Erdoğan’s Turkey as a Significant Change Agent in the European Alliances

By Robbin Laird

Turkey under President Erdoğan has seen a significant change from being a secular state focused on close collaboration with the liberal democracies to one more focused on its Islamic and national identities and playing off of the European alliances, both the European Union and NATO.

Erdoğan has sought to expand Turkey’s independent role in the world and has actively pursued a redefinition of Turkish interests away from Westernization and Europeanization to shaping an expanded role in the Middle East, North Africa, and embracing Putin’s Russia as a partner.

A recent book by Hannah Lucinda Smith entitled Erdoğan Rising provides a detailed look at the processes of change within Turkey and in so doing also provides insights from which one might address the impact of Turkey as a change agent for the European alliances as well.

It is book about Turkey, but she has underscored how important the changing nature of Turkey’s role in the world is impacting significantly on the West as well. Turkey is not simply engaged in hermetically sealed change, but the dynamics of change within Turkey are a key part of the transition in the West as well as in terms of the dynamics of change in the global role of Russia as well.

President Erdoğan has focused on enhancing Turkish nationalism and independence. Smith quotes a key spin master for the President and underscored how he sees the approach: “Erdoğan and his party came to get rid of the old order. They widened Turkey’s perspectives and horizons. He gave us self-confidence. New we have much bigger dreams…We are building our own fighter jets and tactical helicopters… Erdoğan is realizing Turkey’s dreams.  This is why he is a great brand.”[1]

In so doing, Turkey is having a significant impact on the European Alliances.

With regard to the European Union, Erdoğan has clearly shifted from an interest to belonging to the European Union, to using the European Union as an important negative pole against which to define Turkey’s independence and national interests. Earlier in his career, Erdoğan was clearly reinforcing the interest of Turkey to be part of the European Union, but with his building out an authoritarian regime, he uses the European Union as a negative pole for arguing for greater efforts to build out Turkish independence and a “Turkish” way ahead.

And he clearly sees new opportunities for partnerships going forward as well as the European Union faces increasingly challenges as well. After noting that Brexit Britain is focused in part of expanding its relationship with Turkey as part of its post-EU future (along with other global partnerships seen to be part of the Global Britain vision), she argues:

“Erdoğan is no longer the only populist in Europe, and Turkey not the only country that was recently deemed to be democratizing but is now backsliding. Hungary and Poland, both EU member states, are led by men with autocratic tendencies….”[2]

The key role which Turkey has played in the Syrian refugee crisis, also enables him to leverage the migration dynamic in a way one analyst has labelled as a version of hybrid war.  In an interesting paper by Anthon Paphiti which looks at the European migration crisis or perhaps better referred to as European migration crises, the author highlights the actions of both Gaddafi and Erdoğan to use migrants as currency for political influence and economic gain.

“Mass migration, strategically designed and used, has the potential to undermine European identity and security. Migration-aided coercion was already used by the ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi to force a lifting of European economic sanctions in 2004. Whether the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan employed the same tactic in order to receive direct funds from the EU remains to be discussed. What could be deduced was the growing dependency of Europe on Erdogan’s willingness to act as a trustworthy partner. His announcement in the autumn of 2016 to ‘flood’ Europe with migrants resembles a ‘weaponization’ of the migration crisis in terms of a hybrid threat scenario.”[3]

With regard to NATO, the failed coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016 has seen him re-set relations with NATO both in terms of weeding out committed Turkish military participants in the NATO organization and in embracing Russia as a partner in ways which are clearly at odds from the shift in NATO to reinforce direct defense capabilities in Europe to defend against Russian threats.

Smith quotes an email from General Mehmet Yalinalp, a former Turkish brigadier general and NATO’s former Deputy Chief of Plans of Allied Air Command to General Curtis Scaparrotti, the current Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

“As the historical purge of thousands of military personnel takes a faster speed, I and my Turkish colleagues observe a considerable rise of ultra-nationalist, anti-western sentiments within our military and throughout our state departments. It is very worrying to witness that some of the newcomers from Turkey to NATO have a radical mindset, some question the values of NATO and even hate western organizations while holding pro-Russia/China/Iran sentiments.”[4]

And it is clear that the Erdoğan team was using the coup attempt to indeed do a widespread purge of the military which had an immediate effect in reducing the capabilities of the Turkish military, notably in the Air Force. The firings were so deep that the Turkish government has reached out to older retired Turkish Air Force pilots flying in the commercial sector, and has had the effect of turning the Turkish Air Force away from common modernization with other NATO air forces, which is being accelerated by Turkish actions which have led to their removal from the F-35 program.

