Erdoğan the Survivor: Washington Needs a New Approach to Turkey’s Improviser in Chief

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In July, during NATO’s annual summit in Vilnius, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan unexpectedly greenlit Sweden’s bid to join the alliance. This move provoked a degree of celebration and praise that individual leaders rarely get at a summit. U.S. President Joe Biden applauded Erdogan’s “courage, leadership, and diplomacy.” “This is a historic day,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.

Vilnius was a momentary break in a pattern of disheartening friction between Turkey and the West, and especially between Turkey and the United States. The U.S.-Turkish partnership now appears to be the most contentious relationship within the NATO alliance. Erdogan’s bid to block Sweden’s accession was, in part, retaliation against Washington after it punished Turkey for purchasing a Russian air defense system. This five-year dispute has become one of the gravest conflicts in the history of U.S.-Turkish relations, exacerbating mistrust and provoking recriminations.

Turkey is buckling under domestic problems such as soaring inflation, a refugee influx, and the aftereffects of a devastating earthquake. But in the run-up to its presidential elections in May, Erdogan chose to lay the country’s problems—especially its looming economic crisis—at Washington’s doorstep. Erdogan told Turks that, by voting for him, they would “teach the United States a lesson.”

Policymakers must not hope that Erdogan’s eventual support for Sweden’s accession to NATO represents a category shift. The chaos leading up to Vilnius, and Erdogan’s anti-Western election rhetoric, merely represent the most recent twists in the long corkscrew of mixed signals, miscommunication, and mistrust that has characterized the U.S.-Turkish relationship over decades. George Harris, a former senior State Department official, published Troubled Alliance: Turkish-American Problems in Historical Perspective back in 1972; key dynamics it describes still exist. But in the face of a torrent of reports and proposals to repair the relationship, even the once close ties between U.S. and Turkish citizens have continued to degrade steadily. Indeed, they have become so weakened that another major crisis, real or imagined, could inflict the kind of damage to U.S.-Turkish relations that neither country will be able to reverse.

The United States must take an entirely new approach. The reset must start with an understanding of how vastly Turkey has changed since Washington set its default mode of relating to Ankara. Washington holds a uniquely hard-to-dislodge perception that Ankara is a “normal” ally. It has operated from this wish even in the face of contradictory evidence, as if its behavior alone could make that dream a reality. Mostly, Washington has sought to avoid public disputes, pretending that disagreements are trivial; the recent U.S.-Turkish rapport can best be termed transactional. But the security environment around Turkey has transformed, and in Erdogan, the United States confronts an unusual populist-authoritarian leader determined to reconstruct Turkish identity and national interests to reflect his own vision.

Thanks to its geopolitical and military significance and its economic potential, Turkey is an invaluable ally. Washington will have no choice but to work closely with Ankara to accomplish its global strategic goals. And for the foreseeable future, Washington will continue to have to confront a demanding, swaggering, unpredictable leader in Erdogan, one willing to selectively generate crises that risk damaging the essence of the two countries’ relationship.

And yet there is a unique opportunity to change the relationship dramatically. That opportunity first opened when the partnership came under new strain after Turkey’s purchase of the Russian air defense system. Over the course of this affair, U.S. leaders broke their entrenched pattern of engagement by uncharacteristically punishing the Turkish government for an act that would undermine NATO. 

Now is the moment for Washington to make this exception a rule. When Erdogan goads the West, Washington has typically worried that a strong response will legitimize his provocations. This is a serious misjudgment. The United States must, instead, meet Erdogan’s provocative unpredictability with consistency and firmness.

Paradoxically, this approach—and not a hollow pretense of normality—is the path to an ordinary, dependable relationship with an indispensable ally. And Washington now finds itself in an especially favorable position to shape the long-term future of the relationship to its advantage, because Erdogan’s increasingly incoherent improvisations and his mismanagement of Turkey’s economy seem to have finally backed him into a corner.

SCENE CHANGE

Erdogan is no ordinary leader. During his 20 years in power, he has transformed Turkey, transfiguring its political system to render himself nearly the sole decision-maker, eviscerating the rule of law, and seizing control of the judiciary, the security services, the central bank, and the press. It is easy to conflate Turkey with Erdogan and to reduce dealing with the country to assessing his motives; Erdogan himself encourages this. But no successful strategy toward Turkey can be developed without understanding the broader historical backdrop.

