Turkey as a Resilient Middle Power and Relations with the United States

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

As we have just entered the third decade of twenty-first century, Turkish rulers would do well to decide on a grand strategy that would not only ensure Turkey’s territorial integrity and survival in the midst of growing geopolitical challenges in Turkey’s neighborhood but also catapult Turkey to the league of the most developed countries across the globe. I am of the view that the ‘resilient middle power’ grand strategy will be the right one to choose in this regard and the Biden administration’s attitude towards Turkey will play a key role during this process.  

Defining grand strategy as a blueprint or roadmap that helps decision makers successfully employ myriad power instruments to achieve national ends, Turkey would do well to decide on its grand strategy sooner than later. Making use of military, economic, diplomatic, political and ideological power instruments in a whole of government-society fashion in the process of realizing two prime national interests, viz. ensuring territorial security and becoming a developed economy, cannot be postponed any longer, as the changing dynamics of global politics seem to have aggravated Turkey’s anxieties over the last decade.  

The ‘resilient middle power’ grand strategy includes both realist and liberal elements. It relies on a realist understanding of international politics in that survival and power maximization are the most important goals of states no matter they might evince different characteristics internally. Turkey sits in a critical geography and is surrounded by countries many of which gained their independence in the wake of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Being vigilant and feeling alert to potential territorial threats is quite normal for Turkish decision makers and Turkish people alike. Turkey’s internal stability and territorial integrity require that Turkey is sufficiently powerful enough to hold off existing or future challenges and threats at regional and global levels.  

For Turkey to experience internal stability and territorial security, the countries in its neighborhood should preserve their sovereignty and integrity. Turkey’s peace and stability is strongly tied to regional peace and stability. Fort this to happen though, Turkey’s neighborhood should not be in the center of regional and global geopolitical quarrels and rivalries. Turkey needs a peace corridor alongside its borders to maintain its internal peace and order. The possibility of Turkey’s neighbors transforming into zones of civil wars and hosting military units of more powerful regional and global players should be avoided at all costs. Looking from this perspective investing in autonomous military power capacity is vital to the success of Turkey’s grand strategy. Unless Turkey has sustainable economic power feeding a powerful army which could deter and defeat near competitors or extra-regional powers, it might have to compromise its core national interests in the face of external demands. This suggests that Turkey’s military presence in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Eastern Mediterranean, Balkans and Caucasus is a must for Turkey to help establish a peace corridor alongside its borders and pave the way for a stable and predictable regional environment. Rather than adopting an ideological perspective as to how its neighbors are ruled internally, Turkey’s prime concern should be whether or not its neighbors remain intact and preserve their integrity. Turkey’s military involvements abroad should target this goal. 

The realist logic also manifests itself in Turkey’s continuous efforts to get along well with global powers and if possible benefit from disagreements and discords among them. This is basic balance of power politics and it has a long history of continuity dating back to the foundation of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey cannot and should not put all of its eggs in one single basket. In today’s multipolar and polycentric world order Turkey’s institutional links to western actors are strong assets in its relations with such non-western powers as Russia, China and Iran. Similarly, its burgeoning relations with non-western powers provide Turkey with meaningful leverage in its relations with westerners. Turkey should preserve its maneuvering capability in its external relations and the current world order offers Ankara significant advantages in this regard. The more solid Turkey’s presence inside NATO and the more promising Turkey’s relations with the European Union are, the more bargaining power Turkey would have vis-à-vis China and Russia. Similarly, Ankara’s security cooperation with Russia and improving economic relations with China would suggest that Turkey could be impervious to westers pressures and arms twisting. 

Realism also means that Turkey should do its best to turn out to become a strategically autonomous actor so that none of the global powers could view Turkey as a pawn or instrument in their relations with each other. Developing pragmatic and issue-based strategic cooperation with global powers is more important than whether Turkey aligns with the United States or China primarily on the basis of common values and ideologies.

