Over the past several months, the heightening standoff between the U.S. and Turkish governments concerning the Russian S-400 missile system and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has gained a new intensity. On July 19, the United States informed Ankara that it was suspending delivery of the F-35 multi-purpose fighter aircraft following the arrival in Turkey of the first Russian S-400s. Will Turkey and the United States be able to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise to ease the escalating tensions between the two NATO allies?
The two-pronged threats of retaliation by the U.S.(i.e. CAATSA sanctions and an embargo of F-35 procurement) to punish Turkey in the event of its acceptance of delivery of the S-400 are understandably quite dramatic on their own. But when you apply a specific historical lens to analyze the current situation more deeply (i.e. a specific historical episode that occurred on the eve of World War I—more details below), the current scenario takes on even greater potential significance. U.S. actors in particular should be sensitive to this historical dimension because, due to historical memory, this additional dimension could amplify negative Turkish reactions if the U.S. does indeed follow through with its threats. This in turn could lead to a situation wherein damage to Turkey—U.S. relations could happen in unpredictable ways.
Dreadnoughts paid... but not delivered
The specific historical episode in question dates back to 1914. In that time frame, the Ottoman Empire had contracted with British shipyards to build two “state of the art” modern dreadnought warships. These warships, respectively named the Sultân Osmân I and the Reşadiye, were supposed to be integrated into the Ottoman fleet and they were intended to be the centerpiece of a modernized Ottoman Navy. In order to pay for the enormous costs associated with the construction of these two warships, the Ottoman government launched a public fundraising effort in which Ottoman citizens were invited to donate money to finance production. As can be expected, the total costs for building such high-tech weapon systems for that time period was enormous. The Ottoman government paid in full the required amount for construction and the 2 August 1914 was set as the date for when the Sultân Osmân I and the Reşadiye were supposed to be handed over to Ottoman control.
Unfortunately for the Ottomans, the June 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand launched into motion the series of events that soon led to the outbreak of World War I. On the date that had been set for the Ottomans to take control of the two dreadnoughts, 2 August 2014, the Ottoman Empire was not engaged in any active hostilities against the powers involved in the burgeoning war. Yet, literally less than one hour before the ceremony on 2 August, when Ottoman Captain Raouf Bey was supposed to take delivery, he was informed that the British government, on the orders of Winston Churchill who was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, had decided to seize the two warships. Adding insult to injury, the Ottoman government was informed that Britain would subsequently pay reparations for the seizure at a time of its choosing. Ultimately, however, the Ottoman Empire’s entering the war on the side of Germany destroyed any chance of this ever occurring.
For British national security
The quick chain of events happening in late 1914 was quite complex and fast paced, involving various powers furiously negotiating with one another behind the scenes in efforts to enhance their strategic security interests. The decision by the British government to seize the Sultân Osmâné I and the Reşadiye was logical from a British “realpolitik” perspective, especially in late 1914. The British government was highly concerned about impending war with Germany, and, furthermore, the British were aware of the Ottoman Empire’s increasing relations with Germany at that time. Churchill, in his own words, took the initiative to requisition the Sultân Osmân I and the Reşadiye for the sake of British national security:
On July 27 a secret defensive and offensive alliance between Germany and Turkey against Russia was proposed by Turkey, accepted forthwith by Germany, and signed on August 2. The mobilization of the Turkish Army was ordered on July 31. But now came a surprise, England suddenly assumed an attitude of definite resistance to Germany. The British fleets had put to sea in battle order. On July 28, I requisitioned both the Turkish dreadnoughts for the Royal Navy. I took this action solely for British Naval purposes. The addition of the two Turkish dreadnoughts to the British Fleet seemed vital to national safety.
Churchill, Winston. The World Crisis, 1911 – 1918. Free Press, 1931. P. 276
While the seizure of the two warships may have been the logical and rational choice for the British, from the point of view of the Ottoman public opinion, this action was understandably viewed as an act of perfidy. From the perspective of the Ottomans, they had, in good faith, upheld their promise to pay in full for construction of the two dreadnoughts, yet at the last possible moment, they were denied delivery of what they had paid for. Some scholars have argued that this British action helped to sway Ottoman public opinion against Britain and that it facilitated the Ottoman public’s acceptance of allying with Germany in World War I.
Russian S-400 against American F-35
With this World War I era historical context in mind, we now can fast forward to 2019 — and we find ourselves confronted with a situation which, while a different context, nonetheless bears some similar historical echoes. Turkey has been an official partner in the development of the F-35 since 2002 and it intends to purchase many F-35s as part of an initiative to update its airforce with state of the art equipment. To date, Turkey has invested millions of U.S. dollars in the development of the F-35 and currently intends to eventually invest several billion U.S. dollars into purchases of the F-35.
As is well known, the United States is alarmed by Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system because from its optic, an operational S-400 positioned in Turkey could potentially be used to track F-35s in flight and could collect data on possible weaknesses of the jet fighter. The United States is concerned that this data could potentially somehow become known to Russia, hence threatening U.S. national security interests.
Given that Turkey has been a partner in development of the F-35 since 2002, coupled with the fact that it has already invested significant capital in this project and is a NATO ally of the United States, it would be understandable for Turkish public opinion to be upset by the U.S. denial of F-35 procurement. A reasonable Turkish point of view could assess that Turkey is currently engaged, in a long-standing commitment as a partner, to contribute resources towards development of the F-35 project. Observing the United States threatening to deny the fruits of this cooperative partnership to Turkey is bound to hae left a sour taste in the mouths of many Turks and could lead to historical flashbacks to the seizure of the Sultân Osmân I and the Reşadiye. Historical memory is an important factor and to this day the British actions in 1914 are remembered as an affront to Turkey. Hopefully, in the near future, political actors in Turkey and the United States will be able to strike a mutually acceptable compromise that provides a solution and avoids the potential for inflicting unpredictable damage to Turkey-U.S. relations.