The United States’ difficulties with Ankara stem, first, from the changing nature of Turkey’s security environment. Since the end of the Cold War, the rise of new powers and burgeoning instability in the Middle East have coincided with a decline in state power globally and the emergence of complex quandaries such as steep increases in migration and displacement, the growth of the global drug trade, and changes in the technologies used in warfare.

The end of the Cold War also loosened the behavioral straitjackets that constrained the conduct of many states, including Turkey. During his 1989–93 tenure, President Turgut Ozal undertook economic reforms that helped Turkey emerge as a powerful international actor. Ozal saw Turkey as a bridge between the East and the West. Representing a Muslim-majority country but also a committed friend of the United States, he strengthened Turkey’s economic and political ties with a range of allies across Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

To the United States, Turkey was never just another NATO ally. Turkey also provided platforms to project U.S. power across the Middle East, particularly in the aftermath of the first Gulf War; Turkey served as a bulwark of stability in an increasingly fragile region. But it was the United States that first upset this equilibrium. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush’s Middle Eastern interventions unleashed a chain of profoundly destabilizing events in Turkey’s neighborhood.

The United States did not mean to upend its relationship with Turkey. But its adventures in the Middle East had immense unintended consequences. Iran, the region’s preeminent revisionist state, was threatened by the U.S. military lodged on two of its borders and sought to defend itself by upping the ante; Iraq became a federal state that included an empowered Kurdistan Regional Government. Turkish Kurds were emboldened and inspired by this development.

The end of the Cold War loosened the straitjacket constraining Turkey.

And as an indirect result of U.S. intervention, in the following decade the Arab Spring turned the region upside down. Initially, Erdogan imagined that the Arab Spring would give him opportunities to help Muslim Brotherhood–inspired leaders such as Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi take power in lieu of pro-American ones. But in 2013, widespread protests erupted in Istanbul; Erdogan saw them as a local Arab Spring designed to overthrow him.

The rise of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, brought tensions to a boil. After ISIS swiftly took over huge swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, U.S. President Barack Obama wanted Erdogan to allow the United States to use Turkish air bases and for Turkey to better defend its southern border so jihadis could not cross it to join ISIS. But Erdogan assumed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would be overthrown. He even hoped he would: Assad, he reckoned, could be replaced by an Islamist leader whom Turkey could influence. So Ankara failed to heed Obama’s requests.

In desperation—and in the absence of Turkish assistance—Washington partnered instead with the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose dominant Kurdish units had close ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an organization both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group. Washington went a step further, sending U.S. troops to train and assist Syrian Kurds. The Kurdish question is Turkey’s Achilles’ heel; any U.S. effort to help Kurds, as Washington first did in Iraq, is perceived by Ankara as a grave strategic threat. Fearing a demonstration effect would embolden Kurdish citizens in Turkey, Ankara invaded northern Syria three times over U.S. objections, dislodging the SDF from regions near the Turkish border and driving out Kurds who lived there.

At a tremendous cost in lives, the SDF succeeded in subduing ISIS. But both Turkey and the United States were left deeply disgruntled: in Turkey’s view, the United States chose to ally with Kurdish nationalist terrorists and even appeared to support Kurdish autonomy everywhere. To Washington, it seemed as if Ankara tacitly backed jihadi terrorists.

Meanwhile, as the arc of instability spread, a perception set in that the United States was moving on and moving out, preparing for a pivot to Asia and leaving the Middle East behind. In this vacuum, Erdogan made bold plays to change the very nature of Turkey’s role in the international order.

ROLE REVERSAL

From 2003 until roughly 2009, during his early years as prime minister, it appeared as if Erdogan would emulate Ozal. Abroad, Erdogan sought to enhance Ankara’s clout and open doors by liberalizing the Turkish economy and its politics. He also focused on Turkey’s European Union accession process, which had stalled.

These diplomatic overtures were well received by Turkey’s people, its neighbors, and its traditional allies. In 2004, Erdogan’s foreign policy adviser described the organizing principle of Turkey’s foreign policy as “zero problems with the neighbors,” signaling that Turkey’s new government would seek to put an end to the conflicts that had marred its foreign relations. It was an attempt at building soft power.

