Will Turkey reverse its nuclear weapons policy?
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s statement on Sept. 4 on nuclear weapons was one of the most radical announcements ever made by a Turkish head of state in the course of the past few decades.
It was radical in terms of running contrary to Turkey’s long-standing policy on arms control and disarmament. At least on a rhetorical level, it represented a fundamental policy reversal as Turkey has been for at least half-a-century an ardent defender of arms control and disarmament.
Perhaps one should not have been so surprised in the new world disorder.
Ever since he took office, we have seen Donald Trump pulling out United States from several international agreements, from the Paris Climate Change agreement, to the nuclear deal with Iran, from the Trans-Pacific free trade pact to a Cold War-era nuclear pact with Russia. But before that we have witnessed the British voting to get out of the European Union.
While Brexit has not yet finalized, Trump has executed his exits without a blink in his eyes.
So what are we to make of Erdoğan’s statement: “Some countries have missiles with nuclear warheads, not one or two. But [they tell us] we can’t have them. This, I cannot accept.”
If you were to go to the website of the Turkish Foreign Ministry and click on foreign policy, you will find a list of issues where Turkey’s official policy is stated. If you were to click on the title “arms control and disarmament,” you will still find a lengthy overview of where Turkey stands on the issue.
“Turkey attaches particular importance to arms control and disarmament. Active participation in international efforts in these areas, adherence to relevant international instruments and their full implementation, as well as maintaining the coordination among relevant institutions are important elements of Turkey’s national security policy,” says the first sentence.
Clearly the president’s rhetoric is not in line with this stance.
Erdoğan used “I” instead of a “we.” Could that be interpreted as voicing a personal opinion? But then what are we to make of his final sentence “We are continuing our work on it?”
After nearly two decades in government, we have enough input to suggest that Erdoğan would prefer to see a Turkey with nuclear weapons. Not so much to deter threats targeting Turkey, but more because it is in line with his aspirations to see Turkey as a global actor. That’s why he said in the same statement that currently there is nearly no “developed country without missiles with a nuclear warhead, they all have it.”
Of course he has not said that of the 188 U.N. members only five are not party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT): Israel, India, Pakistan, South Sudan and North Korea — a group one would hardly be proud to be included in.
At any rate, Erdoğan justified his stance on nuclear weapon ownership by his frustration of Turkey “being told, or being forced to do so” when he said “they are telling us, ‘don’t you dare.’”
The fact that he named Israel as using its nuclear weapons to “scare” others is noteworthy since traditionally Iran and Russia top the list when it comes to Turkey’s nuclear threat perception.
So while we might conclude that in the eyes of the president a developed country with global aspirations is one which holds a nuclear weapon, and that this statement is in line with his “the world is bigger than five” motto, it is still early to say whether he would actually take the steps that will reverse Turkey’s longstanding nuclear arms policy.
Indeed, most of the Turkish and foreign commentators interpreted this statement as reflecting Turkey’s frustrations with the trans-Atlantic alliance. The presence of Turkey’s old allies like the United States and France in Syria in close cooperation with a terror organization that is seen as an existential threat by the government has further consolidated the already long existing grievances.
Erdoğan might have wanted to give the message that if there were no improvements to the current problems, he might as well take steps that would further distance Turkey from the Western alliance.
If that was the intention, it remains to be seen if it will bring the desired outcome.