By Dr. James M. Dorsey
October 6, 2019
BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 1,306, October 6, 2019
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Brinksmanship may be his trademark, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is unlikely to provoke the ire of the international community by launching a nuclear weapons program. Still, his demand that Turkey has the right to do so highlights the fracturing of the rules-based international order as well as changing regional realities.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s questioning of the international order with regard to nuclear weapons may well reflect the unspoken thinking of other regional leaders in a world in which the US has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia and unilaterally walked away from the 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran, and in which countries like China and Russia are willing to sell nuclear technology as well as arms with few, if any, safeguards. In addition, the international community has failed to prevent Pakistan and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers.
The American withdrawals from the agreements with Russia and Iran are but two examples of a far broader breakdown in adherence to international law, norms, and procedures fueled by President Donald Trump’s disdain for key pillars of the US-led, post-WWII order.
Trump has walked away from the Paris accord on climate change as well as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and cast doubt on the US commitment to multiple other multilateral arrangements, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the EU, and the G7, which brings together the West’s largest economies.
America’s rivals, China and Russia, as well as Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, have countered US unilateralism with calls for a strengthening of multilateralism – albeit one in which they can use the arms trade to leverage their geopolitical weight and fight wars with absolute disregard for the human consequences, and brutally repress minorities of any ethnic, religious, or political stripe.
Trump’s “America First” approach has emboldened leaders backed by Russia and China, including Erdoğan, to more aggressively challenge the existing order and more blatantly violate its underpinnings.
At first glance, Erdoğan’s recent insistence on the 100th anniversary of the Sivas Congress, which laid the groundwork for an independent Turkish republic, that it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed countries to prevent his country from developing nuclear weapons makes perfect sense.
Turkey lives in a neighborhood pockmarked by violent conflict in which arms are the name of the game. If that were not enough, Turkey is surrounded by real and would-be nuclear powers.
The Gulf states, two of which – Saudi Arabia and the UAE – have no love for Turkey, are among the world’s biggest military spenders.
Israel, another Middle Eastern nation with which Turkey is at odds, sees military and technological supremacy as the core of its defense strategy and has long hinted but never publicly confirmed its nuclear capability.
Pakistan, a nuclear power locked in escalating tensions with India over Kashmir, bristles with weaponry.
Iran, despite strident denials, is suspected of wanting to be a nuclear power and having the capacity to become one, particularly if it ultimately ditches the 2015 international agreement.
An Iranian spokesman said recently that Iran had begun using an array of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of the nuclear deal in a bid to force Europe to effectively challenge harsh US sanctions.
The Iranian move heightens the risk of a nuclear race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, believed to be putting preliminary building blocks in place, making no bones about its willingness to match any nuclear capability that Iran may acquire.
Erdoğan’s demand for the right to develop nuclear weapons is as much a response to regional and global developments as it is an opportunistic effort to bolster his troubled bid to position Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world.
That ambition is complicated by a minefield of differences with the US over Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian anti-aircraft missile system and with Russia over the Russian-Syrian military campaign in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in war-torn Syria.
Demanding the right to develop nuclear weapons serves Erdoğan’s purpose even if doing so may not. Domestically, it allows Erdoğan to project himself as a leader who fights for what Turkey thinks should be its rightful place in the international pecking order. Globally, it is a way to exploit challenges to an international order that Erdoğan sees as holding his country back.
Says Turkish author and journalist Kaya Genc: “It has taken [Erdoğan] 16 years to forge what he calls ‘the new Turkey,’ an economically self-reliant country with a marginalized opposition and a subservient press… Erdoğan’s great challenge over the next decade…will be to convince voters that his mixture of anger and patience is still a model to follow, that his formation story can continue to inspire, and that only his unassailable ability can steer Turkey to safety. Erdoğan will no doubt do everything in his power to succeed at this daunting task.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey, a non-resident Senior Associate at the BESA Center, is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture.