In the face of Beijing’s aggressive behavior in the South and East China Seas and Moscow’s in Eastern Europe, balance of threat argues that U.S. allies should automatically counterbalance these states by closing ranks behind Washington. However, recent events have cast doubt on this approach: two of Washington’s formal allies, the Philippines and Turkey, have openly threatened to break their defensive alliance with the United States and realign with China and Russia. Following his election as President of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte publicly announced his breakup with Washington and his country’s strategic realignment with China. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for his part, warned the White House in an op-ed published in the New York Times in 2018 that he had strategic alternatives to NATO. He said their partnership could be at risk and Ankara could find new allies if Washington did not prove more sensitive to Turkey’s interests.
Why have Manila and Ankara questioned their formal alliance at the risk of alienating Washington? Such public threats are relatively rare events that constitute foreign policy anomaly. Nevertheless, They require special attention, given the growing uncertainty surrounding US global leadership and the increasing polycentricity of the international system, in which China and Russia play an increasing role.
Upon closer inspection, Duterte and Erdogan have exercised strategic blackmail to extract concessions from Washington. As Stephen Walt points out, “a blackmailer can threaten to do something that its patron opposes, in the hopes of persuading the patron to give it something in exchange for acceding to the patron’s preferences”. States usually use strategic blackmail when dissatisfied with their position in the international system and want to acquire more recognition. They also seek gains, such as reassurance of commitment and greater material support from their allies. As we will see thereafter, grievances against Washington, fear of abandonment, and populism help explain why Manila and Ankara resorted to strategic blackmail. These factors led them to use great power competition to blackmail Washington to obtain concessions on security and defense.
Duterte Blackmails Washington by Playing the Chinese Card
When Rodrigo Duterte became President in May 2016, the Philippines abandonedbalancing against China to pursue a partnership with it. This repositioning did not constitute a break away from Washington but expressed the Philippines leader’s desire to win Beijing’s confidence. In particular, he wanted loans and economic aid from China.
Relations with Washington, however, took a dramatic turn during the fall. During his first visit to China in October 2016, President Duterte said: “America has lost. […] I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow, and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him there are three of us against the world: China, the Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.” Multiple announcements followed his statement, going against the Philippines’ defence relationship with the United States. Duterte canceled several joint military exercises and banned the U.S. military from building an arms depot and using its military bases to launch deterrence operations against China. He also threatened to terminate an agreement signed in 1999 that allowed U.S. troops to use the country’s military bases.
How can we explain this sudden shift? The conjunction of Duterte’s perceptions and leadership style is critical to understanding this decision. Rodrigo Duterte had negative perceptions of the United States. For him and many Filipinos, the remaining U.S. military presence in the country – even though the country gained independence in 1946 – is an expression of neocolonialism. This perception led him to speak out in favor of an independent foreign policy.
But, mainly, it is the Obama administration’s criticism of extrajudicial executions and human rights abuses committed by his administration as part of the war on drugs that triggered President Duterte’s public distrust. Not only did this criticism upset him, but the Obama administration canceled the delivery of a shipment of weapons and suspended the renewal of a $400 million development aid program in response to those violations. He responded, “Instead of helping us, the first to hit was the State Department […] So you can go to hell, Mr. Obama, you can go to hell.” He added: “Who does [Obama] think he is? I am no American puppet. I am the President of a sovereign country, and I am not answerable to anyone except the Filipino people.” From that moment on, President Duterte’s approach was decidedly hostile to the United States.
Duterte also firmly believes that the U.S. would eventually abandon his country’s defence, a perception that fueled his resentment. The issue of abandonment is closely linked to the maritime conflict with China. In July 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a decision favouring the Philippines’ claims. This decision was a significant victory for the Philippine government. However, Duterte chose to downplay it to avoid increasing tensions with China. This reaction showed that he seriously doubted Washington’s willingness to support its army in the event of a confrontation with Beijing. A year before he ran for President, the Philippine leader was already expressing disappointment over Washington’s inaction in the South China Sea. He said, “If America cared, it would have sent its aircraft carriers and missile frigates the moment China started reclaiming land in contested territory, but no such thing happened.” For him, it was clear that “America would never die for us [the Philippines].” The 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States stipulated that Washington would defend the Philippines in the event of an attack. Still, it remained ambiguous regarding the defence of disputed islands. On several occasions, representatives of the U.S. executive branch had refused to clarify this point. As a result, President Duterte chose to cancel joint patrols with Washington in the China Sea, as he believed they only provoked Beijing without guaranteeing U.S. support.
