The Coup and the Crackdown: Turkey and American Foreign Policy

The failed coup attempt in Turkey – and President Erdogan’s harsh crackdown in response – has provoked reassessment of Turkey from a number of perspectives. Most obviously, the episode indicates that Turkey is both less stable and even less democratic than most people imagined not long ago. Though the United States has long criticized Erdogan’s authoritarian proclivities, it is rapidly becoming clearer that Erdogan’s vision is the remaking of Turkey’s secular democracy into an Islamic republic. For Europe, Turkey’s instability will aggravate concerns about Syrian refugees (over two million of whom are living in Turkey) and reignite debate about the wisdom of welcoming Turkey into the European Union.

But Turkey’s domestic politics also have important implications for American foreign policy. In the short run, instability in Turkey will cause discomfort for its NATO allies and likely cause problems in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). More fundamentally, however, Turkey provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of relying on authoritarian regimes to help conduct foreign policy.

One immediate concern is the physical security of several dozen American B61 tactical nuclear weapons “purportedly” housed at Incirlik air base in southern Turkey. Turkey has long played host to the weapons as part of the American effort to extend nuclear deterrence to its NATO allies. During the coup activists flew sorties from Incirlik, prompting the Turkish government to cut off power to the base. Eventually, Turkey also arrested the head of the base. Regardless of whatever electronic safeguards might exist to keep the weapons from misuse, this experience should serve as a wake-up call. As Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists noted, “You only get so many warnings before something goes terribly wrong. It’s time to withdraw the weapons.”

Another worry is that the turmoil in Turkey will hamper its contribution to the fight against ISIS. Given its location, Turkey plays an important role in the American response to ISIS. The United States relies on the air bases in Incirlik and Diyarbakir to fly bombing missions in Syria. The coup forced only day’s interruption in the Incirlik-based air campaign, but the episode raises concerns about what might happen should more unrest follow.

More generally, the coup raises further doubts about Turkey’s interest in engaging ISIS. Despite sharing a border with Syria and Iraq, Turkey has always seemed to be a bit conflicted when it comes to its priorities. Turkey, for example, has failed to secure its border with Syria, enabling ISIS to move stolen goods into Turkey and thereby fueling its rise. In addition, Turkey won’t support the Syrian Kurds who are fighting ISIS (and who are U.S. allies) because Turkey’s longstanding “Kurdish problem” means that Erdogan is just as concerned about making sure the Kurds do not carve out an independent territory on the border as he is about ISIS.  Thus, at the best of times, the United States has been frustrated with Turkey’s performance.

The wake of a failed military coup, of course, represents something far from the best of times. Observers like former NATO supreme allied commander Admiral James Stavridis have argued that the loss of civilian confidence in the Turkish military and the fallout from the purges will have “a chilling effect on military readiness and performance.”

It is important to realize, however, that none of these short-run problems are Turkey’s fault. Instead, they are the result of flawed American grand strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially after 9/11, the United States has adopted a strategy of liberal hegemony that places a heavy emphasis on military intervention and the role of the United States in managing regional security regimes. This strategy, in turn, makes it necessary to rely on “partners” and “allies” that can enable American military power projection.

The only reason the United States has to worry about the security of nuclear weapons in Turkey is the mistaken belief that NATO still needs American help to provide for its members’ security. In reality, however, Europe enjoys a much larger population and economy than Russia, and NATO forces – even without the United States – are far better trained and equipped than Russian forces. The fact is that the United States no longer needs to belong to NATO, much less deploy nuclear weapons on European soil.

The question is somewhat more complicated when it comes to fighting ISIS, but the same lesson applies. The only reason Turkish air bases matter to the United States is their utility for conducting air campaigns in the Middle East. Though there are certainly some situations where such campaigns might be necessary, the American experience in the Middle East since 9/11 has made it clear that traditional military means are a poor (and probably counterproductive) strategy for fighting terrorism. If the United States were not so devoted to military intervention, the need for Incirlik and other bases in the Middle East would disappear.

International politics is a full contact sport. Difficult trade-offs are often required and sometimes cooperating with authoritarian regimes is necessary. But the need to do so will be greatly reduced if the United States can succeed in adopting a more restrained approach to foreign policy. If the United States can wean itself from the need to try to solve every problem through the use of military force, there will be no reason to soft-pedal human rights and other violations in Turkey. Cutting fewer deals with authoritarian regimes will also help limit their legitimacy while strengthening American calls for greater liberty and democracy. Most importantly, the United States will be free to align its foreign policy more closely with its own democratic values.