ISTANBUL — The global climate summit in GlasgowTurkey’s President Recep TAYYIP Erdogan expected this to be a major moment. He was expected use the opportunity to show a new embrace for climate issues, and there are few other things he enjoys more than mixing with world leaders on an international stage.
He doesn’t like feeling forgotten. Learning that he could not have his large security detail at Glasgow — security has been an obsession since a failed coup against him in 2016 — when the American president was allowed one, seems to have enraged Mr. Erdogan enough for him to cancel his appearance abruptly.
Despite the fact that Erdogan’s recent green pivot might have made it seem self-destructive, Mr. Erdogan tried to stay at home and make his turnaround a matter of honor.
“We never allow our country’s reputation or honor to be damaged anywhere,” he said in remarks to journalists on the flight home from Europe. “One more time we showed that we can establish a fair world only with a more equitable approach.”
Erdogan is unpredictable, combative, and politically astute. He has been in power 18 years because he knows which buttons to push. He is now more politically vulnerable than ever before in his career.
As the economy struggles, the president is losing ground in the polls. Last month, the lira was at an all-time low against the dollar. His supporters are experiencing rising unemployment. The inflation rate is at almost 20 percent. Erdogan finds himself increasingly on his backside in the face a vibrant, unified opposition.
Determined to become modern Turkey’s longest-serving ruler by winning re-election in 2023, Mr. Erdogan is showing signs of growing frustration, as his usual tactics are not working and voters, especially young people eager for a change, grow restless.
“I think he is worried, and afraid of losing power, and it seems to be a plausibility, even to him, for the first time in many years,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute.
“He has been in office for too long, nearly two decades,” Mr. Cagaptay added. “He is suffering from establishment fatigue, simply too tired to be on top of his game and of the opposition all the time.”
As Mr. Erdogan’s grip on power turns shaky, some analysts warn that the Turkish president may become even more unpredictable as elections approach.
Sinan Ulgen, the chairman of the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, Istanbul, stated that Erdogan has used foreign policies to improve his image in Turkey, particularly over the past decade.
He has in turn insulted foreign leaders, presented himself as a champion of the Turkish diaspora and of Muslims worldwide, and notably last year projected Turkey’s military muscle in a series of interventions abroad.
However, since last November, when he fired his son in law as finance minister, the dire economic state of Turkey has caused Mr. Erdogan to relax his international stance and dial back on the rhetoric, Mr. Ulgen stated.
“The main issue now is to prevent, or pre-empt, tension so the economy can rebound,” he said.
Erdogan has so many power that his whims have the day. He doesn’t seem to be able always to help himself. In an act of strength, Erdogan reverted back to his old tactics over the last few weeks, disregarding his closest advisors and threatening a diplomatic crises in his support.
When 10 Western ambassadors issued a statement calling for the release of a jailed Turkish philanthropist, Mr. Erdogan railed against them for interference in Turkey’s affairs and threatened to expel them all. Then, everything changed. he backed down.
“He went against his own best interests and also against the best counsel from his most trusted advisers and that’s what makes me think that he is not on top of his game anymore,” Mr. Cagaptay said.
After frantic diplomacy, the expulsion of the ambassadors was avoided. This allowed Mr. Erdogan to meet President Biden in Rome on the sidelines of Group of 20. However, Mr. Erdogan made another fuss about security protocol at Glasgow.
It was yet another display of the impetuousness that has become a hallmark of Mr. Erdogan’s relations with the world, risking major upsets with international partners in a sometimes dubious, increasingly desperate, effort to lift his domestic standing.
Erdogan saw a political opportunity and converted to climate after years of Turkey being an environmental laggard.
He renamed the Environment Ministry as the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change and offered Mr. Biden a copy of the book on the green revolution, for which he had written an introduction.
After letting the Paris climate agreement languish, he had the Turkish Parliament ratify the agreement on Oct. 6. He was ready to announce to the gathering that Turkey would be carbon neutral by 2053.
“Climate change is a reality and threatens the future of humanity, so Turkey naturally will have a leading role in such a vital matter,” he said in a televised address in Turkey before the COP26 summit.
Mr. Erdogan’s conversion came after Turkey suffered a bruising summer. The worst forest firesIn recorded history, a stretch of coastal forestland was scorched eight times larger than average annual fires, killing at most eight people. Flash floodsThe northeast saw the worst rainfall in hundreds of decades, causing at least 82 deaths. And an outbreak of slimeMarmara Sea’s choked sea life
The disasters gave fresh momentum to support for climate action that had been steadily building — in public opinion, in business circles, among civil society groups and across the political spectrum — over the last year or so.
“All the public opinion polls are showing that now the political parties in Turkey in the next elections will have to address this issue very seriously,” said Bahadir Kaleagasi, the president of the Institut du Bosphore, a French association that encourages Turkish relations with France and Europe.
The summit on climate went begging in the end. Erdogan may have seen more benefit in creating a diplomatic fuss about security protocols than in speaking to the gathering. Or, as rumors circulated about his health and he needed a rest.
He had, in any case, already obtained what analysts said he really wanted from the weekend: an hour with Mr. Biden on the sidelines of the Group of 20 meeting, a sign of potential improvement in U.S.-Turkish relations that might lift Turkey’s standing in international markets.
After Mr. Erdogan had failed to secure a meeting with Mr. Biden in New York in September during the United Nations General Assembly, a meeting this month with the American president “became the number one issue of the Turkey-U.S. relations,” said Aydin Sezer, a political analyst and former trade official.
The Biden administration, while maintaining pressure on Mr. Erdogan over human rights and the rule of law — Turkey has notably not been invited to Mr. Biden’s democracy summit in December — has made clear that it regards the country as an important NATO ally and strategic partner.
“We may have differences, but we never lose sight of the strategic importance we and our partners hold each to the other,” David M. Satterfield, the American ambassador to Turkey, said at a reception abroad the command ship Mount Whitney, which called in to Istanbul on Wednesday.
Asli Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at The European Council on Foreign Relations.
That has meant dialing back the close, if stormy, personal relationship that President Donald J. Trump had with Mr. Erdogan in favor of something a bit more at arm’s length.
“Ankara is simultaneously vulnerable and bellicose,” she said. “Washington’s way of dealing with this duality is distancing itself from Turkey.”
“There is a desire to keep this at this stable level — at least for another year — but given that this is an election year, it may not be so easy,” she added.