The Case for a US Turkey Policy Reset (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Martin Makaryan, Spring 2023 Marcellus Policy Fellow

President Recep Tayip Erdogan’s overhaul of Turkey’s domestic and foreign affairs, coupled with changes in the international strategic environment, prompt a careful rethinking and restructuring of the long-standing policy towards a treaty ally with which U.S. foreign policy and national security interests are no longer aligned on many fronts. Turkey’s new foreign policy course is reflective of the strong nationalist and imperialist tradition in the country’s political and intellectual establishment, and Washington must reckon with it as America navigates the new reality of an increasingly unstable and multipolar world.

Turkey’s political evolution under President Erdogan (who has held power and gradually consolidated his authoritarian grip over the country since 2003) has had a serious impact on the country’s foreign policy, which has taken on increasingly militaristic, aggressive, and neo-imperialist features. Turkey has acted increasingly independent of de jure allies in the West and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance to pursue its agenda abroad, often at the expense of U.S. interests. The growing list of grievances between the U.S. and Turkish governments are not simple issues that can be resolved without affecting the fundamental nature of the relationship. These are rather the symptoms of the irreconcilable and foundational differences in the American and Turkish visions of the relationship and the world order in general.

This paper’s findings demonstrate the need to reject the concept of strategic alliance or partnership with the Republic of Turkey when formulating official policy. The United States should instead adopt a balancing, tit-for-tat strategy of containing and engaging instead of overvaluing the relationship. The demilitarization of the bilateral relationship should be the first step in adjusting American policy towards Turkey. The United States must minimize its dependence on an unreliable ally for strategic needs and avoid unnecessary and costly defensive commitments. All security assistance programs that contribute to the Turkish government’s offensive capabilities abroad must be halted. Sales of advanced weapons systems must end, and new arms contracts must come with a verifiable condition that American weaponry will not be used for aggressive actions abroad or against civilians at home. The Biden Administration should end once the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey and deny new requests for more F-16 jets. A more assertive diplomatic approach, such as naming and shaming, is warranted to balance Erdogan’s increasingly aggressive and belligerent rhetoric.