At its core, however, “zero problems with the neighbors” had more to do with consolidating Erdogan’s position at home. Erdogan rose to power within an Islamist movement that always felt insecure and persecuted. Even after he became prime minister, he had to defend his legitimacy against a long-dominant military-bureaucratic coalition that harbored deep suspicion of his Islamist roots.

Erdogan experienced firsthand the vehemence of this establishment antagonism when the Turkish military forced his political party, the Welfare Party, from power with a public memorandum in 1997. At that time, Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul. The next year, the authorities sentenced Erdogan to ten months in prison for publicly reading a poem by one of Turkey’s most revered authors.

Initially, Erdogan sought to undo the arbitrary rule under which he had suffered. Seeking support from abroad was a way to shore up his position against the military, which relied on immense behind-the-scenes influence to rule Turkey. But the military-bureaucratic coalition overplayed its hand in the 2007 presidential elections. Erdogan called for snap parliamentary elections, and his subsequent victory spelled the end of the military’s influence.

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After that, he systematically took control of every major Turkish institution: not just the parliament and the judiciary but the press and public universities. In his view, Erdogan is Turkey and Turkey is Erdogan. He alienated many of his domestic allies, including some who had helped bring him to power. The rule of law has been eviscerated; arbitrary “justice” has become its hallmark, and the art of politics in Turkey has been reduced to Erdogan watching.

In addition to remaking the country’s institutions, Erdogan sought to reshape Turkey’s identity, overturning the vision of the Turkish republic’s founder, Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk had sought to build a secular, nationalist, elitist, somewhat autarkic state allied with the industrialized world. Erdogan’s new conception of Turkey’s identity conjoined Turkish nationalism with Islam. The two became inseparable, part of a continuous historical tradition reaching back beyond the Ottoman Empire to Islam’s founding. This conjunction enabled Erdogan to construct religious rationales for controversial decisions. To justify compelling Turkey’s central bank to lower interest rates to fight inflation, he pointed to his religion’s opposition to usury.

On the international stage, Erdogan’s vision is expansive and revisionist; he has sought to position himself as both a kingmaker and a disrupter. He began articulating this wish when, in 2013, he contended that “the world is bigger than five,” referring to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. He has repeated this at nearly every UN meeting since. It is not an unreasonable critique of the post–World War II international order. Erdogan also judged, however, that Turkey deserves a permanent seat on the Security Council.

At the same time, Erdogan presents Turkey, broadly defined as a civilization, as a premier “anti–status quo” and anti-imperialist force. He offers a vision in which Western dominance and Western dominance alone represent the contemporary imperialist threat. His conception of imperialism is, thus, limited: he does not discuss Chinese or Russian imperialism or that of the Ottoman Empire. Despite his antipathy toward Ataturk, Erdogan has recruited Ataturk’s memory to this cause. The Turkey scholar Nicholas Danforth has cataloged how Erdogan rebrands Ataturk as “an anti-imperialist hero for Muslims and the entire Third World” and the Ataturk presidency as “the first great blow” in an anti-imperialist offensive that Erdogan intends to win.

HOME GAME

By the early 2010s, Erdogan had jettisoned his “zero problems with the neighbors” policy to adopt a more overtly conflictual approach to countries such as Egypt, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates. He eventually espoused the “Blue Homeland” doctrine, previously a fringe ultranationalist worldview claiming Turkish authority over a significant part of the eastern Mediterranean. To put this doctrine into practice, in 2019, Erdogan signed a maritime agreement with Libya to assert primacy across a swath of the Mediterranean Sea, preventing other countries from constructing oil pipelines and exploiting seabed resources there.

Cyprus, Greece, the United States, the Arab League, and the European Union all condemned the Libya deal. This sort of provocative and unpredictable behavior has appeared to isolate Erdogan, leaving him with no friends in his region with the exception of Qatar. To mobilize against Turkey, in 2021, Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, Israel, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority created the East Mediterranean Gas Forum to exploit and market gas found in their waters.

