For at least his first decade at Turkey’s helm, if not longer, subsequent US administrations regarded Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as an important partner. More recently, the pendulum has swung the other way; Erdoğan has emerged as a bipartisan bête noir in Washington. President Biden has called Erdoğan an “autocrat”; Secretary of State Antony Blinken referred to Turkey as a “so-called strategic partner,” and large majorities from both parties in Congress have voted to sanction Turkey until it reverses its purchase of Russian weaponry.
The image of Turkey that US policymakers appear to be operating with is, as one columnist summed it up, that “Turkey’s president does what he does because he gets away with it.” In other words, Erdoğan is in full control of Turkey’s foreign policy, and, having opened a gulf between the two allies, Washington’s options are to either compel a change in his behavior or suspend its partnership with Turkey until the end of his rule. Much like the earlier, now discarded, belief in Erdoğan’s comity, this view, too, deserves to be challenged.
Specifically, the key assumption at the heart of the current US approach to Turkey—that of the uniqueness of Erdoğan’s foreign policy—deserves to be interrogated. Erdoğan might appear to be leading Turkey through a series of what might best be termed “swerves,” rapid changes in the orientation and trajectory of Turkish foreign relations, each as radically different from the last as they are from Turkey’s traditional approach to the world. And, with a deeply polarized society, an entrenched opposition, and a history of alienating governing partners, Erdoğan’s style of international affairs might seem to be his alone.
This paper argues the converse. Contrary to those appearances, beneath Erdoğan’s swerves lies a continuous and coherent ideology that reimagines the nature of Turkish identity and its place in the world. And, more importantly, there is not only increasing support among the Turkish public for this approach but even an emerging convergence across most, but not all, of the Turkish political spectrum around Erdoğan’s vision of an expansive Turkish nation-state and state. This suggests that the problems in the US-Turkish relationship are likely to persist, and they also are unlikely to be unique to the Erdoğan government.
Erdoğan remains motivated by a singular, overarching vision of transforming Turkish society, state, and international relations all at once. That vision might perhaps be captured by a slogan Erdoğan has used repeatedly over the last five years: “One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State.” In analyzing Erdoğan’s intellectual influences and his public speeches, this paper argues that the most important, but overlooked, word in this motto is that which is repeated: “one.”
Erdoğan’s concept of oneness is aspirational, expansive, and, fundamentally, moral. Leaning heavily on the theological concept of tawhid, or the Muslim belief in the indivisible unity of God, Erdoğan is seeking to express unity as an imperative, a good that must be pursued. Although he still uses the words for nation and state, Erdoğan does not see himself as the leader of a nation-state. Instead, he sees his role as creating a new form of political organization, of constituting a new, united nation—one based not on ethnicity or language or history, but rather on shared belief.
Yet, he is motivated neither by simply imperial nostalgia, Islamism, or ethno-nationalism, but a vision of a new Turkish nation that combines and transcends existing identities. “We stand up for all oppressed people and victims,” according to Erdoğan’s moral mission, “without paying attention to their roots, sects, or beliefs, let them be Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Yazidis, Shi’ite, Sunni, Nusayri, Christian or Jew.” Erdoğan is pursuing a moral mission to undo the post-World War I history of injustice in the greater Middle East. Divided by an imperial and colonial West, deprived of the protection of a unitary state, Turks, Muslims, and others have been weakened and exploited. By creating “one nation” for all those who have been oppressed, a nation that is open to anyone who will pledge their fealty to it, Erdoğan aspires to right this wrong.
To constitute this nation, and to protect it, a state is needed. A strong state that can stand up to the forces that seek to divide its people. A state of “ghazis” and “Great Offensives.” Erdoğan, therefore, when he invokes “One Nation, One Flag, One Homeland, One State,” is not describing something that exists, but spelling out his transformative vision for creating a new social and political order.
This mission applies just as much within Turkey as it does outside its borders. To unite the oppressed and victimized of the world, those residing within the current territory of Turkey must transcend their purely Turkish identity and come to see themselves as part of this broader union, becoming the first citizens of the nation that Erdoğan hopes to constitute. Similarly, the Turkish state must expand, politically and militarily, to form and protect this new, greater polity.
Each of Erdoğan’s various foreign policy swerves represented an attempt to fulfill this mission. Constraints, both internal and external, doomed his past endeavors. Most notably, the various domestic political constituencies on which he previously counted not only for support but for the creation of a new Turkish identity—liberals, Gülenists, Kurds—never fully bought into his project. Nor were they willing to allow themselves to be subsumed into Erdoğan’s unitary nation. Yet, his efforts to lay the foundation for a new Turkish identity at home and birth a new type of political entity on the world stage continued.
Now, they appear to be paying off. Erdoğan might have found a version of his ideological project that resonates more deeply and, thus, garners greater political support. Whether it is as a result of political changes within Turkey over the last five years, a concerted policy by Erdoğan to change the institutions that make up the fabric of Turkish society, or both, there is evidence of a melting of the sharp differences between Turkish political groups.
Four distinct political identities could be discerned in Turkey twenty years ago, when Erdoğan took power, each largely contingent with a major political party. The main differences between them have to do with religion, ethnicity, and political values. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) represents religiously and socially conservative voters, including Islamists. Standing for the values of the Kemalist founding of modern Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) attracts voters who value secularism, civic nationalism, and fealty to the state. Alternately, those with a predominantly ethnic view of Turkishness tend to support the National Movement Party (MHP), while those with a liberal democratic identity that focuses on individual and minority rights now largely side with the recently formed Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
These cleavages continue to define Turkey’s deeply divided and polarized politics. And yet, the struggle for power between Turkey’s political actors belies a potential ideological convergence happening within the majority of Turkish society. Polling data suggests the melding of Islamist, ethnic nationalist, and statist perspectives into a potential new consensus on Turkish identity and Turkey’s role in the world. This consensus appears to support an independent and forward-leaning Turkish foreign policy based on regional power projection—but one that excludes a sizeable minority of Turks.
