Realists Should Expect America and Turkey to Stick Together

Realists Should Expect America and Turkey to Stick Together

Ideological differences don’t beat mutual interests.


Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, some analysts have speculated that its ties with the West will be severed. This speculation comes at a time when Turks suspect U.S. involvement in the coup and when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the West of supporting the coup. It also coincides with exhortations by commentators for the West to rethink, reassess or cut ties with Ankara. Such accusations and rhetoric call the future of Turkish-Western relations into question.

Within the field of international relations, realists assume that conflicts and alliances between states are determined and shaped by material measures of power, including geostrategic location, geographic depth, population size, economic vigor and military technology. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that inter-state relations are influenced by value-based or normative considerations, such as the extent that governments are democratic or authoritarian, and respect and uphold international institutions, laws, norms and values.


Amid recent tensions before and after the failed coup, Turkish–Western relations have become strained over the liberals’ value-based concerns. However, these relations will likely remain intact for the foreseeable future due to the realists’ material factors in the geopolitical, military and economic realms.

Since the failed coup attempt, Turkey and the West have squabbled over normative issues. The Turkish government has demanded that the United States extradite the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who has been living on his Pennsylvania estate in self-imposed exile since 1999. While secular officers may have led the coup, Ankara insists that Gülen stand trial for allegedly staging and orchestrating a coup that threatened to illegally and unconstitutionally overthrow a democratically elected government. In the process, the Turkish government has been unable to understand why the democratic West would deny such a request.

Before agreeing to extradite Gülen, the United States has demanded that Ankara comply with the principles of due process and the rule of law by submitting concrete evidence that corroborates his guilt or complicity in the coup. In the meantime, the United States and EU have condemned the post-coup purges and alleged torture that have taken place against thousands of suspected Gülen sympathizers and followers in the government, bureaucracy, military, police, judiciary, media and academia—the so-called parallel state. The EU has also censured the temporary suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights by the Turkish government so it could declare a three-month state of emergency and potentially impose the death penalty against suspected coup plotters and participants.

Prior to the coup, Turkish–Western tensions had already surfaced and intensified over Ankara’s authoritarian tendencies, including its repression of the Gezi Park protests and Erdoğan’s implicit designs to amend the constitution, change the political system to a presidential one, and concentrate executive powers into his hands. These designs are predicated on the AKP’s ability to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority in future elections. Western nations and international organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have intensely scrutinized and maintained high expectations and standards for Turkey—a country that exceptionally established one of the Middle East’s first pluralist, parliamentary democracies in 1950, joined NATO and the Baghdad Pact or CENTO in the 1950s and has sought EU accession since 1987.

While value-based issues have tested and strained Turkish–Western relations, the probability of their demise is mitigated by material factors in the geopolitical, military, and economic domains. Geopolitically and militarily, the normative tensions that emerged between Turkey and the West have prompted commentators to propose expelling Turkey from NATO. This proposal had previously been raised after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet and refrained from combatting ISIS in Syria. Following the failed coup, Ankara will have to convince NATO that it can restore military order and remain a reliable partner in multilateral operations. Nevertheless, Turkey’s expulsion from NATO would damage the latter’s reputation and integrity.

Turkey’s expulsion from NATO would also push Turkey toward one of its largest trading partners, Russia—even if tensions between both countries over the fate and future of Syria will persist. Turkish-Russian rapprochement—which had already been occurring before the coup— would defeat the original purpose of NATO and the Baghdad Pact/CENTO of using Turkey as a buffer state against Soviet or Russian intervention in the Middle East. Expulsion from NATO would eliminate the benefits and privileges that Turkey receives as the Middle East’s only member nation including hardware, equipment, technology, training, expertise, professionalization, coordination, intelligence, security and prestige.

