraging a vibrant civil society, so as to gain acceptance in the West, especially in Europe, as a means of containing and gaining leverage over Turkey’s powerful military establishment. This surge of democratization provided additional benefits. The blending of a democratic narrative with Islamic piety, demonstrating that Islam and democracy could coexist, captured the imagination of countless Middle Easterners, conferring on Turkey a measure of soft power it never before enjoyed.
Erdogan, however, would often rail against what he perceived to be an unjust world order. Ahmet Davutoglu, who was Erdogan’s main foreign policy guru for many years before falling out and leaving the AKP last year, laid out a vision for Turkey as a “central power,” destined to play an influential role in its region and beyond. Ultimately, Erdogan’s vision would culminate in his mantra that “the world is larger than five,” a reference to the United Nations Security Council, which Erdogan wanted reformed to reflect the postwar diffusion of power around the globe. Unstated was the expectation that Turkey would assume its proper role as leader of a much-maligned Muslim world.
The real changes to Turkey’s foreign policy started around 2010, some three years after the country’s top military brass publicly challenged Erdogan by trying, and failing, to veto the ascension of the AKP’s Abdullah Gul to the presidency—a humiliating ordeal that forced the military out of politics. This allowed Erdogan to consolidate power at home by reconfiguring Turkey’s institutions, eventually bringing them under his direct control and, with a hotly contested 2017 referendum, replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one that centralized all powers in his office. Civil society, from the press to universities and independent associations, was eviscerated; dissent was no longer countenanced.
As he was subduing the military and domestic critics, Erdogan’s assertiveness in foreign policy took shape. His first foray was in 2009, when he upbraided Shimon Peres, then the prime minister of Israel, during a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum in Davos, before storming off the stage. The following year, he linked up with Brazil to try to preserve an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, to the great annoyance of the Obama administration, which favored new sanctions on Iran at the time. A year later, he brought Turkey into the Syrian civil war by throwing his support fully behind the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad, including jihadists. Turkey and the U.S. also clashed over the campaign against the Islamic State, as Erdogan refused Obama’s entreaties to fight the militants, even though many of them had traversed through Turkish territory to join the conflict. Erdogan even ordered an invasion of northeastern Syria last year, attacking the same Kurdish forces that had been fighting the Islamic State alongside U.S. troops.
More recently, Erdogan’s behavior has assumed a far more revisionist stance. In Libya, Turkish drones and military advisers, not to mention thousands of Syrian militants recruited by Ankara to fight as mercenaries, succeeded in turning the tide of the battle in favor of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli. In the South Caucasus, Turkey was instrumental in planning and supporting Azerbaijan’s assault on the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Just as in Libya, Turkish drones and Syrian mercenaries have played a critical role in the latest round of fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan has forcibly challenged Greek and Cypriot sovereignty by sending seismic research vessels accompanied by the Turkish navy into their Exclusive Economic Zones in pursuit of hydrocarbon resources. Even when Erdogan agreed, under European pressure, to give negotiations with Greece a chance and thus avoid sanctions, he quickly reverted back to aggressive tactics by ordering the return of the research vessels into the Aegean Sea, defying a Western consensus on the matter. Despite the inherent risks of his brinkmanship, Erdogan assumes that other NATO members would step in to defuse any crisis, calculating that he can in the meantime advance his position by changing the facts in the Mediterranean.
In all of these cases, the domestic response in Turkey has been fully supportive. Erdogan has been able to neutralize any opposition by appealing to Turkish voters’ nationalist predisposition, while the largely domesticated press praises every one of his “successful” endeavors. The emerging narrative is one of Turkey’s rightful return as a great power complete with government-produced videos linking the present to past Ottoman glories. French President Emmanuel Macron has described this as Turkey having “fantasies about the past.”
The most puzzling of Erdogan’s foreign policy ventures has been his purchase of S-400 antiaircraft missiles from Russia, despite vociferous opposition by NATO and the U.S. Fearful that Russian technicians would gain access to the advanced technology of the American-made F-35 fighter jets in Turkey’s fleet, the Pentagon and Congress repeatedly warned Erdogan that he risked losing Turkey’s access to the F-35 jets and its place in the multinational consortium that was building them. Erdogan still went ahead with the $2.4 billion purchase, forsaking billions of dollars in future export revenues from the F-35 program. While the S-400 system has yet to be formally deployed, Turkey recently tested the missile system for the first time, openly challenging Washington and risking the imposition of American sanctions.
The S-400 purchase conforms with Erdogan’s pattern of conduct. He takes risks to push his own agenda, with the expectation that he will be insulated from any geopolitical turmoil because of Turkey’s important role in NATO and the general reluctance by powers large and small to contest his moves. So far, it has worked. It also allows him to continuously dominate the news cycle at home where he gets portrayed as the courageous leader fighting for Turkey’s national interests. At a time when the Turkish economy is suffering from mismanagement and problems related to coronavirus pandemic, this helps ensure Erdogan’s survival.
That said, it would be wrong to attribute Turkey’s foreign policy changes to domestic politics. Erdogan has gained international notoriety as an enfant terrible, becoming a leader whose whims and demands must be checked. In this sense, he has achieved what he had set out to do: transform Turkey and himself into consequential global actors. He has even entered Western political discourse, invariably mentioned, along with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, as one of the three most visible leaders lodged on the world’s authoritarian dais.
Erdogan is calculating and pragmatic when necessary, but, problematically for Western leaders, he is not done yet. There are no guardrails at home to rein him in—surrounded by sycophants, no one dares to contradict him. He will continue to push as long as he can, until he hits a roadblock. Even if sanctions or other obstacles force him to compromise on one issue—the S-400, for instance—he will quickly open another front somewhere else. Like all populist leaders, Erdogan takes the fight to others and always tries to stay a step ahead, compelling rivals and allies alike to remain on the defensive.