Thus, Manila hoped that the United States would make the following concessions: 1. Stop interfering in the country’s domestic affairs, including through coercive measures. 2. Openly commit to defending the Philippines in the event of a confrontation with China over disputed maritime areas. President Duterte’s negative perceptions of Washington probably would not have led him to publicly challenge the White House if his leadership style were not so rooted in populism. Duterte was elected in 2016 and promised to return sovereignty to the people, allegedly usurped by corrupt elites. Then he channeled the frustration of many Filipinos with what he perceived as U.S. imperialism. By criticizing his war on drugs, the White House provoked an aggressive and disproportionate response that appealed to his activist base.
Duterte’s strategic blackmail was ultimately beneficial to his regime. As relations between Beijing and Manila intensified in 2016 and 2017, Washington increased its aid to the country by making its most significant contribution in nearly 20 years. Then, the Trump administration tried to revive the relationship by being more conciliatory. The U.S. president praised Duterte’s war on drugs, saying he was doing an “unbelievable job.” Then, during his visit to Manila in 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reassured the Philippine government of Washington’s commitment to defend the islands claimed by Manila in the South China Sea. In particular, he stressed that “any armed attack on Philippine forces, aircraft or public vessels in the South China Sea would trigger mutual defense obligations under Article IV of our Mutual Defense Treaty.” Such a clear commitment at a time when China was building artificial islands in the disputed territory was a first.
As he played the Chinese card without ever carrying out his threat to sever ties with Washington, Duterte reminded the United States of his country’s strategic value. He ultimately obtained the desired concessions by taking the calculated risk of alienating his only official ally. He increased his country’s weight with the United States while joining China’s Belt and Road Initiative and benefiting from Beijing’s economic aid. Since the alleged announcement of its realignment with China, Manila has fully restored its defense relationship with the United States, including multiple defense agreements and joint military exercises.
Erdogan Blackmails Washington by Playing the Russian Card
In 2014, Turkey came to regard Kurdish militias in Syria as the most imminent threat to its territorial integrity. The problem is that Kurdish forces in Syria became U.S. partners after the capture of Kobane by Daesh. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter described the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia, as one of Syria’s most effective anti-ISIS ground forces. Erdogan saw this association as a betrayal from the United States, and he repeatedly asked Washington to cease its support to the YPG, in vain. The Turkish President considered that the United States did not take the Kurdish problem seriously, a recurring observation since the 1990s, and that Washington did not pay sufficient attention to Turkey’s interests. These factors contributed to the deterioration of relations between Ankara and Washington.
President Erdogan also suspected that the United States orchestrated the attempted coup against his regime in 2016 or, at least, oversaw its execution. This suspicion poisoned the relationship between the two countries and affected their bond of trust. Influential members of the Turkish government, including Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, even publicly accusing the U.S. of being behind the failed coup. Turkey also accuseed the Obama administration of supporting Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, whom Ankara believed guided the coup attempt.
Then, the issue of missile defense reinforced mistrust and increased grievances against Washington. Ankara was considering buying Patriot missiles from its NATO allies to meet its security needs caused by the Syrian conflict. In return, Turkey was demanding a technology transfer, which the Obama administration and NATO refused because of human rights violations and Erdogan’s authoritarian drift. In response, Turkey accused Washington and NATO of imposing an arms embargo.
As for the Philippine government, the Erdogan regime’s negative perceptions of the United States – not least because it conditioned its military support on complying with democratic norms – and Washington’s sense of abandonment on the Kurdish issue would not have caused Erdogan’s rebellion if it wasn’t for his populist leadership style. Over the years, Erdogan consolidated its anti-elite and anti-pluralist stance. After the 2016 coup attempt, Erdogan used the state of emergency to crush opposition movements and arrest journalists, presented as enemies of the people, thus consolidating his grip on power.
Erdogan’s populism and multiple grievances against Washington led the Turkish government to send several hostile signals to its NATO allies. First, in 2017, with the signing of the Astana agreement, Erdogan reached a strategic agreement with Russia and Iran on creating ceasefire zones in Syria. By becoming Moscow and Tehran’s partner, Erdogan believed he could better secure his border with Syria to eradicate the Kurdish threat and thus obtain greater political influence in resolving the Syrian crisis. At the same time, he was threatening to close Incirlik Air Base, which hosts U.S. nuclear weapons, as well as the Kurecik radar station, which NATO mainly operates. Erdogan was also leading the battle at the United Nations against the anti-Iranian and pro-Israel initiatives of the United States. Finally, Turkey became the first NATO member to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as a ‘dialogue partner.’ Although it currently does not weigh in the decision-making process within the organization, its participation allows it to highlight its common destiny with Asian countries.
