Turkey’s Year of Living Dangerously

Turkey took its expansionist vision to new heights in 2020—but with a battered economy, growing opposition, and now U.S. sanctions, it’s not clear how long that can continue.

By , an assistant editor at Foreign Policy.
Sailors standing on the deck of a warship at a parade during the Turkish International Ceremony at Mehmetcik Abidesi Martyrs Memorial near Seddulbahir Turkey on April 24, 2015.
Sailors standing on the deck of a warship at a parade during the Turkish International Ceremony at Mehmetcik Abidesi Martyrs Memorial near Seddulbahir Turkey on April 24, 2015.
Sailors standing on the deck of a warship at a parade during the Turkish International Ceremony at Mehmetcik Abidesi Martyrs Memorial near Seddulbahir Turkey on April 24, 2015. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Though it now seems tragically comic, many of us spent the waning days of 2019 believing we would—and could—absolutely conquer 2020. All our resolutions were walloped by mid-March, and 2020 instead became the year that conquered us

But if there’s one man who didn’t let a pandemic stifle his quest for glory, it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not that his year went swimmingly. Erdogan’s crowning infrastructure project, Istanbul Airport—set to be the world’s largest—hardly boasts many visitors with global travel in the doldrums. And the Turkish economy, once a poster child of GDP growth, is wheezing. 

Still, in 2020, Erdogan took the wrecking ball he’d previously slammed into Turkey’s domestic politics and turned it on the region. This year, Turkey’s military was more active around the world than it has been in decades, or perhaps ever. From Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turkish leader has used armed force to advance Turkey’s objectives. He’s turned natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean into a contact sport. 

Though it now seems tragically comic, many of us spent the waning days of 2019 believing we would—and could—absolutely conquer 2020. All our resolutions were walloped by mid-March, and 2020 instead became the year that conquered us

But if there’s one man who didn’t let a pandemic stifle his quest for glory, it is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not that his year went swimmingly. Erdogan’s crowning infrastructure project, Istanbul Airport—set to be the world’s largest—hardly boasts many visitors with global travel in the doldrums. And the Turkish economy, once a poster child of GDP growth, is wheezing. 

Still, in 2020, Erdogan took the wrecking ball he’d previously slammed into Turkey’s domestic politics and turned it on the region. This year, Turkey’s military was more active around the world than it has been in decades, or perhaps ever. From Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh, the Turkish leader has used armed force to advance Turkey’s objectives. He’s turned natural gas drilling in the Mediterranean into a contact sport. 

But Erdogan’s real impact on geopolitics won’t roll in on a tank; it will come in the form of the 21st-century pan-Islamism that he has finessed through soft power. The religious revivalism that is so controversial within Turkey has filled a void in the larger Muslim world—one on display in Erdogan’s recent war of words with French President Emmanuel Macron

Despite the strongman facade, there are signs that Erdogan’s foundation is cracking. The Turkish opposition is growing, and his foreign policy has proved onerous and costly. And as erstwhile NATO partners turn their backs on Turkey—even the Trump administration has reluctantly imposed long-delayed sanctions on the country—Erdogan doesn’t have too many allies left. 

Here are five of the best Foreign Policy pieces chronicling Turkey’s adventures and misadventures in the face of growing domestic and international pushback.


1. How Did the Eastern Mediterranean Become the Eye of a Geopolitical Storm?

by Michaël Tanchum, Aug. 18

The Mediterranean Sea has long been home to various fault lines, but the present wave of tension dates to natural gas discoveries off Israel, Egypt, and especially Cyprus—energy resources that Turkey wants a piece of. That alone has caused conflict with Greece, Cyprus, France, the European Union, and NATO.

But it’s also led to a deeper Turkish involvement in Libya, with which Turkey fancifully carved up the Mediterranean. Ankara ramped up its support of the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya’s civil war, even dispatching arms and troops to the country. Turkey’s intervention complicated matters by “linking the already tense maritime stand-off in the Eastern Mediterranean to the Libyan civil war,” Tanchum explains. 

Then Turkey turned back to Northern Cyprus, where it’s been meddling for more than 40 years. “With France and Egypt already in open conflict with Turkey in Libya, observers around the world fear that any further escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean could set off a Euro-Middle Eastern maelstrom,” Tanchum writes.


2. How Turkey’s Soft Power Conquered Pakistan

by Fatima Bhutto, Sept. 5

Even as Erdogan pursues gunboat diplomacy, his brand of moderate political Islam has never been more popular in the Muslim world. Turkey under Erdogan is a brilliant purveyor of soft power; Turkish dramas are second only to U.S. series in their global distribution, Bhutto writes, with Muslim viewers finding refreshing nuance in something that is neither Hollywood nor Bollywood. 

Ankara’s neo-Ottomanism has certainly filled a cultural vacuum. The question going forward is how it will reshape or splinter the global Islamic community, especially opposite rivals like Saudi Arabia. “The blistering and bombastic Erdogan may be divisive at home, but abroad, whether one likes him or hates him, he possesses a charisma that has been absent in the Muslim world for decades,” Bhutto writes.


An employee sorts Turkish lira banknotes at a bank in the town of Sarmada in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on June 14.

An employee sorts Turkish lira banknotes at a bank in the town of Sarmada in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on June 14. Aaref Watad/AFP/Getty Images

3. Erdogan Has Hidden an Economic Disaster Deep in Turkish Banks

by Chris Miller, Aug. 11

Erdogan is lucky to have some soft power, because his country’s economic prospects are looking dim. Turkey is “spending far beyond its means,” Miller writes, but has avoided sovereign debt, instead tasking its big banks with taking advantage of low U.S. interest rates to get loans in dollars, which they plowed into the local economy. The problem: As the Turkish lira has plunged in value, those banks are becoming nervous about getting repaid. 

And, to make matters worse, Erdogan made those banks partners in propping up the lira by loaning billions of dollars to the central bank to buy back lira on the open market. “A big hole is not what you want in your central bank’s balance sheet, but this is the reality that Turkey faces”—with few palatable options to stave off devaluation, recession, or both—Miller writes.


4. A Motorcycle-Riding Leftist Feminist Is Coming for Erdogan

by Nick Ashdown, May 1

Financial deficits aren’t the only loss that concerns Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. Turkey’s long-battered opposition party—the Republican People’s Party—celebrated a number of key electoral victories in 2019. Its resurgence can be credited in part to Canan Kaftancioglu, who’s gotten the party to embrace a communications strategy of “Radical Love,” stressing inclusive language in a political climate usually marked by divisiveness.

Erdogan, whose political success relies on division and antagonism, has taken note of the party’s inroads under Kaftancioglu’s guidance and is ratcheting up his offensive. “Just as Kaftancioglu’s approach turns many people off, it also caters to others who previously may have felt excluded, such as younger people, leftists, liberals, and religious and ethnic minorities,” Ashdown writes.


5. Turkey’s Generation Z Turns Against Erdogan

by Gonul Tol and Ayca Alemdaroglu, July 15

That expanded electorate could spell Erdogan’s demise, as Turkey’s youth—half the population is under 32—grow frustrated with the only leader they have ever known. Generation Z “have watched [Erdogan] morph from a dynamic leader building a more democratic, prosperous, and Western-oriented Turkey to an exhausted autocrat struggling to govern,” Tol and Alemdaroglu write. 

Allison Meakem is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem

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