The hallmark of Turkish public opinion under Erdoğan has been the erosion of already shaky support for the United States and US policies. In 2002, when the Pew Research Center began asking the question and when the AKP came to power, 30 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the United States. By 2017, it was just 18 percent, compared to favorability ratings of 33 and 32 percent for China and Russia, respectively. Meanwhile, seven out of ten Turks reported feeling threatened by US power, a 28-point increase since 2013 and more than in any country polled, including Russia. This slide continued into 2019 and, although there are suggestions it might have improved in 2020, the levels of support for the United States are still miniscule. One poll indicates that only 7 percent of Turks considered the United States a friend in 2020, up from 5 percent the previous year, while 70 percent saw it as an enemy.
To be sure, Ankara has always sustained its strategic alliance with the United States despite widespread disapproval of US policies among Turkish society. However, the recent changes in Turkish worldviews extend merely beyond such deepening anti-Americanism. There is a widespread distrust of the West, with 84 percent of Turkish citizens somewhat or strongly agreeing that global economic and political elites have too much power and should be resisted. This is accompanied by a rising nationalism, across the board. Being a Turk is vital to most Turks, with 56 percent viewing it as very important and another 30 percent seeing it as somewhat important. Voters from all political parties in 2020 support the notion that Turkey has its own specific characteristics, rather than sharing traits with some region, at strikingly similar levels. What is even more remarkable is that the proposition that Turkey is fundamentally an Islamic country lost over 15 percentage points among AKP voters compared to the prior year.
Yet, Turkey’s uniqueness does not translate into Turkey standing alone in the world. Rather, Turks from across the political spectrum seem to agree that Turkey should play a leading role in specific regions. In a 2018 Metropoll, 86 percent of AKP voters, 75 percent of MHP voters, 62 percent of CHP voters, and 72 percent overall somewhat or strongly agreed that “Turkey is the natural leader of the Muslim world.” That is a remarkable level of support for a religious affiliation and role for Turkey, especially among traditionally secular CHP backers. And, when asked in 2020 whether Turkey should pursue alternatives to the European Union (EU), the top choice for respondents from all three parties was the creation of a Turkic Union (31, 25, and 22 percent support among MHP, AKP, and CHP voters, respectively). That aligns with overwhelming popular affection for other Turkic nations. In 2020, 65 and 51 percent of respondents, respectively, ranked Azerbaijan and Northern Cyprus as the nations friendliest to Turkey. The next friendliest nation, Uzbekistan, came in at 35 percent. Notably, HDP voters are largely absent from this emerging consensus, strongly preferring ties with the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) over a Turkic Union or Islamic cooperation.
The picture that emerges from this public opinion data is one of convergence. Turkey’s four main political groupings are collapsing into two main camps: one large grouping that combines Islamist, Turkic, and statist elements to support a forward-leaning foreign policy fueled by an expansive sense of Turkish identity, and a smaller set of liberal, minority, and pro-Western voices. Further study is needed to understand fully this oneness that is emerging in the Turkish worldview and that has been Erdoğan’s moral mission all along—whether it is the result of two decades of his social engineering or of political compromise and power sharing. But its implications for Turkish politics and US policy are nevertheless significant.
On the one hand, although Erdoğan faces domestic opposition for his erosion of democracy and handling of the economy, the emergence of a consensus on the need for an active and independent Turkish foreign policy could lead to continued and new political coalitions that keep him in power longer than anyone might expect. At the same time, however, while Washington focuses on the obstreperous persona of Erdoğan, Turkey’s behavior can no longer be ascribed to him alone. Regardless of how decisions are made in Ankara, the outcome is policies that resonate across a politically diverse grouping of Turks.
As policymakers debate how to block or retaliate against individual actions undertaken by Erdoğan that undermine the US-Turkish alliance, like the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, the whole of Turkey is reimagining their role in the world. Yet, even as some debate allowing Turkey to go its separate way by, for example, expelling it from NATO, the geo-strategic benefits of alliance with, and US military presence, in Turkey remain even as Turkey’s political and military capabilities, and potential usefulness, grow.
Rather than short-term tactics, therefore, US policymakers need a long-term Turkey strategy. It should be one based on a deep understanding of the major changes happening within Turkish society yet tied to a broader view of US interests in the many regions—Europe, Middle East, Mediterranean basin, Caucasus, and Central Asia—that Turkey abuts. The greatest strategic risk for the United States in Turkey is that the analytic shortcoming at the heart of the stunted US policy debate about Turkey—that is, the conflation of Erdoğan and Turkey—becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The success of Erdoğan’s far-reaching and long-term project to remake the nature of Turkish state and society in his own ideological image could have negative repercussions for the region and US interests for at least a generation. Assuming this project is Erdoğan’s alone, however, and it will end when his rule concludes, or otherwise be rejected by the Turkish people, could create even greater and longer-lasting risks.
Ultimately, it is the fate of this new political convergence around an aggressive and independent Turkey, not Erdoğan, that will determine the future of Turkey and should be the focus of US policy. Making sure that in the long-term Turkey, its state, society, and military choose to stand with the United States against authoritarian adversaries may prove to be a crucial determinant of who triumphs in the unfolding competition.