How to Dull Turkey's Autocratic Edge

The European Union and United States Must Pressure Erdogan—Carefully

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviewing a guard of honour in Istanbul, September 2017.  Kayhan Ozer / Presidential Palace / Handout via REUTERS

The European Union and the United States face a remarkably similar set of challenges in dealing with Turkey. They both have long-standing relationships with Ankara and important interests at stake in the country’s future. Yet the arrangements that have historically anchored each of their respective ties with Turkey—the promise of Turkey’s eventual EU accession and its decades-long military alliance with the United States—no longer seem capable of handling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian and anti-Western stance.

As a result, European and U.S. policymakers are searching for a way forward. Some seek to salvage the status quo, assuaging Erdogan in order to preserve his cooperation. Others, worried that Erdogan is taking advantage of this approach, are looking for new arrangements and sources of leverage over Ankara. On both sides of the Atlantic, diplomatic caution and inertia are gradually giving way in the face of Turkey’s transformation.

If Erdogan’s foreign and domestic political trajectory continues, it will eventually provoke a backlash in Western capitals that will make military and economic cooperation impossible. Rather than allow this to happen haphazardly, Washington and Brussels should work together to clarify in advance that their willingness to work with Turkey requires Erdogan to check his most illiberal and anti-Western tendencies. 

A Turkish army tank in Gaziantep Province, Turkey, August 2016.  Umit Bektas / REUTERS


The United States has long seen its ties with Turkey from the vantage point of their military alliance, which was formed to contest Soviet power during the Cold War but has survived until the present day. In recent years, however, Washington has begun to question the partnership’s relevance. The war in Syria exposed Washington’s and Ankara’s conflicting interests in the Middle East, where Turkey’s focus on the threat posed by forces linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has been at odds with the United States’ focus on the Islamic State, or ISIS. U.S. officials have also grown frustrated with Erdogan’s persistent anti-Americanism and with his government’s arrest

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