The realist dimension in Turkey’s resilient middle power grand strategy also suggests that Turkish rulers should avoid pursuing ambitious and overzealous ends which could not be fulfilled with Turkey’s given power capabilities. Realism dictates that Ankara should never suffer from an unbridgeable gap between its expectations and capabilities. Turkey is a middle power and this suggests that pursuing hegemonic aspirations in its region and globally would be futile and exhausting. So long as Turkey has some internal fragilities of different sorts, pursuing an assertive order-instituting strategy abroad would be a non-starter. Becoming resilient in today’s tumultuous world order requires that Turkey put its house in order as soon as possible and deny external actors any pretext to get involved in Turkey’s internal affairs. 

This brings us to the liberal dimension of the resilient middle power strategy. Just as a powerful military enables Turkey to maintain its territorial integrity, ending polarizations of different sorts within the Turkish society would improve Turkey’s resilience in the face of growing uncertainties and ambiguities. The best way to end polarizations at home is to adopt liberal-centrist policies and unite different segments of Turkish society under the roof of constitutional citizenship the principle of unity in diversity.   

Besides, for such middle powers as Turkey, a Kantian order at regional and global levels would likely produce more promising and fruitful outcomes than a Hobbesian order. Half of Turkey’s gross domestic product comes from international trade and Turkey needs to have access to foreign direct investment and technology transfers if it wants to fully become a developed economy that could prove impervious to financial storms. Putting mercantilism and anti-globalization at the center of its international relations is a non-starter for Turkey. Turkey is well integrated into the global system and it cannot become a truly developed country by relying primarily on its own resources. 

A world order that is built on multilateralism, international law, international trade, institutional governance, soft and civilian power practices, and various forms of interdependencies would suit Turkey’s interests much better than a world order that reflects the primacy of great power politics, sanctifies the sphere of influence mentality, evinces geopolitical rivalries and legitimizes the use of coercive hard power instruments in international relations.  

Turkey’s rise as a respectable middle power can only become possible if Turkey soon becomes a developed economy. For this to happen though, Kantian elements need to be re-instituted in global politics sooner than later. Similar to ‘peace at home, peace in the world’, ‘zero problems with neighbors’ and ‘peaceful rise/development’ grand strategies, the ‘resilient middle power’ grand strategy should contribute to the strengthening of Kantian principles in Turkey’s neighborhood and globally.  

Similar to other middle powers in global politics, Turkey should never find itself in the unenviable position of having to align with one global power at the expense of another. Strengthening of Hobbesian dynamics in global politics would not only accentuate rigid polarizations between superpowers - in today’s world these are the United States and China -, but also decrease maneuvering capability of less powerful countries. Cold War-like polarizations would be restrictive for many countries. Turkey needs tranquility, predictability and stability in global politics. However, on its own it is not powerful enough to contribute to such outcomes. Therefore, it will be in Turkey’s strategic interests to increase the scope and intensity of its cooperation with other like-minded middle powers, which seem to have similar priorities and vulnerabilities.    

Enter the new U.S. Administration 

Against such a background, the coming to power of the Biden administration in the United States appears to provide Turkey with opportunities to help realize its resilient Middle power grand strategy. First, unlike the former President Trump, Biden is a strong believer of liberal internationalism and rules-based global order. Contributing to the resilience of liberal democracy across the globe will likely bring further stability to global politics, for such policies on the part of the American administration will help weaken the allure of illiberal authoritarian practices. Biden and his team seem to repudiate the Hobbesian idea of diving the world into spheres of influence. Restoring liberal democracy at home, particularly in the aftermath of the notorious raids on Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, will not only refurbish American soft power but also encourage many middle powers in their efforts to help transform international politics in the image of Kantian norms. Reuniting the American society around the common values of constitutionalism, separation of powers, multiculturalism and human rights will encourage outsiders who cherish similar values.  

