Skip to main content

Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Turkey-West Relations: The Escalating Crisis of Trust and Path Dependency


The already strained relations between Turkey and the West have become more turbulent over the last few years due to a multiplicity of developments, such as the freezing of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, the tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, the operationalization of the S-400 missile defense system, and the subsequent deepening of Turkey-Russia defense relations. This article utilizes the framework of intra-alliance opposition,[1] which delineated three processes of intra-alliance opposition – boundary testing, boundary challenging, and boundary breaking, in analyzing the post-2019 developments in Turkey-West relations. It argues that in the post-2019 era, the crisis of trust between Turkey on the one hand, and the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) on the other hand has deepened significantly and the erosion of the institutional ties in regulating Turkey-West relations have created path-dependent outcomes filled with diplomatic crises.

External Factors

Turkish authorities seek to have a bigger say in shaping Turkey’s immediate neighborhoods as a result of greater recognition of the changing polarity in the international system. This is very clear when one looks at the increased Turkish foreign policy activism in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Eastern Mediterranean. With the pivot to Asia, the US is perceived to retreat from the Middle East. This, along with the lack of a unified EU front on Libya and Syria, seems to create a power vacuum, which Turkey is willing to fill. Furthermore, the intractable interests of Turkey, the US, and European allies on Syria, Libya, Cyprus, and the Eastern Mediterranean seem to contribute to the deteriorating relations between Turkey and the West. Such irreconcilable differences create deeper resentment on both sides. Turkey criticizes the West’s lack of understanding of its security concerns and sensitivities in the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean, and the US and the EU raise questions about Turkey’s regional motivations and trustworthiness as an ally. Consequently, Turkey employs an increasing number of boundary-breaking tools of statecraft, such as compellent threats and countervailing alliances, against the West. To illustrate, Turkey increasingly emphasizes a two-state solution in Cyprus, which creates a major division line between Turkey and the West.[2] Similarly, Turkish authorities recently announced that Turkey would purchase more defense equipment from Russia.[3]

Internal Factors

Besides the international systemic factors and the opposing interests on major regional issues, the domestic factors seem to serve as intervening variables in explaining the increasing use of boundary-breaking behavior since 2019. As noted by many scholars, variables at the unit level are important in explaining foreign policy behavior[4] and may lead states to balance against others when “doing so helps them in the domestic power game.”[5] Many experts point to the instrumental use of foreign policy in consolidating the government’s power in the Turkish context.[6] Developments such as rising nationalism, weakened checks and balances, and policymakers’ perception of the international stimuli, serve as intervening variables at the unit level. Turkish voters seem to favor a more independent and unilateralist foreign policy,[7] creating a more permissive environment for the Turkish political elites to pursue boundary breaking.

The EU and the US have been frequently raising their disappointment with the deteriorating rule of law situation in Turkey in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt. For instance, the European Commission, in its latest country report on Turkey,[8] emphasized the “serious deficiencies in the functioning of Turkey’s democratic institutions,” and underlined that “democratic backsliding continued” and “structural deficiencies of the presidential system remained in place.” In return, the Turkish authorities have been accusing the West for meddling in Turkish domestic affairs. The ambassadorial persona non grata row that took place in October 2021, when Turkish President Erdoğan threatened to expel ambassadors of ten Western countries – United States, Canada, Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand, in response to their call for Turkey to release Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala,[9] was a significant illustration of the deepening crisis in Turkey-West relations. The Turkish opposition “accused Erdoğan of trying to create an artificial diplomatic crisis” to divert people’s attention away from domestic problems, such as rising inflation, unemployment, and the loss of value of the Turkish Lira “ahead of elections which are due to be held in 2023.”[10] Should the expulsion of the ambassadors have materialized, it would have marked a precarious transition from soft balancing to hard balancing. The prospects for hard balancing increase if there are perceived injustices in the relations or if the security competition escalates,[11] which seem to be relevant in this critical conjuncture.

