From strategic autonomy to strategic retreat

With regard to the new Biden administration, Turkey’s AKP government seems to have given up its previous policy of “strategic autonomy” and is showing signs of “strategic retreat,” so as to give the impression of being a responsible ally. The AKP government has become used to turning foreign policy into a mechanism to extend its governance and is now working to develop a new relationship with the U.S., but these efforts have yet to be answered.

The coming to power of the Biden administration has a detrimental effect on the Erdoğan government since Erdoğan himself has developed personal ties and working relationship with Trump over the four years. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has proved itself to be a master of political maneuvers, and now is attempting to adapt its style to the fourth American president it has worked with.

Although the Biden administration has not yet announced an extensive Middle East policy, traces of change in American foreign policy have already started to appear. The AKP government seems to have given up its previous policy of “strategic autonomy” and is showing signs of a “strategic retreat,” so as to give the impression of being a responsible ally. The AKP government has become adept at turning foreign policy into a mechanism to extend its incumbency and is now working to develop a new relationship with the U.S., but these efforts have yet to be answered.

What is strategic autonomy?

Strategic autonomy is a rather academic concept and denotes the European Union’s distancing itself from the U.S. in foreign policy and security issues. It is the EU’s approach to dictate its own agenda and have a wider plane of action. The EU has been using this concept officially since 2013 because it needed to have more autonomy if it wanted to become a global actor. The Trump administration approach to the EU and its contemptuous toward NATO led to a serious reconsideration of the concept among the EU circles though the EU has not so far achieved to develop a strategic autonomy and its reliance on US security protection persists.

Since the last five years, the Erdoğan government has been following a foreign policy which occasionally drifts away from the US and NATO line. The Astana process in which Turkey cooperates with Iran and Russia concerning Syria, the purchase of S-400 missile system and the skirmishes in the Eastern Mediterranean with Greece and France made Turkey a NATO ally that prefers to have its own way. Its engagement in military conflict in Libya, exclusion from the Gas Forum organized by the US allies in the region led to the discussions internationally that Turkey was having its strategic autonomy, it was lost as an ally and whether it is a friend or enemy of the West. However, it is important to note that neither the government and pro-government media nor use this concept to define Turkey’s recent foreign policy and defense posture. While the pro-government media and experts prefer a more anti-West rhetoric in daily politics in an effort to portray Erdoğan as a leader who defies the Western powers and a new Turkey does not roll over the Western pressure, those who take critical position against the Erdoğan government prefer several definitions such as Neo-Ottomanist, sub-imperialist and militarized foreign policy. Unlike strategic autonomy which is a neutral terminology, these are by definition valued-laden concepts. The domestic critics of this expansionist policy criticize it on the grounds that the AKP government which is implementing the neoliberal economic policies and intensified Turkey’s financial dependency on the West does not and cannot have an anti-imperialist stance and that its military engagements do not bring peace and security and does not necessarily bring more security to the country. Strategic autonomy is also interpreted as the Erdoğan government’s effort to fill in the gap that the Trump administration left behind when it retreated from regional and international politics.

Biden and the Middle East

After Trump came into power, unlike his predecessor who paid a visit to Turkey and Cairo and gave speeches in Parliament and at Cairo University, he preferred to visit the Gulf to negotiate arms deals. The Trump administration intentionally dropped the human rights issues disappeared from its foreign policy agenda and opted for a personal diplomacy among leaders including Putin and Erdoğan.

Biden has yet to present a definite Middle East strategy and has not visited anywhere in the region, but two recent developments give us some indication: One such sign was Biden’s statement that he is ready to discuss the Nuclear Deal with Iran. This statement indicates that the Biden administration will return to the policy of the Obama administration; The other is the fact that Biden did not call the Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed Bin Salman, President Sisi of Egypt, and President Erdoğan of Turkey. Additionally, he waited one month before calling Israel’s Netanyahu after he took office. Turkey is regarded as having a political regime akin to that of Russia and China and Erdoğan is now in the category of Middle Eastern autocratic leaders.

Turkey faces Biden Administration

In the last couple of years Turkey has extensively used its hard power in its foreign policy which was an extension of Erdoğan’s alliance with the nationalist and Eurasianist forces domestically and the Trump’s administration’s relative negligence of the developments in the Middle East. However, Turkey has already been overstretched in its both geographical and density of military involvements and it has reached its limits. In fact, its liberal use of military power that no medium power country in the world has been engaged in several military conflicts, has created its own anti-thesis, and Turkey has had to enter a phase of strategic retreat. It is highly likely that the AKP-Nationalistic Movement Party (MHP) alliance probably did not foresee the potential blowback from the countries and actors such as the U.S., EU, France, Greece, the Republic of Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE opposed Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean as a block which led to the retreat of Turkey’s assertive position in the East Med. Turkey halted its explorations and anchored two of its drill ships in the Mediterranean, agreed to negotiate with Greece unconditionally all of which represented the silent death of its Blue Homeland doctrine.

