In the wake of Turkey's latest elections, the country's relationships abroad are only getting rockier. The June 24 vote formally instated an executive presidential system, institutionalizing re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's one-man rule. At the same time, it has continued the deterioration of Turkey's relations with its partners and allies, foremost the United States. The ever-escalating diplomatic rupture, largely at Erdogan's hand, represents an abrupt departure from Turkey's national interests in favor of a personalized and impulsive foreign policy. Even if Washington and Ankara can resolve their immediate problems — such as the recent arrest of U.S. citizens in Turkey — the numerous, and multiplying, issues on which Turkey and the United States now disagree could be their relationship's undoing.
A Hostage Situation
In the last two years, the Turkish government has increasingly used the detainment of people with U.S. or dual citizenship to try to force the United States to give into its demands. The tactic is typically the preserve of adversarial states, such as Iran and North Korea, and not of strategic partners like Turkey, a NATO member. But since the attempted coup in July 2016, Erdogan has turned to it repeatedly. Ankara followed up the arrests of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor who has lived it Turkey for more than 20 years, and Serkan Golge, a Turkish-American scientist working for NASA, by imprisoning Turkish staff from various U.S. diplomatic missions. In each case, the government cited the detainee's alleged (and unsubstantiated) involvement in the failed coup or affiliation with the Gulen movement, the uprising's suspected instigator. Their trials and sentencing — Golge received a sentence of 7.5 years in prison in February, while Brunson is now under house arrest after officials released him from prison July 25 — exposed not only the president's influence over Turkey's judiciary but also the cases' political motivation.
The dubious charges of terrorism or subversion aside, the Turkish government's reason for holding these individuals is to bend Washington to its will. In return for Brunson's release, for example, Erdogan has explicitly demanded that the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric allegedly responsible for the 2016 coup (though Turkey has failed to convince U.S. justice officials of Gulen's role in the revolt). Ankara probably intends to use the other prisoners as bargaining chips for other policy objectives: to encourage the United States to back off from supporting the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and People's Protection Units in Syria; to reduce the fine against state-owned Halkbank for violating U.S. sanctions against Iran; and to arrange early release for the bank's vice president, who was recently convicted in U.S. federal court for facilitating the sanctions violations.
Another interpretation of the detentions is that the Erdogan administration is using them to try to realize domestic policy goals. The Turkish president has been keen to arrest Gulen for the past five years because the exiled cleric has challenged his prerogative to rule. By reducing Halkbank's fine and securing the repatriation of its vice president, meanwhile, Erdogan could protect the bank and save face in light of his own involvement in and benefit from the sanctions evasion. Negotiations failed to achieve the desired results, prompting the Turkish government to try more aggressive tactics, regardless of their costs to the country's economy and international standing.
The Price of Strong-Arm Tactics
And the costs are starting to add up. Erdogan has managed to unify an otherwise fractured Washington against his administration's actions. At the end of July, the White House announced a first wave of sanctions against Turkey under the Magnitsky Act, a law that targets human rights abusers, originally Russian operatives close to the Kremlin. The measures banned Turkey's justice and interior ministers, identified as the parties mainly responsible for arbitrarily arresting U.S. citizens in the country, from entering the United States and seized their U.S. assets. But more than in their direct consequences, the effect of the sanctions lies in the stigma they carry. The measures have put Turkey in a league with the other countries the United States has deemed human rights violators, such as Nicaragua, Gambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Russia. The economic repercussions have also been profound. Turkey's beleaguered currency, the lira, lost more than 6 percent of its value in less than a week, while treasury bond yields rose to 22 percent. What's more, these sanctions are only the first among a variety of punishments that the United States can and is willing to use in turn against its ally Turkey.
Erdogan's attempts to goad the U.S. government into compliance with his wishes has left Turkey with few allies in Washington willing to publicly defend it.
If Erdogan digs in, the U.S. Congress is prepared to respond with legislation to direct international credit agencies such as the World Bank and the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development from extending loans to Turkey. Given the country's economic turmoil, Turkey will probably need that kind of assistance sooner than later. The United States could then remove Turkey from the SWIFT international money transfer system, a move that would have devastating consequences for Turkish banks, and perhaps even for Erdogan's continuity as president. It's important to remember, however, that the backlash is of Erdogan's own making. He could have avoided it entirely were it not for his attempts to goad the U.S. government into compliance with his wishes. This strategy has left Turkey with few allies in Washington willing to publicly defend it.
The Crises Yet to Come
Along with the immediate crises in their relationship, the United States and Turkey will soon have other problems to deal with. To the extent that Turkey pushes ahead with the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system, it will likely interfere with its purchase of U.S. F-35 fighter jets, for which it has already paid $1 billion. A delegation of U.S. senators told Erdogan in no uncertain terms during a visit to Ankara in July that the U.S. Congress would block the transfer of the F-35s if his country deployed the S-400.
Then there's the matter of the renewed sanctions against Iran. U.S. President Donald Trump's administration has declared that it will block any country that defies the measures from doing business in the United States. For Turkey, which depends entirely on imports to meet its fossil fuel needs, the return of sanctions on Iranian energy exports in November will require a decision: Fall in line with the United States or face the consequences. Washington is unlikely to grant Ankara a waiver to continue importing oil and natural gas from Iran, simply because it has no reason to. But since Turkey has bad relationships with alternative fuel suppliers such as Iraq and Saudi Arabia, it may well opt to keep buying from Iran.
Together, the various disagreements between the United States and Turkey are driving the two allies apart at a rapid pace. Turkey and the United States have weathered many diplomatic and military rifts over the years, thanks in large part to mutual trust and a desire to overcome their differences, as well as to effective communication between the countries' leaders. Today, by contrast, Washington and Ankara have lost much of the goodwill that once kept them from falling out. Resolving their more pressing problems, such as the Brunson issue, may not be enough to salvage their partnership.