Brinkmanship may be his trademark, but Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is unlikely to provoke the ire of the international community by launching a nuclear weapons program. Yet, his demand that Turkey have the right to do so highlights the fracturing of the rules-based international order as well as changing regional realities.
Add to that the international community’s failure to
prevent Pakistan and North Korea from becoming nuclear powers and its double
standards in looking the other way for decades as Israel developed an
unacknowledged arsenal of its own.
US withdrawal from the agreements with Russia and Iran
are but two examples of a far broader breakdown in adherence to international,
law, norms and procedures fuelled by US President Donald J. Trump’s disdain for
key pillars of the US-led, post-World War Two order.
Mr. Trump has walked away from the Paris accord on
climate change as well as the Trans-Pacific
Partnership and cast doubt on
US commitment to multiple other multilateral arrangements, including the North Atlantic
Treaty Organization (NATO), the European Union and the Group of Seven that
brings together the West’s largest economies.
America’s rivals, China and Russia, as well as Iran,
Turkey and Saudi Arabia, have countered US unilateralism with calls for a
strengthening of multilateralism albeit one in which they can use the arms
trade to leverage their geopolitical weight, and/or fight wars with absolute
disregard for the human consequences, and brutally repress minorities of any
stripe, ethnic, religious or political.
Mr. Trump’s ‘America First’ approach has emboldened
others backed by Russia and China, including Mr. Erdogan, to more aggressively
challenge the existing order and more blatantly violate its underpinnings.
To be sure, Mr Erdogan’s recent insistence on the
100th anniversary of the Sivas
Congress, which laid the groundwork for
an independent Turkish republic, that it was unacceptable for nuclear-armed
countries to prevent his country from developing
nuclear weapons makes, at first
glance, perfect sense.
Turkey lives in a neighbourhood pockmarked by violent
conflict in which arms race is the name
of the game. If that were not
enough, Turkey is surrounded by real and would be nuclear powers with the
international community applying double standards.
Gulf states, two of which, Saudi Arabia and the United
Arab Emirates, have no love lost for Turkey, are among the world’s biggest military
Israel, another Middle Eastern nation with which
Turkey is at odds, sees military and technological supremacy, as the core of
its defense strategy and has long hinted but never publicly confirmed its
Pakistan, a nuclear power locked into escalating
tension with India over Kashmir, bristles with weaponry.
Iran, despite strident denials, is suspected of
wanting to be a nuclear power and having the capacity to become one,
particularly if it ultimately ditches the 2015 international agreement.
An Iranian spokesman said this weekend that Iran had begun using
an array of advanced centrifuges to enrich uranium in violation of the nuclear deal in a bid to force
Europe to effectively challenge harsh US sanctions.
The Iranian move heightens the risk of a nuclear race
in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia, believed to be putting
preliminary building blocks in place, making no bones about its willingness to match any nuclear capability
that Iran may acquire.
Mr. Erdogan’s demand for the right to develop nuclear
weapons is as much a response to regional and global developments as it is an
opportunistic effort to bolster the Turkish leader’s troubled bid to position
Turkey as a leader of the Muslim world.
That ambition is complicated by a minefield of differences
with the United States over Turkey’s acquisition of a Russian anti-aircraft
missile system and Russia over the Russian-Syrian
military campaign in Idlib, war-torn Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
Demanding the right to develop nuclear weapons serves
Mr. Erdogan’s purpose even if doing so may not. Domestically, it allows Mr.
Erdogan to project himself as a leader who fights for what Turkey thinks should
be its rightful place in the international pecking order. Globally, it is a way
to exploit challenges to an international order that Mr. Erdogan sees as
holding his country back.
Says Turkish author and journalist Kaya Genc who
describes Mr. Erdogan as an angry, yet patient politician: “It has taken him 16
years to forge what he calls ‘the new Turkey,’ an economically self-reliant
country with a marginalized opposition and a subservient press… Erdogan’s great
challenge over the next decade…will be to convince voters that his mixture of
anger and patience is still a model to follow, that his formation story can
continue to inspire, and that only his unassailable ability can steer Turkey to
safety. Erdogan will no doubt do everything in his power to succeed at this
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International
Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture,
and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with
the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and
the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del
Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and
Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein:
The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing
into the Maelstrom.