Putin the Great
Russia’s Imperial Impostor
Samuel Huntington’s 1993 Foreign Affairs essay “The Clash of Civilizations?” has been picked apart endlessly over the past three decades. But whatever one makes of his thesis that cultural identity would drive post–Cold War politics, Huntington had something right about Turkey. Huntington predicted that as the twentieth-century contest wound down, the pro-Western leanings of Turkey’s secular elite would be displaced by nationalist and Islamic elements. He was spot on.
Over the last few years, Turkey’s relationships with the United States and Europe have been turbulent, to say the least. Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan established a bromance of sorts, personalizing bilateral relations to the detriment of nearly all policy issues. Turkey distrusts the United States for supporting Syrian Kurdish forces in Syria and for harboring the cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara has identified as the mastermind of a failed coup in 2016. Turkey’s relations with Europe have been no better. European leaders have grown weary of Turkey’s increasing illiberalism and eagerness to flex its military muscle in the eastern Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, Ankara has turned to new partners. The government has purchased Russian weapons systems—against the wishes of its NATO allies—and has worked with Moscow on major infrastructure projects, including gas pipelines and Turkey’s first nuclear reactor. Turkey and Russia together have carved out spheres of influence in Libya and Syria. And lately, Turkey has courted China, chasing Chinese investment, procuring the COVID-19 vaccine produced by the Chinese company Sinovac, and refusing to criticize Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
This is not a temporary pivot but a deeper change in Turkey’s foreign policy orientation. In the nearly two decades of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has grown less interested than it once was in belonging to the transatlantic club or pursuing European Union membership. Instead, the government has been keen to reposition the country as a regional hegemon. While the West is still gripped with nostalgia about Ankara’s historic role in the transatlantic alliance, Turkish leaders, deeply suspicious of NATO partners, talk of strategic autonomy. Once the poster child of a secular Muslim republic, a shining example of the transformative power of the liberal order, Turkey today is questioning the value of playing by Western rules.
Turkey yearns, more than anything, to be a standalone power. Its new foreign policy is best understood not as a drift toward Russia or China but as expressive of a desire to keep a foot in each camp and to manage great-power rivalry. The Erdogan regime engineered this shift and a permissive international environment enabled it—but neither a new government in Ankara nor a reinvigorated Western alliance can reverse it. A network of politicians, bureaucrats, journalists, and scholars openly skeptical of alignment with the West now dominate the country’s security culture. An independent Turkish foreign policy is here to stay.
The past few years have marked a break with the post–World War II status quo. But looking back further, Turkey’s balancing act has historical precedent. The Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth century and the Turkish Republic in its early decades both sought to insulate the state from currents abroad and play more powerful nations off one another. In an attempt to stave off the decline of its empire, Ottoman leaders entered a game of ever-changing alliances, aligning at times with Austria-Hungary, Russia, and the United Kingdom before making the mistake of teaming up with Germany in World War I. In the 1920s and the 1930s, the young Turkish Republic received political and military support from the Bolshevik government in Moscow. Turkey remained neutral in World War II, its leaders shuttling back and forth between Nazi Germany and the United Kingdom to extract military aid, export credits, and other forms of financial support from both. Erdogan has the same goal today: to make deals with world powers without picking a side.
Enacting that strategy has required some historical rehabilitation. The idea that Turkey is unique among its neighbors and destined to reclaim a regional leadership role—similar to the late-nineteenth-century German concept of Sonderweg, or “separate path,” as I have written elsewhere—is rooted in a conception of the country as the heir to the Ottoman Empire. The secular tradition that Turkey’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, established in the 1920s rested on a portrayal of the Ottomans as backward, inefficient, and unable to keep up with “contemporary civilizations” (muasır medeniyetler). Erdogan’s Turkey has adopted a very different tone. Today’s political speeches and television dramas don’t denigrate Ottoman leaders as unsophisticated conquerors but adulate them as pioneers of a new civilizational order—fair in governance and more compassionate toward their subjects than their Western contemporaries. Those subjects’ nationalist uprisings eventually helped bring down the empire—but the new discourse takes little note of this fact. Turkey’s revisionist historians describe the Ottoman era as a golden age of equanimity and justice, disturbed only by the prodding of the “imperialist” West.
Turkey today is questioning the value of playing by Western rules.
The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) increasingly calls upon the Ottoman heritage in justifying its foreign policy. Pro-government media celebrate the expansion of Turkey’s military footprint to former Ottoman lands, such as Iraq, Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus, as the rebirth of a sleeping giant. Erdogan, in turn, is the “leader of the century”—a modern-day version of the late-nineteenth-century sultan he reveres, Abdulhamid II, who resisted calls for constitutional reform, held the line against the West, and forestalled the decline of the empire. In making the comparison, Turkish media outlets applaud Erdogan for playing hardball with great powers—cheering on his negotiations with Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Russian President Vladimir Putin—and for maintaining an assertive posture in the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean.