Erdogan relishes toeing the edge of full-blown diplomatic crises. But he can also be pragmatic; he sees keeping other countries off balance as a strategy, part of how he projects power. A maximalist, he wants to demonstrate a willingness to stick to his goals more steadfastly than his adversaries do theirs and to push issues to the limit. In one especially dramatic example that took place in April of this year, Turkey bombed an airport in Iraqi Kurdistan in what appeared to be an attempt to assassinate Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Syrian Kurdish forces. The bombs missed the runway, probably deliberately. But had they hit their mark, they could have also killed several members of the American military escorting the commander.

Not infrequently, Turkish shells still land uncomfortably close to U.S. forces stationed in northern Syria. Brinkmanship feels empowering, and Erdogan is partly motivated by a desire for payback. Western democracies have often criticized his rule, especially his tendency to jail his opponents. And his discomfort with U.S. power has long been evident. Erdogan has signaled that Turkey seeks “strategic autonomy” from the United States. In 2016, Erdogan’s government imprisoned Andrew Brunson, an American pastor living in Izmir, on spurious charges. Three Turkish nationals working at U.S. consulates were detained a year later. In both instances, Erdogan engaged in the style of hostage diplomacy that Iran and Russia have perfected.

But Erdogan’s brinkmanship is designed for domestic consumption as much as it is for an international audience. The political scientist Marianne Kneuer has argued that “antagonizing ‘Western’ liberal democracies” is an increasingly successful domestic “legitimation strategy” for many authoritarian leaders. Any authoritarian ruler who comes to power by demolishing an entrenched establishment will always worry that someone else could do the same to him, and Erdogan is no exception. No matter how much other countries oppose him, he is most afraid of his own citizens. In 2013, Istanbul was rocked by major demonstrations against his rule; Erdogan worried that an Arab Spring–type movement would engulf Turkey, sweeping him away.

Then, in July 2016, Erdogan faced a coup attempt; he claimed it was orchestrated by Fethullah Gulen, a former close ally and religious leader based in the United States. After the coup failed, Erdogan dubbed it “a gift from God,” using it as a pretext to unleash an unprecedented wave of purges in Turkey’s military, universities, and other institutions. Many of these perceived opponents did not even support Gulen. Ever suspicious of the United States, Erdogan accused Washington of coordinating the coup.

WILD CARD

Erdogan has become accustomed to slinging insults at his domestic adversaries without consequences, and he tends to assume the same lack of repercussions will hold abroad. In 2017, he suggested that the leaders of the Netherlands were all “Nazi remnants”; in 2020, he said that French President Emmanuel Macron needed “mental treatment.” Accusing Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis of trying to block a Turkish arms deal with the United States, Erdogan said Mitsotakis “no longer exists for me” and that he would refuse to meet with him.

The United States, however, has its own unshakable and unreasonable assumption: that Ankara is a genuine ally. American leaders are not used to regarding Turkey as antagonistic, and given the other complexities in the region, they do not want to imagine that it could be, even when they should. As far back as 1993, a long-serving U.S. diplomat acknowledged that the U.S. “tilt toward Turkey has become institutionalized over the years” and “the Turks have exploited their advantages.”

The U.S. approach to Turkey under Erdogan has had two competing themes. In one, Turkey is an extremely important ally. In the other, Turkey’s leader is a wild card and not worth taking too seriously. (A case in point: although Erdogan vowed never to meet with the Greek prime minister again, the two men held a friendly meeting at the Vilnius summit.) By and large, Washington looked the other way when Erdogan meddled in Syria and undermined the fight against ISIS. Few will admit it, but a degree of denigration lurks beneath the surface of the U.S. strategy toward Turkey, a soft bigotry of low expectations.

Until recently, this somewhat paternalistic approach played into Erdogan’s hands. Even as he derided U.S. power, Erdogan could take U.S. and NATO support for granted. NATO membership provides Turkey with weapons, diplomatic support, and cachet that no other Middle Eastern country can claim. In the late 2010s, however, U.S.-Turkish relations moved rapidly toward a new crisis.

