Why Would Turkey Need Nuclear Weapons?
Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested that Turkey might have an interest in developing nuclear weapons, saying that it is unacceptable that Turkey can’t have them. The comments came after Turkey’s status as a NATO nuclear-sharing member quickly came into question following a likely deliberate incident in early October where Turkish soldiers shelled an American military position. Turkey doesn’t currently face some of the perceived challenges that nations cite when pursuing nuclear weapons, so it’s worth examining just what reasons it might have.
For larger countries like the United States and Russia, current nuclear weapons’ postures derive from the Cold War where the most militarily advanced nations and their satellite of allies and client states stood diametrically opposed to each other. Nuclear weapons served as force multipliers and deterrents against invasion or attack. France and the United Kingdom likewise derive their weapons from this era as well. Smaller countries, such as Israel, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and Libya have achieved or pursued nuclear weapons to shore up their security against perceived existential threats in increasingly unstable regions and deter invasion from regional or western enemies. North Korea, Libya, and Iran specifically have developed or attempted to develop arsenals as a direct response to threats they perceived coming from the United States.
Turkey doesn’t fit neatly into any of these situations. Unlike the countries listed above, it isn’t under risk of invasion or attack from regional foes, and realistically doesn’t count many direct enemies so capable among its neighbors. There’s always risk of future conflict with Greece in Cyprus, or with Armenia, but neither is an existential threat to Turkey itself. What Turkey perceives and acts on as the greatest threat to itself is actually a stateless people—the Kurds of Syria, Iran, and Iraq. Nuclear weapons haven proven to be an insufficient deterrent to attacks by stateless or transnational groups. Any offensive use of a nuclear weapon in this situation would inevitably not just turn Turkey into an international pariah but also provoke severe responses from the affected countries.
This is all just as well since Turkey likely isn’t really in the market for nuclear weapons. According to Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “The Turkish president was not actually signaling an imminent decision to develop nuclear weapons” but wants more equitable treatment from the west. This fits more neatly into the lack of utility nuclear weapons have for Turkey other than prestige.
As a member of NATO, Turkey falls explicitly under the nuclear umbrella of the United States. This should, in theory, preclude a large-scale invasion from a country such as Russia. Yet even here, Russia doesn’t regard Turkey with the same malign intent as it does the United States. As a member of NATO and an enemy of Armenia, Turkey does stand in the way of some of Russia’s geopolitical goals, but the two countries’ coordination in Syria as well as the recent sale of the Russian S-400 missile defense system to Turkey shows that Turkey regards its NATO partnership as more fluid than perhaps its other allies would like. That said, Russia would have severe misgivings about an independently nuclear country, one ostensibly allied with the United States, at its doorstep.
Prestige, then, is likely the most practical reason for Turkey to possess nuclear weapons. It would confer on Erdogan the ‘big player’ status he craves, in his mind preventing Turkey from being wedged in the middle of the West, the Middle East, and Russia. Turkey has never fit neatly into the Middle East or the Western NATO countries. So, if it continues moving into a more precarious position between the nuclear superpowers this could give Erdogan the edge he wants to balance such a difficult position. Nuclear weapons, however, don’t automatically improve a country’s bargaining power, something North Korea is finding out the hard way. Other nuclear states have utilized their roles in international organizations to far greater effect than simply waving nuclear weapons around. Further, Turkey is a ratified member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Backing out of those treaties in pursuit of nuclear weapons would have severe repercussions, serving only to isolate Turkey rather than to give it greater standing.
Given the road already dangerous road Turkey is traveling—spurning NATO and the United States—that isolation would only be more crippling. Hopefully that interest doesn’t turn into reality.