Ankara’s military strength and Washington’s retrenchment from the Middle East have eased the way for Turkey’s forays into regional conflicts. The country’s burgeoning defense industry has supplied Turkish troops in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. Turkish-produced armed drones helped secure Azerbaijan’s decisive battlefield victory against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall. As the increasing self-reliance of Turkey’s military-industrial complex gave its leaders the confidence to project power in the region, Trump’s lack of interest in the Middle East and desire for a smooth personal relationship with Erdogan gave them the opportunity. Turkey expanded its naval operations in the eastern Mediterranean and built bases in Qatar and Somalia without having to worry much about opposition from the United States. Instead, Russia was the power that Erdogan had to watch out for. The Turkish president established a close relationship with Putin and acted with Moscow’s coordination and consent in every deployment abroad. But this cooperation went only so far. Russia imposed geographic limits on Turkey’s zone of influence in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus—leaving Ankara frustrated as well as emboldened.
Erdogan’s real skill is exploiting gaps in the international system and finding opportunities to play Russia and the United States against each other. In Syria, for example, Turkey’s presence has been a menace to U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, but Washington has also understood it as a source of leverage against Russian encroachment. In Libya, Erdogan spotted an opening and moved in quickly. In 2019, the Libyan militia leader General Khalifa Haftar led an army that advanced on Libya’s government with the backing of Russia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The desperate government went door to door in Western capitals, seeking assistance. Most Western powers did not care or dare to intervene. But Turkey did: its forces helped turn back Haftar’s offensive with minimal military investment. By entering these conflicts, Turkey is carving out a space for itself in the age of great-power rivalry. Ankara’s objective, as Turkish commentators often put it, is “to have a seat at the table.”
In projecting power abroad, Erdogan has so far played his hand well. What is surprising is that he has managed to do so from a fragile position at home. Turkey is facing a severe economic crisis with double-digit inflation, a steep decline in the value of the lira, and high unemployment, all resulting in capital flight and impoverishment for ordinary Turks. For the first time in decades, economists fear a balance-of-payments crisis. This tumult is chipping away at Erdogan’s base—in an April poll, fewer than 30 percent of respondents said they would support the AKP if an election were to be held that week, well below the 49 percent who voted for the party in 2015.
Erdogan’s foreign policy record may not redeem him, either. Like the citizens of many other nations, the Turks believe in their country’s exceptionalism. Polls indicate popular support for restoring Turkey to a place of grandeur on the world stage, and most voters share Erdogan’s suspicions of the West, particularly the United States. For all but the most strident nationalists, however, this is not enough. Most voters are pragmatic: they do not want Turkey to be estranged from its Western allies if that isolation takes a toll on their economic well-being and quality of life. Support for EU membership is still around 60 percent, not because Turks feel European but because many understand integration with Europe to mean a stronger economy and better governance. As the government boasts about establishing a military base in Libya and bombing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) targets in Iraq, in Turkey businesses are going bankrupt, shops are closing, and pensions are shrinking. The country has so far failed to secure sufficient COVID-19 vaccine doses from manufacturers abroad; only around ten percent of Turks have been inoculated.
In short, most citizens have yet to see Erdogan’s ambitious international agenda making Turkey great again. Despite the relentless nationalism of the pro-government media, there is a growing sense among the populace that Erdogan is pushing too hard on foreign policy. Turkey seems to have lost its sense of purpose and alienated too many of its friends—making some of the same strategic mistakes, perhaps, that cost the Ottomans their empire.
Turkey is carving out a space for itself in the age of great-power rivalry.
Most Western analysts assume that Erdogan will remain in power indefinitely—that a democratic transition is no longer possible for Turkey. Most Turks disagree. Restrictions on free speech, the jailing of many Kurdish politicians, and other forms of government repression make political contests less fair, but they do not guarantee Erdogan and the AKP a victory in the next elections, scheduled for 2023.
Erdogan’s challenger in that election will no doubt pledge to pursue a less combative foreign policy and more stable relations with world powers. A post-Erdogan government might take concrete steps to distance itself from its predecessor, too. It could mend ties with NATO, normalize relations with regional foes including Egypt and the UAE, or resuscitate Turkey’s membership talks with the EU—even if the effort is futile. Ever the pragmatist, Erdogan himself could try to pivot back to the West if he deems that U.S. President Joe Biden’s project to revive the U.S.-led order is promising enough to latch onto. But if U.S. power is seen to decline, Turkey will take that as an opportunity to expand its role in global politics. And it is hard to imagine any leading politician, whether in the AKP or the opposition, running against the country’s nationalist currents and taking an unreservedly pro-Western stance.
In the long run, Turkey’s independent foreign policy will persist with or without the current president. Ankara will likely continue to assert its sovereignty in the eastern Mediterranean, devote its resources to defense development, and expand its reach into regional affairs. Falling in line as a loyal, card-carrying member of the transatlantic community does not hold the appeal it once did, and it certainly cannot match the allure of projecting power on Ankara’s own terms. Turkey has claimed the role of heir to an empire, and it will pursue its separate path—its Sonderweg.
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