AN EXPENSIVE ERROR

Like many other U.S. allies, Turkey lined up to buy the F-35, the United States’ fifth-generation stealth fighter. It hoped to purchase as many as 100, and in a demonstration of faith in Turkey and its industries, Washington fashioned a favorable deal: Turkish aviation industries were slated to manufacture a bevy of F-35 parts, including fuselages, with potential export revenues in the billions of dollars. The United States would also allow Turkey to serve as a maintenance hub for other F-35 customers. But the deal was thrown into disarray when, in 2017, Erdogan brokered a $2.5 billion deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin to buy Russia’s S-400 mobile surface-to-air missile system.

In every conceivable way, the United States warned Turkey that if it went ahead with the purchase from Russia, it would be evicted completely from the F-35 program, because integrating the S-400 missile system into NATO systems would compromise the F-35’s sensitive technologies. The U.S. Congress passed a resolution calling for sanctions against Turkey if it completed the arms deal with Russia.

Even given Erdogan’s past brinkmanship, his insistence on the S-400 deal dumbfounded observers. He justified his move as he typically has, turning the tables to argue that the United States had unfairly declined to sell Turkey its equivalent missile system, the Patriot. He did not seem to believe that Washington would follow through with its threats. But he was wrong. In 2019, after the S-400s arrived, the United States unceremoniously kicked Turkey out of the F-35 program and imposed sanctions.

The S-400s remain in storage because the Turkish government understands that deploying them would rupture relations with Washington. In addition to wasting $2.5 billion on the missile system, Turkey lost its early outlays to buy the F-35s and future export revenues, and its air force will be deprived of a state-of-the-art fighter plane available to 17 other countries, including nearby Greece, Israel, and Romania.

Erdogan wants to position himself as both a kingmaker and a disrupter.

Faced with the prospect of its air force losing its edge, Turkey asked to buy new F-16s and upgrade kits for its existing fleet from the United States. The Biden administration supports this step. But in a sign of Turkey’s diminished clout in Washington, this request also met with bipartisan opposition in the U.S. Congress after Turkey stalled on Sweden’s NATO membership and repeatedly conducted military overflights of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. Congress has emerged as a fulcrum of opposition to Turkey; it is likely to attach further conditions on how the F-16s can be used before it finalizes any sale.

For Washington, Erdogan’s S-400 purchase crossed a redline; it affected Washington’s own security concerns. Erdogan’s threats to block Sweden’s accession to NATO were, in part, an effort at payback. At the summit in Vilnius, Erdogan unexpectedly reversed himself at the eleventh hour, consenting to Sweden’s accession.

Erdogan may have hoped his brinkmanship would enhance the perception of him as an invaluable power broker. After Vilnius, he spun a story that his clever maneuvering forced concessions from the West. But these concessions were small, and in the end, the outcome in Vilnius represented a defeat. Despite capturing so much attention, Erdogan’s grandstanding alienated his allies. Creating international dustups over such a vital issue as Sweden’s NATO membership and at such a crucial juncture for NATO has made him look smaller.

DON’T PLAY IT AGAIN, UNCLE SAM

The United States has feared standing up to Turkey in part because it does not want to aggravate a rift. Erdogan has woven a rich conspiratorial narrative in Turkey that Washington is jealous of his foreign policy accomplishments, determined to undermine Turkish morals by backing LGBTQ groups, and even bent on overthrowing the Turkish government. In a 2019 poll, more than 80 percent of Turkish respondents named the United States as a leading threat to Turkey. This is unsurprising given the drumbeat of anti-American rhetoric that emanates from Turkish government circles and their allies in the media: earlier this year, then Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that any would-be Turkish leader who pursues pro-American policies is a “traitor.”

But Washington’s reticence has allowed a profound cognition gap and a trust deficit to develop between Turkey and the United States. It may be difficult for Americans to comprehend, but Ankara perceives them as consistently hostile. No matter what steps the United States takes, these moves tend to either be misread or deliberately misrepresented by Turkey.

Meanwhile, American confidence in Turkey is at an all-time low. No U.S. official would risk readmitting Turkey into the F-35 program based solely on a promise that the S-400s will never be removed from storage. Indeed, the United States has begun to invest in new naval and air infrastructure in Greece, including the soon-to-be-completed Alexandroupoli port, to hedge against its dependence on Turkey.

More broadly, it is difficult to overstate how much Erdogan has damaged the trustworthiness of Turkish institutions. Its statistics are unreliable, its central bank is undependable, and its judicial system’s decisions are inscrutable. The Turkish justice system’s lack of credibility particularly affects its relations with its allies, who are inundated with often far-fetched extradition requests for Erdogan’s opponents.

