Beyond just bolstering Türkiye’s military strength, the defense industry functions as a novel creator of national identity, shaping new norms of socialization and reshaping the dynamics of political rivalry.
In his addresses on the occasion of the Aug. 30 Victory Day, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan frequently underscored the imperative of bolstering Türkiye’s military prowess, emphasizing that this stance is not a mere option but a necessity. He avered: “Our bitter experiences have taught us that a robust Türkiye hinges on a strong military. Enhancing the deterrent capabilities of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) is not a choice; it’s a necessity for our nation.” While historically, the discourse “strong army, strong Türkiye” was largely employed within the context of Kemalist military narrative to establish the TSK’s supremacy over Turkish politics and reinforce its superior position over political matters, Erdoğan reinterprets it as a pivotal component of a more expansive political narrative.
The mantra of “strong army, strong Türkiye” assumes the role of a strategic metanarrative within President Erdoğan’s political discourse. It enables Erdoğan to fortify a potent and deterrent military to counteract security threats posed by Türkiye’s strategic milieu and to reposition the TSK by metamorphosing its erstwhile antidemocratic Kemalist narrative. Against this backdrop, pivotal shifts in Turkish politics have unfolded, carrying significant import. These include the failed coup attempt, the deepening and expansion of Türkiye’s defense industry, and overhauling the TSK’s operational capacity in extraterritorial domains.
From ‘Turkey’ to ‘Türkiye’
The aftermath of the thwarted coup endeavor resulted in a transformative pivot for the TSK, imbuing it with a primary mission. Erdoğan’s revolutionary policies about civil-military relations restructured the TSK into a force exuding military efficacy and deterrence. Türkiye’s ascent within the defense industry domain has propelled it into the ranks of technological powerhouses, while the military’s active participation in conflict zones – ranging from Syria, Iraq and Libya to Azerbaijan’s Karabakh – has bestowed upon Türkiye the mantle of an influential military actor. Erdoğan’s renewed adherence to the “strong army, strong Türkiye” rhetoric constitutes not a mere echo of the Kemalist discourse but rather a dynamic endeavor to redefine Türkiye’s strategic identity. This redirection is perhaps epitomized by the shift from the name “Turkey” to “Türkiye.”
The redefinition of Türkiye’s strategic identity is multifaceted, yet the developments within the defense industry assume a pivotal role in this transformation. Three concurrent identity facets have emerged in terms of Türkiye’s repositioning of its strategic identity. These encompass Türkiye’s territorial identity, its maritime identity and an emerging global identity. All three are reconfiguring Türkiye’s foreign and security policies across diverse issues and regions, consequently shaping Türkiye’s domestic and international interactions. The shift in territorial identity upends Türkiye’s conventional understanding of the nation-state, while the maritime identity precipitates policy shifts encapsulated within the Blue Homeland doctrine. Simultaneously, the global identity recurses Türkiye’s strategic alignment within the international framework.
Amid these transformations, Türkiye’s defense industry is currently undergoing a metamorphosis that spans sociopolitical and strategic dimensions. From a sociopolitical perspective, the advancements within the defense industry are revamping the territorial narrative that underpinned traditional nationalism, yielding a novel variant – techno-nationalism. This doesn’t entail the relegation of territorial-based nationalism; instead, it underscores the hybrid nature of nationalism, wherein technology takes center stage. Erdoğan’s extension of the perception of indigenous and national defense industries to encompass the entire political landscape underscores the strategic impact of these defense industry achievements.
Consequently, the defense industry fortifies Türkiye’s technological sovereignty and paves the way for a fresh ecosystem of socialization, thereby nurturing a novel Turkish state identity and political sphere. This was notably evident during the 2023 presidential elections, where the pivotal role of the defense industry was manifest. Erdoğan strategically incorporated projects like the TCG Anadolu ship, the KAAN national fighter jet and the Bayraktar Kızılelma unmanned fighter jet into his electoral campaign. In contrast, the opposition’s ambivalent and critical stance toward these projects positioned Erdoğan favorably in the eyes of his constituency. Moreover, the opposition’s negative discourse, especially concerning the defense industry, marginalized their standing among the public. Secondly, the pivotal role played by the TB2 Bayraktar drone across theaters like Syria, Libya, Iraq, Karabakh and Ukraine not only cemented Türkiye’s image as a drone-enabled nation on the global stage but also expanded its leeway in foreign policy maneuvering. Consequently, the defense industry has become a cornerstone of political contention within Turkish politics and a discourse-driven criterion for distinguishing between national and non-national stances. Notably, President Erdoğan wields a discursive upper hand and political leverage over his domestic rivals, given his role as the primary architect behind the ascent of Türkiye’s defense industry.
Defense industry: Integral pillar of strategic autonomy
However, the defense industry’s impact isn’t confined to triggering new socialization norms and state identities. It is an integral pillar of Türkiye’s strategic autonomy, a paradigm encompassing political, diplomatic, economic and military dimensions, which govern Türkiye’s foreign policy trajectory and directly shape its interactions and undertakings in the international arena. A fortified strategic autonomy empowers Türkiye to effectively assume its desired global role while concurrently affording it the liberty to chart independent foreign policy courses. This becomes particularly salient in Türkiye’s relations with Western nations.
Furthermore, the diversification of Türkiye’s defense industry portfolio translates into its emergence as a legitimate player in the global defense market, concurrently affording it a newfound diplomatic instrument hitherto unavailable. This contrasts the era when Türkiye’s foreign policy orientation was essentially molded by defense-industry-related diplomatic dependencies. Now, Türkiye enjoys enhanced maneuvering latitude in foreign policy courtesy of defense-industrial diplomacy. Erdoğan’s proclamation on Victory Day – “we will be in a position to sell air defense systems to those who do not provide us with air defense systems” – epitomizes the symbiotic interplay between the defense industry and diplomacy.
In sum, the defense industry serves as more than a mere propeller of Türkiye’s military might or a vehicle for constructing a deterrent state; it acts as a new architect of state identity, engendering fresh socialization norms and reconfiguring the landscape of political competition. Thus, President Erdoğan’s “strong army, strong Türkiye” catchphrase transcends historical echoes, emblematic of the holistic realization of Erdoğan-type politics.