Why Turkey Is Drifting from the West

Turkish and Western interests have diverged since the Soviet Union collapsed.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan Barack Obama
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009 (White House/Samantha Appleton)

Blaming the West is a time-honored tradition for those who would be king; Recep Erdoğan is merely following the well-worn pathway of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hafez al-Assad when he declared the root of Turkey’s evil coup is somewhere in a Western intelligence agency.

It’s a familiar Middle Eastern script. It appeals to the Turkish street because it coddles Turkish nationalism, reinforcing the (deeply false) notion that Turks’ only political flaw is letting spies slip into their society. It draws upon historical myth for credence: of course Western intelligence agencies have meddled and doubtless continue to do so, from Operation Ajax to CIA spooks in Syria’s civil war.

But just because Western spies have meddled in the past does not mean they did so this time, nor does that let Turkey’s citizens off the hook for listening to the siren call of Erdoğan’s Islamism.

Yet despite its familiarity, this time there is a general feeling that perhaps Turkey and the West are going separate ways.

The rationale is simple: NATO needs Turkey, but Turkey, increasingly, does not need NATO.

Here’s why.

Turkey as the unreliable military base

The relationship between NATO and Turkey began in the early hours of the Cold War. Turkey wisely sat out the Second World War: Kemalist generals saw little advantage sacrificing power to gain what would doubtless have been a pat on the back, as Brazil did despite sending over 25,000 men to fight in Italy.

In the aftermath of the war, the Allied powers sought to contain the Soviet Union behind its Iron Curtain. With massed Allied armies in Germany and Italy, Central Europe could be firmly held, but Soviet power threatened to expand quickly into the much softer Middle East, then in the beginning throes of decolonization.

Thus NATO as led by the Americans raced for allies that were a) organized states; and b) militarily powerful enough to hold off a Soviet invasion until NATO reinforcements could arrive.

Iran and Turkey fit both bills, but Turkey, as the more powerful of the two, won a slot with NATO.

This suited the Kemalist generals quite well: Communist infiltrators were slipping across the Soviet border, seeking a revolution in Turkey. They had nearly succeeded in Greece during that country’s civil war from 1946-49.

Yet beyond anti-communism, Turkey and NATO actually had very little in common, either in policy or in geopolitical position.

Kemalist Turkey hoped to use NATO to modernize Turkey’s military and thus steward Turks into the twentieth century, clawing them away from the distortions and dysfunctions of the Ottoman Empire’s caliphate.

NATO saw Turkey as a frontline pawn to be utilized for wider goals. This much was apparent when NATO withdrew its nuclear missiles from Turkey in exchange for keeping Soviet nukes out of Cuba following the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But Turkey was and is too powerful to be a mere geopolitical pawn of the Americans’ NATO. As Turkish power grew, so too did its ambitions and needs.

This trajectory led to notable intra-NATO clashes: the 1974 Cypriot War threatened to pit Greece’s junta against Turkey’s generals. Last-minute mediation prevented outright war and brought down Greece’s military dictatorship, but this was not the last time that growing Greco-Turkish disputes went hot. In 1987 and 1996, Turkey and Greece neared blows yet again over a handful of islands in the Aegean.

Meanwhile, Kurdish agitation grew to separatism in 1980, as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, began a full-on uprising. Marxist, they alarmed NATO, but Turkey did not get the kind of support for its communist rising that Greece got in 1946-49. Viewed as capable of dealing with the threat itself, the lack of support nevertheless underlined the way NATO saw Turkey as little more than a piece on the chessboard to hobble Soviet power.

Most recently, in 2003, the George W. Bush Administration hoped to use Turkey as an invasion conduit into Iraq, but Turkey saw no value in destroying the Saddam Hussein regime and refused America access to its NATO bases.

Less aligned and less reliable than ever

There is no Soviet Union to bind Turkey to its NATO allies anymore, some of whom notably fought to destroy its Ottoman predecessor. What NATO wants from the Middle East versus what Turkey wants are less aligned than ever; the increasing spats and splits are a result of that.

NATO, as seen as part of America’s geopolitical system, wants a Middle East that self-manages: great powers like Egypt, Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey would trade energy for technology and military goods. The United States especially does not want to fight an endless litany of mini Iraqs; it would rather its regional allies put out the fires of Sunni supremacism, balance one another and stabilize the region.

Turkey, on the other hand, does not see the world nearly so idealistically. The United States does need a peaceful, reliable Middle East, but it does not live in it and therefore can make high-risk idealistic assumptions. Turkey cannot. To fail will cause blowback that could undo a century of progress since defeat in World War I.

Turkey must therefore stabilize Syria, but it also wants to ditch Bashar Assad. Assad is a Russian ally, still a rival with Turkey for the Black Sea and a potential threat to Turkish interests; replacing him will remove a Russian pressure point.

Moreover, Turkey is powerful enough to presume it can gain a pro-Ankara regime in Damascus; after all, Syria was once an Ottoman province. Such a pro-Ankara regime would rein in Syria’s Kurds and cooperate on the destruction of the Kurdish nationalism that threatens Turkey proper.

Such a victory would be a beginning to restoring Turkey’s dominant position in the Middle East. With a reliable Syria, it could then go on to dominate Iraq, or at least the Sunni parts of it. This would solve the Iraqi Kurdish problem as well.

Moreover, ideologically, Erdoğan is indulging a near-Sunni supremacist ideology that would place Turkey at the head of a Sunni revivalist movement. Turkey was once the capital of the caliph of all Sunnis; Erdoğan is building a road that may repeat history. Of course, that means the Islamic State must also be annihilated, its ideology subsumed into Erdoğan’s version of Islamism.

That would then allow Turkey to dominate much of the Sunni world, as it once did.

This is not the same as imperial conquest, but something more akin to a Turkish NATO; if NATO is the security system by which the Americans dominate Europe, Turkey could build its own security system by which it dominates much of the Arab Sunni world.

This is not the vision of the United States. Such a force could threaten American interests through energy boycotts. Doubtless a Turkish NATO would press just as hard against its enemies as NATO does against Russia, causing conflicts the United States wants to avoid.

Old rivalries returned

Yet this is the road we’re on. Turkey’s generals relied on the West to modernize and rebuild after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire; that process is largely finished. The incentive to build alternative security systems for Turkey is too great. With or without Erdoğan, twenty-first-century Turkey will increasingly fail to see eye to eye with its NATO allies.

We are a long way yet to ejecting Turkey from NATO. But post-coup, Erdoğan has begun the long walk there.