Erdogan is most afraid of his own citizens.

When Ankara complains that Sweden or the United States does not repatriate “terrorists,” the problem becomes not only a political one but also a legal one. Allies cannot trust the fairness or veracity of Turkish indictments or that people extradited to Turkey will be fairly treated. Western officials look with concern on cases such as that of Osman Kavala, a philanthropist, and Selahattin Demirtas, formerly the head of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party. They were subjected to sham trials in Turkey, where they remain incarcerated despite binding rulings by the European Court of Human Rights to release them.

Turkey’s weak rule of law also affects economic relations. The U.S. State Department’s 2022 investment climate guidance points to “concerns about the [Turkish] government’s commitment to the rule of law” as the cause of historically low foreign direct investment. Tens of thousands of investigations have been launched against people who “insult” the president, and those who are investigated may lose their jobs or be jailed. (Ironically, these spurious prosecutions resemble what Erdogan himself endured as mayor of Istanbul.) Such obvious abuses make investors nervous. Foreigners will not invest if they are not assured that business disputes and regulatory matters will be fairly adjudicated.

To turn things around, Washington must take the initiative. U.S. leaders must be frank about their concern that the U.S.-Turkish relationship is in danger of deteriorating beyond repair. The United States must stress that, although NATO has shortcomings, the alliance has persisted for a reason: its members share not only interests but also values. This distinguishes the United States’ relationship with Turkey from those it maintains with other troubled democracies. Washington may forge strong partnerships with populist-authoritarian rulers such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, but India is not a member of NATO, so the expectations are different.

Pretending Erdogan’s provocations are not serious only inflames and encourages him. The United States must vigorously counter the anti-American rhetoric that originates from Erdogan, his government, and his allied press outlets. And it must clarify that it will not tolerate certain behaviors from Turkey, especially actions that endanger American lives, such as the many close calls in Syria and Iraq.

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American leaders cannot complain intermittently; they must meet Erdogan’s unpredictability with consistency. When Erdogan crosses a line, there must be a response. His inconsistency means that no hard and fast rules of engagement can be applied to every situation. But U.S. leaders can express their displeasure by canceling meetings and visits with high-ranking officials. They can register more significant anger by, for example, holding congressional hearings on Turkish disinformation campaigns.

The United States would benefit from coordinating with other allies on the receiving end of Erdogan’s affronts. Washington has already commenced this process: the development of the port of Alexandroupoli is just one example. U.S. leaders have also decidedly changed their approach to Cyprus, lifting its long-standing arms embargo and engaging with Nicosia more closely on a variety of security-related issues.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine created new dilemmas for the U.S.-Turkish relationship but also new opportunities. Putin and Erdogan, like-minded autocrats with a deep mistrust of the West, have begun to turn more to each other for needs only the other can provide. Erdogan opposed sanctions on Russia, arguing that Turkey was “not bound by the West’s sanctions.” The United States has shown some flexibility and tolerance regarding Turkey’s sanctions-busting activities; as oil and gas prices spiked, swelling Turkey’s import bill and overwhelming its current account, Turkish-Russian trade ballooned.

Putin stroked Erdogan’s ego by allowing him to play a role in a wheat deal that let Ukraine export grain and fertilizers through the Black Sea. These exports are critical for developing countries facing severe food shortages. Turkey also sold Bayraktar drones to Ukraine. Erdogan has basked in the plaudits he has received for serving as a mediator. But these events also reveal just how desperate Turkey is for any bit of foreign currency it can get.

TOUGH LOVE

Erdogan emerged from Vilnius with his wings clipped—and he returned home to an economy that is in shambles. Thanks to the reforms enacted by Ozal and, for a time, Erdogan, the Turkish economy performed exceedingly well during the early years of this century. Foreign direct investment hit a record high, rising from $1 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2007.

