In theory, Turkey is a NATO ally. In theory, also, Turkey is in negotiations with the European Union for full membership. In reality, both are illusions.
In September 2010, Turkish and Chinese aircraft conducted joint exercises in Turkish airspace. In 2011, the Turkish government announced plans to build a ballistic missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers. In 2012, Turkey joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a dialogue partner. (Other dialogue partners were Belarus and Sri Lanka; observers were Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia.) Since then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said numerous times that Ankara will abandon its quest to join the EU if it is offered full membership in the SCO.
In September 2013, Turkey announced that it had selected a Chinese company for the construction of its first long-range air and anti-missile defense system. After Ankara scrapped that contract, it went on to acquire the Russian-made S-400 system, which resulted in Turkey's suspension from the U.S.-led multinational consortium that builds the F-35 fifth-generation fighter jet. The S-400 controversy also triggered U.S. CAATSA sanctions against Turkey.
Turkey's sociopolitical distance from the West has been growing steadily. New research, by the Turkish pollsters Areda Survey, has shown that:
- 54.6% of Turks view the U.S. as the biggest security threat to their country while 51% think the biggest threat is Israel; 31.1% think it is the United Arab Emirates; and 30.7% think it is Saudi Arabia.
- 35.5% of Turks consider the U.S. unreliable; 32.8% think it is a colonialist state.
- 72.2% object to any kind of cooperation with the U.S.
- When asked with which one of the two countries Turkey should develop its relations, 78.9% said Russia against 21.1% who defended cooperation with the U.S.
- 58.2% of Turks think that Russia is their strategic ally.
- 69.3% think that the acquisition of the Russian S-400 system was the right decision.
Turkey's self-alienation from the West and Western institutions is not unrequited. New research in Europe shows how Europeans, once enthusiastic about Turkish membership in the EU, now feel Turkey does not belong with their political culture.
In April, the European Council on Foreign Relations surveyed more than 17,000 people in 12 European countries. The survey found that:
Turkey is the only country that more Europeans see as an adversary than a necessary partner. Given that Turkey is a NATO member – unlike China, Russia, India, and Japan, all of which Europeans consider less threatening – this finding is quite worrying. Only 25% of Europeans see Turkey as a necessary partner, and only 4% see it as an ally with shared values and interests. In Germany, 41% of respondents consider Turkey an adversary.
Our survey shows that Europeans generally want a cooperative rather than a confrontational foreign policy. The idea of 'strategic partnerships' is deeply embedded in the DNA of Europeans. At the same time, Europeans understand there are aspects of their relations with Russia, China, and Turkey that make these countries rivals or even adversaries.
Turkey is not better perceived across the Atlantic. President Joe Biden's use of the word "genocide" on April 24 perhaps was not a game-changer in deeply problematic U.S.-Turkish relations, but it enhances Turkey's political isolation, weakens its arguments on whether a genocide did or did not occur from 1915-24, and further destabilizes whatever is left of Ankara's soft power. "The American people honor all those Armenians who perished in the genocide that began 106 years ago today," President Biden said on Armenian Remembrance Day. With that statement, Biden became the first U.S. president to recognize the Armenian genocide.
More recently, Ambassador John Bolton, the former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, said he has joined the advisory council of the Turkish Democracy Project, a newly launched institution, "to shine a light on the darkening situation" in Turkey.
The Turkish Democracy Project is "a nonprofit, non-partisan, international policy organization formed in response to Turkey's recent turn away from democracy and toward authoritarianism," its website says.
"It's time to sound the alarm on Turkey," Bolton wrote in his Twitter announcement. He went on to describe Ankara as a one-time reliable NATO ally that has grown uncomfortably close to Russia.
On July 1, the U.S. added Turkey to a list of countries that are implicated in the use of child soldiers over the past year, thereby for the first time placing a NATO ally on such a list. It is a move that is likely further to complicate the already fraught ties between Ankara and Washington. The U.S. State Department determined in its 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report that Turkey was providing "tangible support" to the Sultan Murad division in Syria, a faction of Syrian opposition that Ankara has long supported and a group that Washington has said recruited and used child soldiers.
The feeling of drifting apart between the Turks and Westerners is mutual and growing. It is an inevitable result of Turkey's top-to-bottom Islamization over the past two decades. The West now has a small Russia to deal with.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.