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Is it Time to Rethink the US-Turkey Strategic Relationship?

01 Jul 2019
By Iain MacGillivray
The S-400 missile system during a victory parade in Moscow. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Turkey’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 missile system is seriously challenging its relationship with the United States and its place in NATO.

Given the changing nature of Turkey’s political regime and the United States priorities in the Middle East perhaps it’s time for a rethink of the US-Turkey alliance.

The US-Turkey relationship has never been an easy alliance. The current S-400 crisis appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in the strategic relationship between Turkey and the United States. The US priority in the fight against IS and its funding and training of Kurdish militia has exacerbated its problems with Ankara. On the other hand, the active policy of the AKP — the Justice and Development Party — in Syria, and its attempt to overthrow the Assad regime, have failed, leaving Ankara isolated in the Middle East and international arena. Anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism run deep in the psyche in Turkey on both sides of the political spectrum. Conspiratorial tones echoed in certain Turkish policy circles and media accuse the United States of orchestrating the attempted 15 July  coup attempt. There is not much love left in this long historic alliance. After a culmination of mistakes, strategic indecisiveness and lack of communication on both sides, Turkey now has a stark choice: stick with its traditional and historic relations with the United States and the NATO alliance or find itself part of the club of “pariah” and revisionist states in the regional and international order.

The acquisition of the Russian S-400 Missile defence system may see Turkey ejected from the production line and acquisition of the state-of-the-art F-35 fighter jet plane. The F-35 project is worth billions of dollars to the Turkish economy and to the development of the Turkish defence industry. The S-400 missile defence system however is built specifically to shoot down the F-35 fighter and Turkey could glean vital information about the fighter jet. The idea that such a missile system would be active on NATO’s southern most flank, moreover in a NATO member country, is unthinkable. The United States has offered Turkey NATO compatible Patriot missile system as a sweetener to back out of buying the S-400. Sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act could also be applied to individuals and Turkish companies that could cripple the Turkish economy and lock Turkey out of the international financial system. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ardent that the S-400 acquisition will go ahead before the 31 July deadline set by the United States to relinquish the system. Why the stubbornness on this issue rather than others?

The S-400 missile system is just the tip of the iceberg. Turkey has undergone radical changes since the Arab Spring in 2010. The country since 2018 is now an executive presidency where immense power is invested in the office of President Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s “New Turkey” is in its essence an authoritarian regime, yet an extremely fragile one. Unlike the authoritarian regimes of the Gulf, Turkey is highly dependent on western capital to fund Erdoğan’s patrimonial networks. The overturning of the local mayor elections on 31 March shows that the regime is fragile and needs the ballot box for domestic legitimacy to fund its support networks. Erdoğan’s survival instinct in domestic politics is extraordinary and he has successfully batted off existential challenges to his position including the attempted coup on 15 July. As politically savvy as Erdoğan may be domestically, his tactics have not been translated into the regional and foreign policy realm. Now with the loss of Istanbul on Sunday’s rerun of the municipal election to opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoğlu poses further challenges to Erdogan’s power.

The S-400 issue is a failed attempt at political leverage and is a symptom of an increasingly erratic Turkish foreign policy that lacks grand vision and is an extension of a polemical foreign policy discourse. And now this is starting to show. Turkey has been hedging its bets and now has to deal with the consequences of its actions. If it is adamant that it wishes to pursue a new geopolitical realignment or an “independent” foreign policy, then it must understand that it will be a lonely road. Alliances and burden sharing still maintain the backbone of international relations. Russia is not a reliable strategic ally as its interests in the Middle East are purely transactional. Despite the benefits of closer collaboration with Iran and China there is still constraints on developing ties with these actors.

The United States has failed to understand Turkey’s pursuit of an “independent foreign policy.” The relationship is now purely transactional, given Turkey’s turn to authoritarianism. The Erdoğan regime is pragmatic and thus needs to be engaged with in a diplomatic but realistic fashion. Let us remember that despite the rise of Trump’s somewhat erratic foreign policy, US policy in the Middle East has not shifted from its key strategic interests in the regions. The US-Turkey alliance is a vestige of the cold war and a new sober approach needs to take place. The Turkish side believe their geostrategic position makes them indispensable. Policy makers need to ask if Turkey’s geostrategic position in the region is that important to American power projection. What would happen if this perceived “strategic” need was focused elsewhere? Would a base in Cyprus, Jordan or Greece do the same job? The S-400 is part of a myriad of problems but exemplifies the fact Turkey wants to have its cake and eat it too: hedging its bets in what it sees as a changing world order.

For Turkey, the benefits of a stronger relationship with Russia and other non-western powers may seem appealing given the growing perception of rise of the “Eurasian” Century. If Turkey wants to pursue this road it will be a lonely and painful one. The removal of Turkey from the F-35 program maybe the beginning of worse things to come and could see them locked out of NATO exercises or even arms embargos. Russian and Chinese tech is cheap and fast but does not have the sophistication of NATO technology.

To stop Turkey’s rotation away, the United States and NATO must again represent more than a collective defensive alliance. It must infuse itself as a beacon for democratic values, as Russia has acted as a counterweight for growing conservative and nationalist values. Populism and the erosion of democracy in Europe and the United States only aids Russian interests further.

Perhaps it’s time to move beyond nostalgia and for us to think about the US-Turkey relationship as less of an alliance and more of a strategic transactional partnership. Both countries have failed to understand that their priorities in the Middle East are completely different. Both actors are still hiding behind the façade of a cold-war alliance to disguise the one indistinguishable fact that affects this relationship: Turkey and the United States have outgrown each other. Maybe it’s time however to consider an amicable separation rather than a horrid divorce.

Iain MacGillivray is a doctoral candidate and Turkey/Middle East researcher at the University of Melbourne. Iain lived and researched in Turkey from 2015 to 2017 and has been a regular commentator on Turkey and Middle Eastern politics for ABC24, BBC and other international media outlets.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.