In addition, tensions over the transfer of missile defence technology have contributed to Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia. Meanwhile, while the Obama administration took time to react to the attempted coup in Ankara, Russian President Vladimir Putin has given his unconditional support to Erdogan and his government. Three weeks later, the Turkish leader was in Moscow, and Putin expressed his interest in selling him his S-400 system. In early 2017, Turkey’s defense minister announced the $2.5 billion purchase of the S-400, as an autonomous weapon without interoperability with NATO. Moscow and Ankara finally concluded the agreement in September 2017. However, the fact that the S-400 contract did not include a technology transfer from Russia to Turkey indicated that this purchase was more of a political act than a strategic decision.
As if that were not enough, President Erdogan’s refusal to release an imprisoned American pastor, Andrew Brunson, despite the Trump administration’s insistent request, added insult to injury. Ankara claimed that the pastor was involved in the 2016 coup attempt, which the White House denied. In response, Trump passed sanctions against two Turkish ministers and imposed tariffs on Turkey’s aluminum and steel exports, contributing to the weakening of the Turkish lira.
This litany of grievances led President Erdogan to publicly express his frustrations with his American ally and plead for concessions. In the New York Times in the summer of 2018, Erdogan published a column in which he wrote:
The United States has repeatedly and consistently failed to understand and respect the Turkish people’s concerns. And in recent years, our partnership has been tested by disagreements. […] Unless the United States starts respecting Turkey’s sovereignty and proves that it understands the dangers that our nation faces, our partnership could be in jeopardy. […] Before it is too late, Washington must give up the misguided notion that our relationship can be asymmetrical and come to terms with the fact that Turkey has alternatives. Failure to reverse this trend of unilateralism and disrespect will require us to start looking for new friends and allies.
This threat does not explicitly mention Russia, but it was indeed suggested, not least because of the purchase of the S-400 a year earlier. The Erdogan regime hoped the U.S. would make the following concessions: 1. To stop supporting Kurdish militias in Syria. 2. To provide military support to protect Turkey’s territorial integrity from the Kurdish threat. However, the Trump administration took Erdogan’s warning lightly since it considered that Turkey had no credible alternative to replace NATO. Whatever Erdogan says, NATO provides security guarantees to Turkey and allows it to project its influence into the Euro-Atlantic area. Even the Russians did not believe Ankara’s threat to Washington.
Unlike the Philippine case, Erdogan’s blackmail only partially achieved its objectives. Ankara got guarantees from the United States that it would stop directly supporting the Syrian Kurdish militias, which it did. However, Washington maintained a firm stance towards Ankara. The White House has been maintaining pressure on Ankara through economic sanctions and trade tariffs to force Erdogan to release American pastor Andrew Brunson. This pressure finally forced Ankara to release the pastor two months after Erdogan’s op-ed in the New York Times. Then, as Turkish forces fought militias in northern Syria in response to the U.S. withdrawal, President Trump threatened the Erdogan regime with retaliation if the invasion went too far into Syrian territory. Trump’s official letter to his Turkish counterpart was unequivocal: “You don’t want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy — and I will. I’ve already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson.”
Moreover, Turkey’s diversification strategy has been proving rather costly. When the Russian S-400 missiles were delivered in the summer of 2019, the Trump administration withdrew Turkey from the F-35 fighter program. By 2020, most Turkish companies that were part of the F-35 supply chain had lost their contracts. Ankara has also been hit by the CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) for its S-400 purchase. In sum, Ankara’s strategic blackmail has generated mixed results. Since then, without having left NATO, Turkey has chosen to increase its autonomy and strategic diversification.
This analysis explored the conditions under which formal U.S. allies come to threaten to break their alliance or diversify their strategic relationship. It argued that this behavior reveals strategic blackmail and shows that grievances, fear of abandonment, and populism are the main factors that led Manila and Ankara to resort to blackmail to extract concessions from Washington on security and defense issues.
If the strategic blackmail has been successful in the case of the Philippines, the results were mixed in the case of Turkey. It seems that Duterte’s threat was so sudden and vehement that Washington struggled to decode its real intentions. In the context of China representing a credible strategic alternative for the Philippines, the U.S. offered additional support to Duterte to avoid a relative strategic loss to Beijing. In the case of Turkey, on the other hand, Washington seems to have taken the threat less seriously, since, in its eyes, Russia and Iran did not represent a credible strategic alternative to NATO.
Finally, the analysis shows that the White House has criticized the Duterte and Erdogan regimes for violating human rights and obstructing democracy. As a result, they both have suffered economic and military sanctions from the United States. This coercive approach on Washington’s end has fueled both their strategic blackmails. In a context of great power rivalries likely to intensify in the coming years, this raises a dilemma for the United States: should it continue to hold its allies accountable for their human rights abuses at the cost of tensions, strategic blackmail, and rupture or, on the contrary, should it turn a blind eye to their misdeeds to maintain stable relations in an uncertain international context?