Now the Erdoğan government is also facing a multilateralist Biden administration that declared that is coming back to the world stage and making foreign policy shift that concentrates on human rights and democratization. It seems that the Biden administration will also cooperate with the EU on issues concerning Turkey which weakens Turkey’s position vis a vis the West. The AKP is trying to figure out how persistent this new administration will be going forward. It will likely rearrange its position and try to dissipate its compromises.

S-400, the most important problem

As a rule of the thumb, it is the US that defines the content of the problems and priorities in the bilateral relations. Although Turkey regards the CAATSA sanctions, the Halkbank trial, and its exclusion from the F-35 project, the extradition of Gülen as problems, for the US the S-400 is the main issue in the normalization of relations, while other issues are considered only secondary.

Since Turkey conceded to the Western pressure in the East Med, now the single most important stumbling block in the relations with the U.S. is Turkey’s cooperation with Russia and the S-400 missile system. The AKP government is aware of this fact and therefore came up with the idea of establishing a bilateral control center with the U.S., and then adopting the “Crete Model,” as was pronounced by the Turkish defense minister both of which refused by Washington. The Crete model was implemented by the Greek Cypriots for the storage of the S-300 missile system in the island of Crete in 1997, when both Turkey and the US pressured Cyprus not use Russian made missiles. Ironically, after more than 20 years, Turkey has found itself in the same position. This is an apparent historic retreat and an epic failure on the part of Turkey. Erdoğan government’s insistence of the purchase of the S-400 missile system and its bowing down under pressure has brought no security, loss of financial resources, and confiscation of Turkey’s F-35 jets by the US and its eventual exclusion from the production process.

Friend or foe

The majority of the Turkish public regards the U.S. as an enemy for a long time. When it comes to the U.S. both the Republican and Democratic decision-making circles, authorities speak loudly about Turkey under the AKP rule not being an ally anymore. High level officials in the new U.S. administration and the published reports speak of Turkey distancing itself from its allies, and forcing Turkey to clearly take sides whether it is part of the Western alliance or an ally of Russia. They also seemed to grasp the nature of Erdoğan’s policy making that Erdoğan compromises when he’s pushed into a corner. So, they are sure to get what they want.

The AKP government has seen this approach and has started slowly to meet the necessary precautions. Compromising on the East Mediterranean and the S-400 missiles, recently hiring a U.S. lobbyist to return to the F-35 production program, and the joint navy exercise with the U.S. in the Black Sea, Turkey’s wholehearted support for NATO’s expanding mission in Iraq are significant steps that show the AKP’s policy of retreat.

One of the most important leverages of the AKP government is Turkey’s membership in NATO. The AKP is silently trying to hold its position through this membership. The government sends warm messages to NATO and has recently accepted the rotational command of NATO’s “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” that was established against Russia.

The AKP has proven its ability to reverse on its policies when it seems to be stuck in a corner. This party owes its long governance partly to this “flexibility.” At present, the U.S. and EU are enjoying their position because they know that Erdoğan can make any compromise to extend his own rule and they’re not in a hurry to convince him of anything. Erdoğan’s team is anxious to see whether the Biden administration will really change the paradigm in the Middle East.

The Erdoğan government is having its weakest moment since it came to power in late 2002. The economy is in a bad shape with record high unemployment, high inflation, and unstable currency rate, Erdoğan has lost his options to move freely domestically and stuck with his alliance with the nationalists, in foreign policy, its ties with neighbors are problematic, Turkey has worst image since the military regime of early 1980s, and the US and the EU are concerting their position against Turkey.

Yet, there are two impediments on the way for Erdoğan to embrace the West. The first is the possible Russian response. Turkey needs Russian cooperation especially in Syria and in the Caucasus. The situation in the Idlib area in Syria is precarious and Turkey has so far not lived up to its promises to control the radical Islamists. Domestically, Erdoğan’s room for manevour is somewhat restricted by the nationalist circles with which he allied himself. So, he tries to strike a delicate balance between switching back to the Western line without alienating Russia, and finding a middle ground with the U.S. and its possible democratization opening and his nationalist allies at home.

November 23, 2020 Turkey's Russia problem