Recently, a top Russian diplomat stated that Turkey cannot be a part of the Shanghai Economic Cooperation and NATO at the same time. This statement refueled the well-known debate regarding whether or not Turkey should conclude its 70-years-old partnership with NATO.
Whether or not Turkey can establish its own national security without NATO has no straightforward answer. Some argue that Turkey should continue to build and test missiles, and eventually become an independent nuclear power. It is however one thing to be able to build a nuclear-capable arsenal, and another to discuss the economic consequences of doing so. In this brief, I will discuss the latter.
To understand what Turkey still gets out of NATO, a discussion of asymmetric alliances is crucial. Just like any alliance form, asymmetric alliances represent a voluntary but costly contract: countries with different military capabilities receive different security benefits. Minor powers enjoy the protection of a major power but sacrifice their foreign policy freedom. Major powers expand their global influence but have to undergo a major defense burden to protect minor powers.
NATO grants Turkey major security benefits, the most important of which is nuclear deterrence. As part of the NATO’s nuclear weapons sharing program, Turkey is still estimated to possess 20 nuclear warheads at the Incirlik Base. In return, however, Turkey is expected to toe its foreign policy agenda with the West. Put it differently, until now, thanks to NATO, Turkey avoided spending billions of dollars to develop its own nuclear arsenal but enjoyed the protection of the most sophisticated nuclear weapons on earth. The cost of this contract was its foreign policy freedom.
The rightful question is whether Turkey actually needs the protection of nuclear weapons. Empirical research clearly establishes that countries with nuclear weapons are highly unlikely to be targeted in wars. In fact, several pundits argue that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine on 2/24/2022 if the latter did not give up its nukes in 1996. Indeed, Russia eventually learned about Ukraine’s defensive capabilities – and apparently gave up on invading Kiew. Yet, with nuclear weapons, this fatal learning would likely not have taken place. In other words, the advantage of nuclear weapons is to intimidate foreign invasive ambitions before war even starts.
Why does Turkey not leave NATO and build its own nuclear weapons then? Contractor companies like Roketsan and Aselsan build promising short-range ballistic as well as cruise missiles. Yet, it is not really a question of know-how, but a matter of simple economics. Attempts to develop a nuclear arsenal has direct and indirect expenses that are hard to accommodate if Turkey seeks to maintain its economic strength, and political stability.
Above all, Turkey is a signatory of the NPT. Therefore, it cannot produce nuclear weapons from scratch under the NPT terms. Countries like Iran and North Korea are or were signatories of NPT but violated their terms. Nowadays, the economic troubles these countries suffer because of NPT-related sanctions are insurmountable. In fact, Pakistan did not even sign the NPT, but its nuclear ambitions attracted sanctions, and its economy suffered dearly. Thus, Turkey’s attempts to build a nuclear-capable arsenal on its own will likely end up with massive sanctions.
What if Turkey nevertheless builds its nuclear arsenal? Will the security benefits and the supposed foreign policy independence be worth all the expenses? Succeeding at detonating a nuclear warhead, and then test-launching a nuclear-capable missile is not enough to attain nuclear deterrence. Even nuclear-capable countries continue to expand their nuclear force structure, and build not only surface based, but also air and naval-based delivery systems. For example, despite successfully detonating a nuke in 2006, North Korea is still spending billions on its nuclear program. Nowadays, as a coastal country, it is developing a naval-based nuclear arsenal. Thus, maintaining an independent nuclear arsenal is a decades-long struggle, the expense of which is manifested beyond billions of dollars.
Spending billions of dollars, and receiving severe sanctions for a nuclear arsenal will almost certainly drain Turkey’s resources, and overshadow its other fiscal responsibilities. North Korea, Pakistan, and Iran stand as cautionary cases in that regard. This is because governments’ resources are finite. As resources are allocated for a policy such as developing a nuclear arsenal, this comes at the expense of alternative policies that could have been implemented.
There are two vital policy directions in Turkish politics that would likely have been fiscally crowded out by a nuclear agenda. The first is economic redistribution. As the Cold War Europe indicates, several countries were capable of building successful welfare states even when their survival was threatened by thousands of Soviet armored divisions and nukes. These countries did not have to incur incomprehensible sums to maintain a global nuclear defense network. The USA did so, in return for the Europe’s cooperation in foreign affairs. Therefore, Turkey at least has the option of investing in a welfare state and maintain its redistributive politics if its nuclear defense is handled by NATO.
Arguably, Turkey had serious security concerns to address in its region instead of crafting an effective welfare state. Yet, research implies that Turkey would not have been able to pro-actively tackle with its problems overseas had it not enjoy NATO’s alliance. This is because Turkey, as a junior partner in NATO, has less to worry about establishing its own security and can allocate resources to send foreign aid or to deploy troops abroad. If funds go to nuclear armament, then such proactive approaches are fiscally difficult to maintain – unless Turkish economic capacity grows to the level of the USA.
These statistical findings imply that the so-called Neo-Ottomanism would not have been possible absent the nuclear-based protection that NATO granted Turkey. Thus, Turkey’s exit from NATO, and attempts to build its own arsenal would likely bring an end to Turkish overseas incursions once and for all.
There also would be greater internal security problems for Turkey due to attempting to establish its own nuclear arsenal. Above all, sanctions would likely increase human rights violations by the central authority – as Dursun Peksen’s empirical research indicates. With increased authoritarianism, given Turkey’s economic, geographical and ethnic setup, it would not be farfetched to predict greater ensuing social dissent and violence.
Then, the final question to address under these circumstances is whether Turkey would find alternative alliances to make up for the security loss caused by leaving NATO. Indeed, Russia has the nuclear weapons that intimidate the West. Yet, whether Russians will use these weapons to protect Turkey is not clear.
The successful deterrence of military alliances depends on how likely its members are to come to each other’s aid in times of war. If the alliance is not credible, the enemy can be encouraged to attack. Worse, the uncertain alliance may have to make strong concessions against the designated enemy to avoid fighting. Credible alliances take time to establish with committed peacetime military cooperation activities. Such alliances are contractually sound, and successfully convey that partners will help each other in times of war.
Turkish armed forces and NATO share their military doctrine and enjoyed a 70-year-long peacetime military cooperation process. Accordingly, Turkey and Russia – or the Shanghai Organization would take years to credibly convey that any western ambitions over Turkey will certainly be retaliated with Russian or Chinese nukes. In the meantime, Turkey would still have to make concessions to major powers until its new alliances establish credibility.
Overall, mounting statistical research suggests that Turkey is better off maintaining the status quo in its nuclear defense agenda. As long as NATO’s nukes protect Turkey, the latter can maintain a proactive foreign policy agenda, a redistributive system, and relative peace at home. Without NATO’s nukes, either Turkey has to toe with the foreign policy preferences of more authoritarian states through unreliable alliances, or to suffer insurmountable consequences of building its own nuclear arsenal.