Historical considerations aside, Turkey and the West currently and mutually benefit from their NATO alliance. To alleviate socioeconomic pressures and security concerns, the EU has increasingly counted on Turkey and signed a controversial and tenuous agreement with it to stem the flow of millions of Syrian refugees, especially with mounting terrorist attacks on European soil. The United States and the EU depend on access to Turkish airspace to conduct airstrikes and other operations against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. After the coup, Turkey temporarily closed the Incirlik military base and suspended operations there to likely get its military house in order, but also to send a message to the West regarding the repercussions of supporting the coup, condemning the government’s response or refusing to meet its demands.

Despite Turkey’s dubious relationship with ISIS as a counterweight against the Kurds, Ankara recognizes the importance of maintaining and intensifying the fight against it after recent suicide attacks on the Istanbul airport and other local targets. After failing to become a model of Islamist democracy in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring and antagonizing regional allies with interventionist policies, Turkey cannot afford further isolation by distancing itself from its traditional allies in NATO. Ankara’s real and perceived vulnerability after the coup renders cooperation and rapprochement with these allies an imperative.

Economically, the stakes of straining and rupturing Turkish–Western relations are equally high. Alongside Iraq, Iran, the UAE, Russia, China and South Korea, the EU and United States represent Turkey’s top trading partners. Since entering into a customs union with Ankara in 1995, the EU has become Turkey’s largest import-export market for machinery and transport equipment, manufactured goods and chemical products. The relationship is bidirectional in that Turkey respectively comprises the seventh and fifth largest market for European imports and exports in similar sectors with steady flows of FDI on both sides. Even if Turkey’s suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights sets back the EU accession process—which had already been called into question given its lengthy duration and the affirmative vote on Brexit—economic integration has already materialized and become a reality.

While less prominent than the EU, the United States still represents an important trading partner. Bilateral trade between the United States and Turkey has increased significantly since Erdoğan first came to power in 2003. Between 2010 and 2013, U.S. exports to Turkey more than doubled and included oil, iron, steel, aircraft, machinery, yarn, fabric and agriculture. In 2013, the United States began FTA negotiations with Turkey, and in 2015, accounted for $6.4 billion or 4.5 percents of its total exports, including vehicles, machinery, iron, steel, stone, plaster, cement and agriculture. Behind Germany, the United States constituted the largest market for Turkish exports in 2016.

As with the EU and Turkey, the United States and Turkey benefit from bidirectional FDI, even if the U.S. sum is approximately ten times greater. Without possessing the oil and natural gas reserves of its neighbors, Turkey relies on outside investment to bolster manufacturing and services. To maintain or boost its credit rating after recent terrorist attacks and the failed coup, Ankara will have to delicately balance the competing priorities of reestablishing stability and security with preserving transparency and the rule of law.

To protect or safeguard its legitimacy and longevity, the Turkish government will likely continue to demand Gülen’s extradition and subject suspected traitors and opponents to draconian measures—which ultimately may further destabilize Turkey and the wider region. Particularly in an election year, the United States and its European allies will condemn these measures and contemplate punitive responses. Yet, given the United States and EU’s authoritarian allies and unsavory bedfellows in the Middle East, such condemnations and threats will carry little credibility. In the end, contentious statements surrounding value-based issues will cause the Turkish–Western relationship to bend. Yet, material factors related to geopolitics, militaries and economics—combined with the institutional momentum and inertia of historical alliances—will prevent it from breaking.

If Egypt is any indicator, the West’s relationship with Turkey will persevere. After Egypt’s successful military coup in 2013 and the widespread repression that has followed, the United States and EU momentarily withheld or considered withholding military aid and financial assistance, but returned to business as usual given Camp David’s enduring legacy and Cairo’s geostrategic value. During this period of dramatic turmoil in the Middle East with a preponderance of failing states and formidable nonstate actors, the West will likely continue to favor stability over democracy—even if a deficit in the latter polarizes, antagonizes and radicalizes the region’s citizens.

Eric Lob is an assistant professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Florida International University. His research focuses on the intersection of development and politics in the Middle East.