U.S.-Turkey Relations: Confusion, Challenges & Possible 2021 NATO Pullout?

By John Simpson

It is old news at this point that U.S. sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system threaten the longstanding alliance. Fraught with challenges, the U.S. and Turkey have a bumpy road ahead of them lest they succeed to properly address their shared regional interests, whether that be in Syria, Kurdish-dominant areas, or other spaces. To further complicate matters, as recently as two weeks ago, Turkish President Recep Erdogan made remarks regarding a recent statement by the U.S. State Department, placing conditionality on a recent kidnapping incident involving thirteen individuals, potentially linked with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party).

“The statement made by the United States is a farce,” Erdogan said. “You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them,” Erdogan said on television, criticizing the U.S. State Department, which failed to accept Ankara’s interpretation of events. The Turkish-U.S. international game of telephone is not going well, it seems, as Turkey already has its grievances over U.S. support for Kurdish populations in Syria, a country now under air strikes by President Biden. 

“If reports of the death of Turkish civilians at the hands of the PKK, a designated terrorist organization, are confirmed, we condemn this action in the strongest possible terms,” the State Department said in a statement. Erdogan tried to be clear; “after this, there are two options. Either act with Turkey with no ifs or buts, without questioning, or they [the U.S.] will be a partner to every murder and bloodshed,” he said. Is the Turkish-U.S international game of telephone going to end? What will that mean for NATO? 

According to Max Hoffman at the Center for American Progress, “relations between Turkey and its Western allies in the United States and Europe have been on a steady downward trajectory for some eight years.” That’s not a good sign – or trend. What can steer this ship around? Is it all loggerheads for Turkey and the U.S. in 2021? Hoffman continues, saying that “the United States has significant leverage with Turkey, a NATO ally whose economic and military security is largely dependent on its Western allies.” This is true.

According to the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, “Turkey is a key NATO Ally and critical regional partner, and the United States is committed to improving the relationship between our two countries. It is in our interest to keep Turkey anchored to the Euro-Atlantic community.” If the United States is committed to improving the relationship between the two countries, then there need to be more relationship building efforts on both sides; however, that is not an easy task given the countries rocky pasts. 

In his article, “What do U.S. sanctions on Turkey mean for NATO?”, Alex Gatopoulus of Al Jazeera writes that “with positions rapidly hardening between Washington and Ankara the potential, for a Turkish exit from NATO is now a possibility.” A Turkish exit from NATO? Seriously? Turkey has been in NATO since 1952 – almost 70 years. Is 2021 going to see a change to the NATO makeup? Gatopoulus goes on to write that “there is precedence for a split from NATO, France withdrew from the alliance’s command structure in 1967 only to rejoin years later in 2009.” So maybe Turkey will take a break from NATO? But what would that look like? And why?

Fellow Nonresident Fellow at the Brookings Data Center in Doha, Galip Dalay, claims that U.S.-Turkey relations will remain crisis-ridden for a long time to come. In his article, “US-Turkey relations will remain crisis-ridden for a long time to come,” Dalay mentions conflicting worldviews of international affairs, dependency on the west, and different ideas of a reset as all reasons for the tumultuous relationship and its unknown future. “The U.S.-Turkey relationship has a long history of complexities, with no golden era to point to. However, even by these standards, recent years have been exceptionally bad. An accumulated series of crises, a dysfunctional framework for the relationship, and diverging threat perceptions have plagued ties.” 

Hoffamn claims that Erdogan and his supporters want to “restore Turkey to what they deem its rightful place as a dominant regional player and major global power, as well as a necessary corrective to Western neglect of Turkey’s sovereign interests and the country’s perceived encirclement by hostile states.” Is pulling out of NATO the best way to do that? I suppose it all depends on how claims such as ‘rightful place’ and ‘dominant regional player’ are defined. 

It’s a confusing situation, and one that doesn’t seem to be getting any less confusing the further we probe deeper into 2021. With a Trump presidency in the rearview mirror, the U.S. and Turkey will need to find ways to mend their relationship, given that a possible NATO pullout from Turkey could be the result of an un-mended relationship. 


Al-Jazeera, Alex Gatopoulus, What do US sanctions on Turkey mean for NATO? Alex Gatopoulos, 17 Dec 2020


Center for American Progress, “Flashpoints in U.S.-Turkey Relations in 2021”, Max Hoffman. January 19,2021 https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/reports/2021/01/19/494738/flashpoints-u-s-turkey-relations-2021/

State Department, U.S. Relations With Turkey, Bilateral Relations Fact Sheet, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, January 20, 2021


Brookings Institute “US-Turkey relations will remain crisis-ridden for a long time to come” Galip Dalay. January 29,2021