From Turkey’s perspective, the efforts of the Biden administration to help rejuvenate the liberal international order by improving relations with liberal democratic allies across Europe and Asia should be seen as an asset, provided that such efforts do not aim at forging anti-Chinese/Russian alliances on ideological grounds. Many middle powers are traditional allies of the United States, yet they do not want to choose among rival power blocks. Foreign policies of traditional American allies across Europe and Asia attest to this. It would be good if international relations were to be rebuilt on the basis of liberal values and practices. Yet, attempts at strengthening liberal internationalism should not result in further polarization of global politics. 

It is good that unlike the Trump administration, the Team Biden seems to believe that improving relations with traditional allies should go hand in hand with seeking opportunities to develop cooperation with potential rivals on the issues of common concerns, such as defeating global pandemics, preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, ensuring sustainable development and coping with environmental challenges. This suggests that Biden will try to do his best to secure cooperation with such illiberal countries as China, Russia and Iran while simultaneously investing in the liberal democratic camp as an insurance policy. If Biden prioritizes restoring liberal democracy at home and abroad over pursuing an ideological foreign policy, this will increase the maneuvering capability of many middle powers. 

The new American administration values transatlantic relations and supports strengthening NATO and the European Union as key pillars of the liberal world order. From Turkey’s perspective, a powerful European Union acting as a third pillar in global politics might bolster Turkey’s ability to implement the resilient middle power strategy. The values and norms on which the European Union integration process has been built are in line with liberal democracy. Besides, similar to many middle powers and Turkey, the European Union as a distinctive institutional actor does not want to find itself in the middle of a Cold War-like confrontation between the United States and China. If European values and policy choices, ranging from digitalization, green technologies, development to health, were to be adopted across the globe, the ability of middle powers like Turkey to help domesticate global politics would likely increase.  

Another advantage that the Biden administration might offer Turkey in its quest for becoming a resilient middle power is that the new President is strongly opposed to geopolitical polarizations across the Middle East and criticizes Trump administration’s blank check support to destabilizing foreign policy practices of Israel, Saudi Arabia and their allies in the Gulf region. Similar to Obama presidency, President Biden appears to believe that long term stability across the region will emanate from the solution of the perennial Israeli-Palestinian dispute in a two-state framework and the incorporation of Iran into the international system as a legitimate player. A regional peace built on sustainable balance of power practices devoid of ideological confrontations will be more sustainable than all other options. In line with Obama’s foreign policy understanding, President Biden also seems to believe that outsourcing responsibility to allies and partners across the globe would be something inevitable given the limited power resources of the United States as well as the urgent need to cope with the mounting challenges at home like defeating Covid-19, resuscitating the economy and ending societal polarizations of different kinds. 

One of the most important hurdles on the way to Turkey’s attempt at becoming a resilient middle power might emanate from the adoption of an ideological foreign policy approach on the part of the Biden administration. If the United States convenes an international summit of liberal democratic countries and does not invite Turkey to take part in this gathering, this might cause further tension in bilateral relations. Encouraging Turkey to complete its liberal democratic transformation at home by employing rewarding strategies will likely produce more satisfactory outcomes than putting Turkey in the crosshair for its poor human rights record and sanctioning the Turkish government for its decision to by S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia.  

It already known that both Turkey and the United States have been looking for opportunities to improve their relations. Trump’s legacy in Turkish-American relations is not promising. Strengthening of the leader to leader relationship during the Trump era has eaten away at the institutional mechanisms in bilateral relations. Biden’s strong focus on multilateralism and institutionalization bodes well for the future. Yet, for this to produce positive outcomes in bilateral relations the United States should respect Turkey’s quest for strategic autonomy as well as encourage the authorities across Europe to adopt a more constructive attitude towards Turkey’s bid for EU membership. If the transatlantic community were to be rebuilt on the premises of equality and fair burden sharing and if Turkey’s institutional bonds to the West were seen as vital in weakening illiberal authoritarian forces across the globe, Washington and Ankara could build a more solid and sustainable relationship in the years to come.