Few leaders have managed to use today’s geopolitical tensions to their advantage as effectively as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As the West seeks to stem the erosion of the rules-based international order, his might be an example worth learning from – and a potentially useful stopgap.
A ship loaded with grain has departed from a Ukrainian port. The shipment – the first to leave the country in months – was made possible by a recent agreement between Russia and Ukraine that was brokered by Turkey and the United Nations. For people in Africa and the Middle East, the deal offers a glimmer of hope that severe food shortages will soon ease. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it is a diplomatic victory – and far from his first.
Facing formidable domestic challenges – including growing political opposition, huge numbers of refugees, a plummeting currency, and a deteriorating economy – Erdoğan has seemingly made it his mission to rack up foreign-policy achievements ahead of next year’s election. And he has achieved considerable success.
Erdoğan has been making progress in mending fences with the Gulf monarchies, after a decade of strained relations. And while the grain deal’s survival is far from guaranteed – Russia launched missile strikes on the port city of Odessa the day after the agreement was signed in Istanbul – it has already cemented Turkey’s position as a regional power broker.
Yes, Erdoğan’s political clout has limits. At the recent trilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, for example, he failed to secure support for further Turkish incursions into northwestern Syria. But the mere fact that he met with Putin at a time when tensions between NATO and Russia are running so high highlights his unique position in world affairs.
Erdoğan’s diplomatic success reflects his ability to find space for collaboration within apparently adversarial relationships. Notably, Russia and Turkey – bound by deep economic and industrial ties – have maintained a reasonably effective dialogue, even as they have supported opposing sides in the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and, indirectly, Nagorno-Karabakh. When Ukraine and Russia were negotiating their grain deal, Ukrainian forces were using Turkish drones to counter Russian attacks.
Of course, Erdoğan alone did not bring the Russians to the negotiating table in Istanbul; the Kremlin was motivated significantly by its interest in retaining support from the Global South. (That much was clear during Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent visit to Africa – a visit that occurred in parallel with one from French President Emmanuel Macron.) Nonetheless, Turkish mediation was vital to facilitate progress.
Erdoğan’s preference for walking a geostrategic tightrope has not always been welcomed by Turkey’s allies, partners, and neighbors. The West decries him as a strongman, much like Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and chafes at Turkey’s strategic ambiguity – or, for many, faithlessness – toward its NATO partners.
In 2020, Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air-defense system nearly derailed relations with the United States, and tensions in the eastern Mediterranean unsettled the European Union. High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell has called those tensions – and relations with Turkey more broadly – one of the greatest challenges facing Europe.
More recently, despite calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “unacceptable,” Erdoğan has refused to join Western sanctions, spurring Russian oligarchs to flock to the shores of the Bosphorus and stoking fears that Turkey will facilitate sanctions evasion. Erdoğan has also repeatedly threatened to block Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO, prompting some in the West to question whether Turkey really belongs in the Alliance.
The West’s options for strengthening relations with Turkey are limited. While Turkey’s EU membership bid no longer appears feasible, there is no alternative framework for relations that could replace the accession process.
Nonetheless, the West is not prepared to turn its back on Turkey. US President Joe Biden has pledged to sell it dozens of F-16 fighter jets, and the European Commission recognizes Turkey’s critical role in supporting security in its neighborhood, not least through an uneasy collaboration on refugee management. This probably explains why Erdoğan has not paid much of a price for his defiance of his Western partners.
Erdoğan might be holding a weak hand, but he is playing it skillfully. In fact, few leaders have managed to use today’s geopolitical tensions to their advantage as effectively as he has. Selective cooperation with Putin, in particular, has brought significant dividends for Turkey’s leader, who is eager to rewrite the rules of the game in his favor.
But Erdoğan’s skillful play is only part of the story. Turkey’s newfound strategic relevance is also indicative of current geopolitical trends and the new diplomatic approaches they demand. Turkey’s allies might be rattled by Erdoğan’s pragmatic gamesmanship, but pragmatism, together with creative thinking, will be essential to enable substantive cooperation in the current international environment.
As the West seeks to stem the erosion of the rules-based order, Erdoğan might be an example worth learning from. If the West can use those lessons to revive relations with Turkey itself, he might also be a useful stopgap.