But Turkey is central to the West, whether it is following the path of Atatürk or Erdoğan. 

As Smith puts it: “We can’t turn our backs on Turkey because Turkey and Erdoğan matter. Forget old clichés about East-meets-West – it is far more important than that.  Here is a country that buffers Europe on the one side, the Middle East on another, and the old Soviet Union on a third – and which absorbs the impacts of chaos and upheaval in each of those regions…With the Middle East sinking into ever-greater turmoil, it is the world’s biggest refugee-hosting nation, with five million from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and others.”[5]

Not only can Turkey not be ignored, but if the turn against Europeanization within Turkey and the attempt to revitalize NATO Europe’s capabilities to defend Europe is a permanent one by Turkey, then there is an enhanced need to consider measures to mitigate against how the Turkish authoritarian leader working with the global authoritarian powers is impacting on the defense, security and stability of Europe as a whole.

It also the case as Erdoğan’s Turkey seeks to define a more independent role in the region, states will seek out new relationships as well with Turkey. Smith put it this way: “But as the EU bloc is engulfed by economic woes, squabbling over refuges and its own rising swell of populism, it no longer looks the good bet (that it did before for Turkey).  Turks believe they have other relationship they can turn to, in Russia, the Balkans – and post-Brexit Britain.”[6]

Turkey is clearly using its NATO membership to reduce pressure on its actions, while at the same time reaching out to non-NATO “partners” to try to achieve Erdoğan’s particular objectives on a case by case basis. For example, in early 2020, Erdoğan is working with Russia and others to expand his own role in Libya. As Simon Schofield noted in an article published by the EUObserver on January 14, 2020:

“Turkey has embarked on a neo-Ottoman strategy, aiming to re-establish itself as a regional power.  This involves simultaneously reaping the benefits of NATO membership whilst pursuing an overtly-expansionist foreign policy which has even included a loose partnership with Russia in Syria… Rather than operating in lockstep with NATO, Turkey is opting to maximise its freedom of maneouver by embarking on a number of limited partnerships of convenience, comprising a circus of pariahs: Russia, Qatar, Iran, and Venezuela, and is cultivating its own sphere of influence using the Muslim Brotherhood and jihadist militias from Syria to Libya as political and military proxies.”[7]

But reinforcing the point about the clustering of states within NATO to generate specific policy responses, Schofield noted: “With the Dutch having suspended Turkey’s Article 5 privileges in Nato, and the escalating conflict in Libya putting Ankara on a collision course with Moscow, president Recep Tayyip Erdogan might soon find himself between a rock and a hard place…. In response to Turkey’s incursion into Rojava two Nato members, Norway and the Netherlands, suspended arms exports to Ankara.”[8]

The alliance within alliance challenge mentioned in an earlier article becomes a key dynamic which will drive change in the European alliances.  If one combines, the migratory dynamics of the past ten years, with the return of direct defense as the Russians have returned to reshape threats to Europe along with the combined Russian and Chinese effort to make the world safe for authoritarian regimes, the differentiation among the European nations about how best to shape their abilities to defend their interests is to be anticipated and expected. This clearly is remaking of the European alliances, within which Turkey has a significant impact.


[1] Hannah Lucinda Smith, Erdoğan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey (London: William Collins, 2019), 69

[2] Smith, Erdoğan Rising, 295

[3] Anthony Paphiti, “Migration As A Potential Hybrid Threat; How Mass Migration Is Challenging the EU’s Security and Rule of Law,” February 6, 2019,


[4] Smith, Erdoğan Rising, 327.


[5] Smith, Erdoğan Rising, 2.


[6] Smith, Erdoğan Rising, 358.


[7] Simon Schofield, “Turkey’s tightrope could finally snap in Libya,” EUObserver (January 14, 2020).


[8] Schofield, “Turkey’s tightrope.”