Turkey as a Pivotal State

This week at MASA, we held a session on international relations, strategic studies, and intelligence studies with our guest Dr. Melih Aktaş. We focused on the particularly intriguing topic of “Pivotal States” a concept that was popularized at the end of the 20th century following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Pivotal States have geopolitical significance at the regional level, however, are not considered great powers. They are also considered to be priorities in terms of engagement for US foreign policy. Political, sociological, and economic transformations in these states are expected to impact world politics and hence they are coded as states that should be brought to the forefront of the agendas of decision makers in the USA. The concept is widely used in the fields of political risk analysis and country analysis.

Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Korea (North and South), Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Taiwan, Turkey, and Ukraine can be counted as Pivotal States. Considering the current nature of Turkey-US ties, we feel that this epithet warrants significance. Turkey still maintains its position as a target country in terms of US foreign policy, but the differences of opinion in bilateral relations have changed the normal course and momentum of this relationship. Turkey-US ties have been showing signs of fatigue for some time due to disagreements over key issues. We feel it is of paramount significance to overcome this fatigue and to build sound relations between Ankara and Washington.

Turkey’s position as a Pivotal State is still valid in terms of its regional sphere of influence, population, contributions to the NATO alliance and economic activity. This fact was heavily entertained in the US during the inception of the Arap Spring. At the time, President Erdoğan was the foreign leader that got the most phone calls from President Obama. The thrill of democratic advancement in the region, the joint position over the overhaul of static regimes, and Turkey’s increasingly strong regional political economic position had fortified the ties between Ankara and Washington. Even the differences of opinion over the invasion of Iraq had been forgotten.

This tableau naturally changed with the events that took place after the July 15 coup attempt. The differences of opinion between Turkey and the US on regional policies evolved into a chasm rather than simple divergences. US President Joe Biden is yet to visit Turkey, two years into his presidency. These trends have exacerbated with the ushering in of the post Arab Spring era, where the aforementioned static regimes have elected for nuanced shifts in economic-political sectors in lieu of radical changes resulting from popular revolts. Indeed, the poster child of the Arab Spring, Tunisia, has even regressed at this point.

Deepening differences of opinion between Turkey and the United States have thus fatigued ties. The perpetuation of this state of fatigue is a significant risk for Turkey’s foreign policy. Due to strong institutional ties between Turkey and the US a certain minimum will always exist in bilateral relations. But aiming for the “minimum” means that this relationship remains below its potential.

The development of a common regional position between Turkey and the USA will strengthen Ankara’s claims as a Pivotal State. This is particularly true as the winds of change are blowing again in the region. If Ankara can crown the recent process of bilateral normalizations with the US, this will constitute a major foreign policy victory. Turkey’s normalization vision should include relations with the US, thus ensuring Ankara’s position in the agendas of US decision makers.

Batu Coşkun hakkında 13 makale
After graduating from Bilkent University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, he completed his master's degree in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

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