The demise of the once-powerful Ottoman Empire resulted in Turkey being known as the “sick man” of Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But while the Ottomans may not have been able to continue conquering Europe, they still maintained their beachhead in Europe by controlling the Bosporus Strait. That choke point, controlling access to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean and vice versa, remains a vital strategic position.
Under President Erdogan, the Turkish government is attempting to reclaim its long-lost prestige and grow to a height of power not seen in Turkey for centuries. Erdogan sees himself as a neo-Ottoman ruler, determined to bring Turkey back as a world power. His relationships with Russia and the United States, and playing the two off each other, are key to his aspirations. But there’s one thing that major world powers have that yet eludes him: nuclear weapons.
Erdogan recently stated that he is exploring the possibility of Turkey developing nuclear weapons. After all, if Iran, North Korea, India, and Pakistan can develop them, why shouldn’t Turkey? Turkey is already home to nuclear weapons, but those are American bombs stored at the Incirlik air base. The last thing Erdogan wants is to remain beholden to the United States, particularly as he believes the US was behind the coup attempt in 2016 that sought to oust him.
Erdogan’s renewed push for independence is causing fits for American policymakers, particularly as Turkey remains at least nominally a member in good standing of NATO. From Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 surface to air missiles, to Turkey’s move to attack Kurdish militias in Syria, to Turkish drilling off the coast of Cyprus, Erdogan is consistently spitting in the face of American and European allies. Developing nuclear weapons would only heighten the aggravation and could lead to even further strains between Turkey and its erstwhile international partners.