By Jacob L. Shapiro
The United Kingdom and Turkey, two countries with apparently nothing in common, are more similar than many might think. Both have immense pride in their not-too-distant imperial pasts. Both possess militaries that are powerful but not quite powerful enough to achieve security by strength of arms alone. Both are located on the periphery of Europe and would oppose the rise of a dominant power on the Continent – whether its capital be Berlin, Paris or Moscow. And both are U.S. allies with varying degrees of tolerance for doing Washington’s bidding. It’s no surprise, then, that the two countries, with their common characteristics and shared interests, are improving their relationship.
Some of these interests are likely to be the subject of conversation during Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s three-day visit to the United Kingdom, which will wrap up on May 15. The visit will include meetings with British Prime Minister Theresa May and Queen Elizabeth II, not to mention a deluge of photo opportunities and obligatory press statements. But Erdogan made the most revealing statement of his trip just after arriving in Britain. He told reporters that “the strategic partnership between Turkey and the U.K. is a necessity rather than a simple choice.”
Rarely are political leaders so blunt about the sheer practicality of their relationships with other countries. But Turkey and the United Kingdom have a wealth of experience in the indifference of geopolitics. Neither the British Empire nor the Ottoman Empire could have grown powerful had they not mastered the ability to play different groups and states off each other and to integrate large numbers of outsiders into multinational states. Both struggle to manage the divisions that resulted from this history: London is trying to carefully navigate its relationship with Edinburgh, Belfast and, to a lesser extent, Cardiff, while Ankara’s moves abroad are being dominated by its desire to control the Kurdish minority.
But the two countries are being brought together not by the similarities of their pasts but by their shared perspectives on Europe’s future. As the U.K. prepares to leave the EU, it’s taking full ownership over its foreign policy and looking for new strategic partners, Turkey being an important candidate. Turkey can’t leave the EU because it wasn’t allowed to join in the first place, but it has had a change of heart about the union too. No longer interested in joining, it instead wants to secure its interests in Europe by expanding Turkish power there.
The United Kingdom now has to consider how best to keep Europe weak enough to prevent any Continental threat from reaching its shores, a possibility it hasn’t had to consider in over half a century. A solidly unified Germany is now the economic powerhouse of Europe, and because it is as scared of its own past as its neighbors are, it has yet to translate its economic power into military power. The U.K. wants to keep it that way. France possesses the strongest military force in Europe, but political and economic malaise has prevented it from becoming a dominant power. That suits the U.K. as well. Russia has been pushed back behind a containment line but will stay there only with constant vigilance, hence British military deployments in Estonia and a recently signed U.K.-Poland defense treaty.
Similarly, Turkey finds itself facing old enemies. Instability on its southern border with Syria has brought Iranian and Russian military forces uncomfortably close to Turkey’s border. Arab civil wars have empowered Kurdish groups throughout the region, forcing Turkey to secure its interests through military means, including by invading Syria.
Turkey’s interests are not and never have been unidirectional, however. The new president of its historical adversary, Armenia, has called for the introduction of official ties between the two countries, and the Turkish prime minister said he would look at opening “a new page” in relations. If that page contains a blueprint for weakening Russian influence in the Caucasus, Turkey will pursue it resolutely. In the Balkans, Turkey is using the ties it shares with Muslim-majority countries and Muslim-minority groups to rebuild its influence at Russia’s and the EU’s expense.
Economically, too, there is a basis for stronger U.K.-Turkey relations. The U.K. is the second-largest destination for Turkish exports, accounting for 6 percent of all Turkish exports. For the U.K., trade with Turkey is negligible but increasing. Turkey imported 23 percent more British goods in 2017 than in 2016. The British government has made no secret of its desire to secure a free trade agreement with Turkey once it officially withdraws from the EU, and Turkey’s prime minister intimated in November that work on a potential agreement between the two sides had already begun. Turkey hopes the trade relationship can be strengthened and attract much-needed foreign investment – its economic struggles have become so serious that Erdogan called an emergency meeting of top economic officials last week and may have even persuaded Erdogan to call elections in June, much earlier than expected.
Turkey and the U.K.’s long-term relationship, however, is tenuous at best. There are simply too many obstacles ahead of them. The first is Cyprus. Cyprus is part of Turkey’s sphere of influence, yet the U.K. maintains a base on the island. Turkey is already developing greater strategic maritime capabilities and has shown a willingness in recent months to bully Greece and Italy in the Eastern Mediterranean. The issue may be manageable if the U.K. is willing to reduce its power projection in the Mediterranean, or if the British navy is preoccupied by Russia. But those are big ifs. The U.K. may not be as hostile to the rise of a dominant Mediterranean power as it would be to a dominant European continental power, but that isn’t saying much.
The second and far bigger stumbling block is each country’s relationship with the United States. Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. is strained, with reduced operations at the military base in Incirlik and almost monthly crises related to issues as varied as U.S. support of Syrian Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State and the U.S. limiting weapons sales to Turkey. While the media is focused on Iran’s aggressive moves to become a dominant Middle Eastern power, Turkey is a stronger player than Iran. In 1980, Turkey and Iran had roughly the same gross domestic product; today, Turkey’s GDP is almost twice Iran’s. In addition, Turkey has a stronger military (especially when it comes to air power) and, most important, a more advantageous geography. Unlike Iran, Turkey has no mountain ranges that block its path to the region.
During the Cold War, the U.S. guaranteed Turkey’s security against the Soviet Union. But the stronger Turkey gets, the less it needs the U.S. security guarantee, and the more it needs freedom of action to secure its interests. The U.K., on the other hand, is the United States’ closest ally, and that relationship will get only stronger in the years to come. This is not to say that the British alliance with the United States is seamless or eternal. For centuries before World War II, and even in some political factions during World War II, the U.K. and the U.S. were suspicious of each other. But the U.K. is no longer the global power it once was, and developments in Europe require that the U.K. move closer to, not further away from, the United States. Of course, the presence of deep cultural ties and extensive historical trust helps, but they are not a substitute for shared interests.
It will be a while before this underlying weakness in their relationship presents itself. In the meantime, the U.K. and Turkey have many interests in common and their relationship will improve. Even Achilles achieved quite a bit of glory before his heel took him down.