Escalating Crisis of Trust and Path Dependency

Trust is a key element in alliances. The freezing of Turkey’s EU accession negotiations exacerbated the crisis of trust between Turkey and the EU. Paradoxically, by freezing the accession negotiations, the EU has effectively undercut its leverage in shaping Turkey’s democracy and, at least for the time being, removed an important institution – the EU accession process – from the equation. The summer 2020 crises between Turkey and Greece and Turkey and France in the Eastern Mediterranean have created conditions that are ripe for hot conflict between Turkey and some EU member states.[12] In the wake of the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, some EU members are increasingly distrustful of the Turkish motivations in the region and assert that Turkey acts in a revisionist way.[13]

The purchase and the operationalization of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia further created path-dependent developments in Turkey-West, and particularly in Turkey-US, relations. Turkey has been removed from the F-35 Joint Striker Consortium, an important defense anchor that provided institutional ties between the Turkish and the Euro-Atlantic defense industries. Moving forward, due to the sanctions, another boundary-breaking statecraft tool, that are imposed on Turkey, Turkey is likely to find itself increasingly alienated from the West and seek to meet its immediate defense-related needs from non-Western parties.


Many of the problems that concern the transatlantic security community would benefit from closer cooperation between Turkey and the West. Therefore, it is high time that the parties put this most tumultuous episode in their relations behind. For repairing the relationship, Turkey and the West should refrain from inflammatory rhetoric and seek to restore the institutional ties that bind the two together. Unless parties are willing to break this vicious cycle and engage in trust-building and actively work towards mending relations through institutions, the path-dependent nature of the issues that haunt Turkey-West relations will guarantee that the relationship will continue to deteriorate, ensuring that the worst is yet to come.

[1] Dursun-Özkanca, Oya. Turkey–West Relations: The Politics of Intra-alliance Opposition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

[2] Gümrükcü, Tuvan. “Turkey’s Erdogan Says Two-State Solution Only Option for Cyprus,” Reuters, February 10, 2021.

[3] Pamuk, Hümeyra. “Erdogan Says Turkey Plans to Buy More Russian Defense Systems,” Reuters, September 27, 2021.

[4] Levy, Jack S. “Diversionary Theory of War: A Critique.” In Manus I. Midlarsky, (Ed.), Handbook of War Studies. Boston: Unwin-Hyman, 1989, pp. 259-288; Rose, Gideon. “Neoclassical Realism and Theories of Foreign Policy.” World Politics 51(1): 144-172, 1998; Schweller, Randall. “The Progressiveness of Neoclassical Realism.” In Colin Elman and Miriam Fendius Elman (Eds.), Progress in International Relations Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003, pp. 311-347; Ripsman, Norrin M. “Neoclassical Realism,” International Studies: Oxford Research Encyclopedias, 2011; Foulon, Michael. “Neoclassical Realism: Challengers and Bridging Identities.” International Studies Review 17(4): 635-661, 2015; Ripsman, Norrin M., Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, and Steven E. Lobell. Neoclassical Realist Theory of International Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

[5] Levy 1989; Whitaker, Beth Elise. “Soft Balancing among Weak States? Evidence from Africa.” International Affairs 86(5): 1109-1127, 2010, p. 1124.

[6] Dağı, İhsan. Speech Transcript, “Turkey: An Emerging Power in a Changing Middle East” Conference, Council on Foreign Relations, Istanbul, June 18, 2014.; Abramowitz, Morton and Eric Edelman (Eds.). “Beyond the Myth of Partnership: Rethinking US Policy Toward Turkey.” Bipartisan Policy Center, December 2016.; Erdemir, Aykan. Conference Remarks, “What Is the Future of EU-Turkey Relations” Conference. Wilson Center, Washington DC, April 24, 2017.

[7] Hoffman, Max, Michael Werz, and John Halpin. “Turkey’s ‘New Nationalism’ Amid Shifting Politics. Center for American Progress, February 11, 2018.

[8] European Commission. “Key Findings of the 2021 Report on Turkey.” Strasbourg, October 19, 2021.

[9] Cupolo, Diego. “Erdogan Backpedals on Threat to Expel 10 Western Ambassadors.” Al-Monitor, October 25, 2021.

[10] McKernan, Bethan. “Turkey Backs Down on Threat to Expel Foreign Ambassadors,” The Guardian, October 25, 2021.

[11] Paul, T. V. “Introduction.” In Balance of Power: Theory and Practice in the 21st Century, T.V. Paul, James J. Wirtz and Michel Fortmann (Eds.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004.

[12] International Crisis Group. “Turkey and Greece: From Maritime Brinkmanship to Dialogue,” Report No. 263, May 31, 2021.; Irish, John. “After Turkish Incident, France Suspends Role in NATO Naval Mission,” Reuters, July 1, 2020.

[13] Ekathimerini. “Greek Military Chief Slams Turkish Revisionism in East Med,” November 3, 2020.