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Sovereignty Strikes Back: Turkey’s Purge and International Silence


On July 15th, the world saw the consequences of the long-lasting struggle between religious forces and the secular military contending for control of the Turkish state. In the aftermath of the failed coup, the government in Ankara reacted with a series of purges unseen in Turkey’s recent history. Initially limited to the military, the punitive measures have now reached all corners of Turkish society. So far, more than 18,000 people have been reported detained, with another 60,000 suspended from office. Judges, journalists, academics, and civil servants have been among the victims of what some describe as the “biggest witch-hunt in the history of the [Turkish] republic.”

But the upheaval has not only highlighted the fragility of Turkey’s democracy; it has also revealed how little liberal democratic countries can interfere. The declaration of the state of emergency and the escalating number of arrests and suspensions has been deplored by civil society groups across the world. Outraged academics have denounced the arrests and suspensions of their peers. Journalists have decried the fate their Turkish confreres are facing. Many expected a firm condemnation of the illiberal actions the Erdogan administration orchestrated in the aftermath of the failed coup by their governments.

Much to their disappointment, most political leaders have limited their initial comments to carefully worded, deliberately vague reminders on the importance of the rule of law and the right of due process for the culprits of the coup. The gap between the normative expectations of how much foreign governments should be opposing the Erdogan administration versus what external actors actually can achieve through diplomatic means leads to a situation where public opinion is more outspoken than their respective governments in criticizing the actions of another state.

Those outside Turkey who demand more proactive checks on Erdogan’s expanding power base tend to disregard the limits imposed upon political leaders by the single most important ordering principle of the international system: state sovereignty. State sovereignty continues to govern our world and explains why leaders in democratic countries have exercised cautious restraint when commenting on the recent events in Turkey. This oft-overlooked but fundamental principle has both internal and external dimensions, both of which constrain a larger international response.

Internally, sovereignty defines “the highest authority within the state”.[1] In Turkey, the constituted power and hence the national sovereignty lie with President Erdogan and the elected government, who enjoy the authority to enact punitive policies against the alleged plotters and to restore order within the boundaries of the Turkish state. Of course, sovereign power does not automatically legitimize any measure taken by a state. Under international law, violations of peremptory norms— including the prohibition of genocide, slavery and torture—transcend inculpability, making the allegations of torture in Turkey especially serious. However, even if these allegations turned out to be true, external actors could only challenge the means but not the ends of Erdogan’s retaliatory policy.

External sovereignty applies more broadly to Turkey’s rights as an independent state. It is defined as a form of recognition that guarantees a state’s existence in an anarchic international society. In simple terms, states act according to a principle of equality where “none is entitled to command; none is required to obey”.[2]

The UN Charter explicitly prohibits intervention “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state” (Art. 2.7 UN Charter) unless these matters pose a direct threat to international peace and stability. This provision mandates international actors to acknowledge the Turkish government to handle the situation at its own discretion.

Moreover, whether or not a state is pilloried for its domestic politics by the international community not only depends on the acts and violations it committed, but also on the role and position it holds in the international system. Turkey remains one of the foremost allies and strategic partners of the Western world. Be it in the fight against global terrorism, as a valuable NATO member, or as key to Europe’s migration and asylum policy, Turkey is a much need ally. Member of the Group of 20, Turkey also offers a huge consumer market for outside goods and services. These factors taken together are shielding the Turkish government from any hasty and overzealous moral condemnations of their domestic policy-making.

Lastly, any effective condemnation of the Turkish government would necessitate agreement amongst the remaining actors. History has shown that in matters of state sovereignty, the international community agrees to disagree. Already, Erdogan has reached out to Putin in an attempt to improve their bilateral relationship in case relations with the West should turn sour.

It is true that the classical definition of sovereignty with its absolute claim for sovereign equality has been increasingly challenged. In a globalized world where market economies co-exist within a complex net of interdependencies and where policies, capital, and people cross borders more easily than ever before in human history, sovereignty appears to be an anachronism from another age. Yet rather than bidding farewell to the concept as such, sovereignty should be understood as a subliminal force—always somewhere in the room, but usually covered underneath alternative ordering principles. It remains largely invisible to the eye as long as politics follow a steady path and the ship sails in calm waters. Yet, once a major crisis breaks out, sovereignty comes back in the limelight to define the rules of the game.

The storm in Turkey is taking place now. Many advocates had hoped that the successive accession rounds between Turkey and the EU would help bind the Turkish state within the European value system. However, neither long-lasting negotiations nor the fact that the EU being among Turkey’s most important trading partners has prevented the Erdogan administration from unilaterally suspending the European Convention on Human Rights and announcing the planned reintroduction of the death penalty. The principle of sovereignty, which Thomas Hobbes equated with “an artificial soul … giving life and motion to the whole body”,  provided the power to ignite nationalist feelings and undo concerted action in a blink of an eye.

If there is anything to take away from the post-coup purges in Turkey, it is the inability of the international community to effectively halt an alarming process that has not yet evolved into a full-blown tragedy. Therefore, any attempt to overcome the present crisis needs to recognize Turkey as an equal and sovereign partner and should refrain from stigmatizing President Erdogan as the villain of the Bosporus.


[1] Lake, David. 2003. “The New Sovereignty in International Relations”. International Studies Review 2003 (5): 305.

[2] Waltz, Kenneth. 1979. Theories of international politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 88.



Benedikt Erforth

Benedikt holds a PhD in International Studies from the University of Trento (Italy). He currently works as a post-doctoral fellow in the Euro-American Program at SciencesPo (France), where he teaches courses in IR, Foreign Policy Analysis, Political Science, and Comparative Constitutional Law.