But over the last decade, the government’s low-interest-rate policy encouraged a dangerous culture of consumption. Citizens are spending more and more of a currency whose value is simultaneously cratering. The consumption frenzy has pushed an explosion in importation, pressuring Turkey’s current account. Financing the deficit is getting more expensive by the month thanks to Turkey’s rising risk premium. The Turkish manufacturing sector, which in 2021 accounted for 21 percent of GDP, risks being badly weakened by increasing input costs. To avert a catastrophe, Turkey will have to try to leverage its geopolitical importance to solicit help from the United States.

The Turkish population may not be pro-American; even Erdogan’s opponents harbor suspicions about Washington. But much of the Turkish population has suffered under Erdogan’s erratic authoritarianism and economic mismanagement. Despite the repressive environment he has created and the fear it engenders, this past May, almost 48 percent of voters chose to remove him from office. The United States has a chance to empower Turkish civil society and opposition politicians by showing that although it may not support Erdogan, it supports Turkey. The key will be economic aid.

All indications are that when Turkey’s crisis finally peaks, it will devastate the country’s already beleaguered economy. Recently, Erdogan grudgingly abandoned his longtime dedication to lowering interest rates in response to economic stress. But it is still not clear that he comprehends the magnitude of the effort awaiting Turkey.

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Despite Erdogan’s attempts to attract investment from the Gulf states and bolster trade with China, Turkey is, and will remain, wholly embedded in the Western economic system. That deep integration affords Western powers opportunities to influence Turkey for the better. Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States have historically been Turkey’s principal sources of foreign direct investment: in 2021, they accounted for nearly two-thirds of it. And Western countries remain the main buyer of Turkish goods and services. In 2022, the United Kingdom received 5.1 percent of Turkish exports, the United States 6.7 percent, Germany 8.4 percent, and another ten EU countries 42.5 percent.

Further increasing exports to the West will be a linchpin of Turkey’s economic recovery. The exports in question are predominantly industrial goods, whose production drives the growth of well-paying jobs. But Turkey must significantly restructure its state institutions in order to expand market access for Turkish exports and win buy-in from major financial markets. Any true economic rescue will have to rely on Western economies; China, Russia, and the Middle East have relatively little to contribute.

A stabilization plan will be painful but doable. Turkey enjoys significant economic advantages: its proximity to European and Middle Eastern markets, its educated and relatively young workforce, and its seasoned business community that is integrated with the rest of the world. Turkey is well positioned to benefit from “friend shoring,” a growing practice of repositioning production and supply chains in countries deemed politically reliable.

Turkey will almost certainly have to ask for assistance from the International Monetary Fund. The United States will inevitably play an essential role in helping shape the contours of an IMF plan and its financing. But Washington must insist on making IMF support conditional on improvements to the rule of law, such as restoring the Turkish central bank’s autonomy and shoring up the credibility of financial institutions that produce economic statistics.

American leaders must meet Erdogan’s unpredictability with consistency.

Turkey may need to seek economic help from Russia, and the United States should tolerate some of these arrangements. But it must push back against Turkey exporting electronic goods that directly help Moscow prosecute its war against Ukraine. The United States has already sanctioned some Turkish companies, and Turkish leaders have said they will curtail such exports. The Ukraine war will likely continue, however, increasing pressure on Putin and intensifying his need for components. This July, Putin suspended the wheat deal Turkey helped broker. For both Washington and Ankara, this is an opportunity to launch a discussion on how to better coordinate dealings with Russia in the future.

Like many maximalist leaders who have held on to power for decades, Erdogan has surrounded himself with minions and created a media echo chamber in which most people have little choice but to praise him. At times, he must imagine that he is infallible. But even though he is an ideologue, Erdogan is also a pragmatist. He will agree to make changes, even ones he dislikes, if he fears his survival is at stake. And his survival is now at stake.

During the S-400 crisis, in an unusual shift, Washington stuck to its guns, following through on precisely what it promised it would do. As a result, it delineated what could be a more resolute method of engaging with Turkey more broadly. Ankara must know it cannot grandstand on everything and negotiate indefinitely. Now, the United States must hold the line. Going forward, Washington should not just bandage surface wounds or seek to restore a golden age in U.S.-Turkish relations that never existed. By acting firmly and consistently, the United States can craft a new kind of relationship: a normal one, much more akin to the relationship it enjoys with Italy or Portugal. It must seize the chance.

By: HENRI J. BARKEY – Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Source: Foreign Affairs

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