A U.S. strategy for a ‘lonely’ Turkey
Ankara has increasingly adopted a hostile approach to American and European interests
“Precious loneliness” is how one of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s main advisors described Turkey’s position in the Middle East as its foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors” crumbled in the face of the Arab uprisings. The full extent of just how lonely Turkey was willing to be on the world stage did not become clear until 2020, a year in which Erdoğan’s government provoked, entered, or exacerbated conflicts in seemingly every direction.
As recently as October 2020, Turkey was engaged in multiple conflicts ranging from North Africa, across the Middle East, and north into the Caucasus. A focal point of Turkey’s recently aggressive foreign policy has been the attempt to secure rights to energy resources in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is by no means, however, the extent of Turkey’s foreign adventures as it now deploys military forces at bases in Qatar and Somalia, has apparently sought a military base on Sudan’s Suakin island, and has actively intervened in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts as well as in the renewed war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
This is a dramatic contrast to the situation twenty years ago, when Turkey was the chief regional ally of both the United States and Israel and was seeking membership in the European Union.
One implication of this “precious loneliness” has been that Turkey has increasingly adopted a hostile approach to American and European interests in the broader region. This is a dramatic contrast to the situation twenty years ago, when Turkey was the chief regional ally of both the United States and Israel and was seeking membership in the European Union.
Yet, Erdoğan appears to have had enough of Turkey’s isolation. As 2020 ended and 2021 began, Erdoğan engaged in a seeming blitzkrieg of diplomatic overtures, suggesting he was willing to reset relations with a number of nations that he had crossed—especially the United States. However, neither the sincerity of and motivation for this charm offensive, nor Erdoğan’s ability to deliver on his promises are obvious. As Turkey faces growing economic trouble at home and divisions plague the regime’s factions while new regional partnerships are forming that further isolate Turkey, Erdoğan’s foreign outreach could be driven by various factors: a sincere desire to come in from the cold; a need to secure financial assistance; or the hope that rehabilitating his personal standing on the world stage can help keep him in power at home. Each of these variations has different, but significant, implications for U.S. interests and policy.
Although rebuilding constructive relations with Turkey should be an objective for Washington and its allies, the Biden administration must judge the sincerity and motivation behind Erdoğan’s recent entreaties before deciding how to proceed. This requires first assessing the dynamics at play within the Turkish regime that are driving the current outreach efforts and then evaluating them in light of U.S. interests vis-à-vis Turkey and the history of its recent, mostly failed, attempts to further those interests with Erdoğan.
We conclude that Erdoğan’s pursuit of a reset with the United States and other Western countries is insincere.
Ultimately, we conclude that Erdoğan’s pursuit of a reset with the United States and other Western countries is insincere, driven more by political pressures at home than a foreign policy about-face. As a result, though there are real and significant benefits Washington and its allies could derive from a renewed, cooperative partnership with Ankara, there are also major strategic costs to Erdoğan’s continued aggressive pursuit of Turkish unilateralism. The Biden administration would be well-served to pursue a policy that seeks to test the possibility of securing the former while protecting against the latter.