Turkey learns that hard power is a global common currency: Defense diplomacy elevates Ankara’s status on the international stage

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited New York in September 2021, he stood on the top floor of a just-opened skyscraper. He looked across the street to the United Nations (UN) headquarters building standing below and let out a sigh. 

“Why can’t I sleep here this time?” he asked, according to two sources requesting anonymity.

In 2022, Erdogan got his wish to stay in the US$300 million Turkevi, or Turkish House, a thirty-five-story building that houses all Turkish government–related offices in New York. Thirteen leaders, including from Japan, Germany, and the United Kingdom; a dozen first ladies; and fifty-six foreign ministers also visited Turkevi in a four-day span, according to Turkish media.

While Erdogan failed to draw US President Joe Biden to the building, discussions over the possibility of a United States–Turkey summit continued until the last minute.  

In contrast to 2021, when the White House quickly rejected such a proposal, it now sees Turkey in a different light, because of both Ukraine and how defense diplomacy has bolstered the country’s geopolitical clout. 

The shift began in autumn 2021. 

On one October morning, several weeks after the 2021 UN General Assembly, the United States’ top intelligence, military, and diplomatic officials gathered in the Oval Office of the White House for an urgent meeting with Biden, according to the Washington Post. With newly obtained satellite images, intercepted communications, and intelligence gathered by people on the ground, aides told the president that they were alarmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin may very well launch a full-scale invasion into Ukraine. 

Biden was determined that Putin must either be deterred or confronted and told his aides that the United States must not act alone. The United States needed to form a united front with its allies and partners to face Putin, the president directed. 

There was just one problem. Ever since the 2003 Iraq War and the faulty claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the United States has had a credibility issue. This is where Turkey comes into the picture. 

From around October to November, the White House began reaching out to Ankara more frequently. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke on the phone with his counterpart, Ibrahim Kalin, on November 19, despite just having met him a few weeks back.  

A Turkish source familiar with the discussion said that the Biden administration was “extremely concerned” about the Russian buildup in eastern Ukraine. Sullivan wanted to exchange information.

To convince its allies and partners of Putin’s intent, the White House needed another source to confirm its theory. Turkey, a Black Sea–facing state like Ukraine and Russia, is a regional heavyweight with good connections with both sides. Ukraine has a sizable community of Tatar Turks, giving Turkey further insight into what is going on.     

The Pentagon had watched how Turkish-provided drones altered the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh, the landlocked region in the South Caucasus that Azerbaijan and Armenia have been fighting over for decades. Azerbaijan scored a decisive victory in November 2020, thanks to Turkish-provided drones that pierced Armenia’s air defenses, wiping out hundreds of tanks and vehicles. 

When Russia finally did invade Ukraine in February 2022, Turkish-provided drones initially played a crucial role in defending against Russian advances. The Bayraktar TB2 drone is also thought to have assisted the sinking of Russian missile cruiser Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, by either serving as a distraction or providing the precise location of the vessel. 

The Pentagon also understood that Turkey’s control of the Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles—the sole maritime gateway to the Black Sea—could be a massive source of leverage against the Russians.   

Turkey is at once European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Balkan, and Caucasian. It has also been a member of NATO since 1952 and is a Black Sea littoral state. Its strategic geography gives the country unique advantages other countries rarely have.  

Yet, for many years, it had not fully utilized its levers of influence. While attempting to enter the European Union (EU), for instance, Ankara was keen on showing that Turkey was a moderate, reasonable country that deserved to be in the club.   

More recently, however, Erdogan has begun to tap those levers, even if it has meant some outright brinkmanship. His threat to deny NATO entry of Sweden and Finland, citing the two countries’ lax laws toward organizations that Ankara regards as terrorist, was one such example. 

Turkey’s newfound confidence is based on hard power. After years of attempting to carve out an identity for the country—either as an EU member, a leader of the Muslim world, a big brother to the Turkic states in Central Asia, or a friend of Africa—Erdogan has come to believe he can have it all. Hard power is a common currency that transcends civilizational boundaries and something that everybody wants. 

Top drone maker Baykar has reportedly exported its drones to over twenty countries. Turkey’s defense sales are not limited to drones. State-owned Turkish Aerospace has sold attack helicopters to the Philippines. Pakistan has bought four corvettes from state-owned ASFAT for $1 billion. 

Defense cooperation agreements are driving Turkey’s diplomatic assignments. More and more African ambassadors appointed to Turkey—such as those from Senegal, Ethiopia, and Tanzania—are former military generals, according to their biographies.

Using defense-oriented diplomacy, Ankara is establishing itself as a unique power. And it is stepping on the gas. Turkish political insiders describe the defense industry as one of the most important drivers of its diplomatic outreach and boast that it is one of the reasons why other countries are knocking on the doors of its country’s three hundred or so diplomatic outposts worldwide. Turkish officials say they have already posted defense industry representatives to nine embassies, with more expected.

Turkey is not the only country to recognize the power of defense collaboration. China, too, has come to realize that it needs to deepen defense ties with friendly countries to compete with the United States.

Chinese scholar Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University, once said that the one thing China cannot compete against the United States on is its network of relationships around the world.  

“The US has more than seventy mutual allies. China has friendships with Pakistan and North Korea, but we cannot call them full-fledged strategic allies based on treaties,” he said in an interview. 

By China’s logic, Ankara’s growing security ties with countries around the world will be building blocks for Turkey to increase its network of partners—and through it its national power. 

Ken Moriyasu is a diplomatic correspondent with Nikkei Asia. Follow him on Twitter @kenmoriyasu.

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly 76th session General Debate in New York, U.S., September 21, 2021. Kena Betancur/REUTERS