Relations between Turkey and its Western allies in the United States and Europe are at a low point due to Turkey’s clear intention to become a regional middle power. To achieve this is maintaining a precarious balance, which currently works in favor of Eurasia whilst undermining NATO’s cohesion. In this context, the defining question is whether Turkey and the US will ultimately escape “Thucydides’s Trap”.
The term “Thucydides’s trap” was first introduced by Graham Allison[The Atlantic] in his analysis entitled “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” Allison’s theory is inspired by the history of the Peloponnesian War written by the ancient Greek historian Thucydides. In the 5th century BC, Sparta’s hegemony was threatened by Athens. Sparta chose to go to war that eventually undermined the Athenian aspirations. Allison described 16 different historical examples, 12 of which resulted in a bloodshed.
The question is whether the US feels threatened by Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions. The answer may be hidden in an older statement of Henry Kissinger[Wallstreet Journal]. Speaking at a conference held by TPG Capital in Istanbul back in 2011, he said that Turkey will fill part of the regional void left as the US withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan. He underlined though that Ankara should be careful not to cross Washington’s vital interests in the region. 10 years later this strategic American plan is being progressively implemented. The main reason is that the US aims to reduce its footprint, in order to focus on tackling the emerging Chinese threat.
Turkey acts for the time being as one of the American proxies in the Greater Middle East for geopolitical and geostrategic reasons. Therefore Turkey’s expansionist aspirations are not threatening the United States; instead, they go in hand with the new American security architecture. The shift in the US’s foreign policy is a revival of “Nixon’s doctrine” that is utilized to conserve resources and Turkey fills the US’s regional gap.
Back to Dr. Kissinger’s statement, attention should be drawn to the fact that Ankara is warned not to cross Washington’s vital interests. This raises the question of what constitutes “vital interests” for the US. It is debatable that one of its interests is military technology in general. The importance attributed by the State Department and Congress to this is well known. A letter of concern from 28 members of the US Congress (dated August 9, 2021) was sent to the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. In the letter, fears were expressed as to how Turkey uses its UAVs hindering the security of the wider region and further destabilizing flashpoints in the Caucuses, South Asia, Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa. The members of Congress referred also to a statement made by Mike Nagata (retired US Army Lieutenant General) about Turkey’s drones, who clarified that they are “part of much greater challenge regarding the future of the relationship between Turkey and the US and NATO.” The letter after referring to Turkey’s violations of CAATSA (S-400 missile system purchase) concluded that action should be taken in order to stop American assistance to the Turkish UAV program in fear of “yet another violation of NATO rules and bylaws” by the Turks.
To add to that, analysts ring the bell on the ongoing development of Turkish UAV technology (autonomy, payload, range, etc.) and the effect it has on shaping geopolitics. Turkey managed to adjust the “Rumsfeld Doctrine” by utilizing its UAVs as highlighted in the following tenets:
– Use of high-technology combat systems such as UAVs to scout and destroy enemy targets,
– Rely on air forces,
– Employ small and nimble ground forces (local proxies coupled with Special Forces and information by Secret Services).
The outcome is increased readiness and smaller forces needed in theaters thus minimizing human losses. The problem is that utilizing such military tactics and the consequent positive outcome in the battlefields for the Turks (especially in Nagorno-Karabakh), allowed their leadership to act more autonomously than the US wants. Moreover, Turkey claimed that its domestic defense industry covers 70% of its military needs (this was 20%, 15 years ago), and that’s certainly a head-turner for the US (the largest exporter of arms to Turkey, providing 60% of its total imports between 2014 and 2018).
Coupling the military successes with leadership revisionism, resulted in Turkey’s boosted ego. Turkish President R.T. Erdoğan has made clear in the past that Turkey should be a power in its own right thus should follow a unilateral course. However, Turkey’s aim to achieve its geostrategic autonomy hinders the existing Euro-Atlantic security architecture. President Erdoğan in his reply regarding the CAATSA sanctions confirms this: “For the first time”, said “[sanctions] have been imposed on our country, a NATO member. What kind of alliance is this? This decision is a blatant attack on our country’s sovereignty rights.” In another instance, he said: “Outside powers ‘will understand that Turkey has the political, economic and military power to tear up and throw away the immoral maps [meaning Turkey’s current borders] and documents imposed on it [meaning the treaties and agreements signed].
They will either understand this by the language of politics and diplomacy or by the bitter experiences … on the ground.’” In response to President Biden describing the killings of Armenians as genocide, Erdoğan said the US needed to “look in the mirror” referring to the treatment of Native Americans by European settlers. On the other hand President Biden back in early 2020 (as presidential candidate) called the Turkish leader an “autocrat” who should “pay a price” for his repression. He also said that “Turkey is the real problem,” and that he would tell “Erdoğan that he will pay a heavy price.”
In this context, the question is: Will Turkey’s aspirations throw its steps right in “Thucydides’s trap”?