Home / Articles / The End of a “Strategic” Relationship? How American-Turkish Relations Hit Historic Lows
The onset of fall finds American-Turkish relations undergoing the most severe crisis in their history. In August, the Trump administration slapped sanctions on Turkey and imposed tariffs on some Turkish imports. These steps sent the vulnerable Turkish lira tumbling in currency markets. In response, Turks from across the political spectrum, including President Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan, charged the United States with waging economic war on Turkey and vowed to resist. Turkey and the United States have cultivated close ties for over six decades. Today, not only is the possibility of a full break real, but some mainstream American foreign policy experts are advising Washington precisely to do just that: end the partnership.
Yet, as the current disarray in America’s Syria policy demonstrates, the consequences of a break with Turkey will be significant. In 2011, while a mass uprising was sweeping Syria, American President Barak Obama declared that Syria’s dictator, President Bashar al-Assad, must go. It was a directive, and Obama and his administration issued it with the expectation that they could oversee Assad’s ouster on the cheap, i.e. relying on proxies and covert action to overthrow the Assad regime without the direct commitment of U.S. forces. They miscalculated. Seven years later, despite the presence of U.S. military units inside Syria’s borders, Assad’s army, with the support of Russia and Iran, is preparing to launch an offensive against the remnants of the armed opposition, who are holed up in the city of Idlib in northwestern Syria. Victory in Idlib will cement the triumph of Assad and of Russia and Iran, who have outplayed and outhustled the U.S. in Syria. American policymakers can regard this outcome only as a decisive defeat.
As Dennis Ross, a fixture of American Middle East diplomacy, conceded in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on September 9, the U.S. now has no choice but to compromise with Russia in Syria. The U.S. can still attain a satisfactory outcome in Syria, Ross proposes, but warns that this is possible only if the U.S. can draw on support from Turkey and Israel. In what can only be described as an act of desperation, the Wall Street Journal, formerly known for its trenchant criticism of Erdoğan, opened its pages the very next day to an op-ed from the Turkish president calling for immediate coordinated action to halt the Syrian government from retaking Idlib. The desperation runs both ways. Erdoğan and his ministers in recent weeks have been verbally assailing America and representing it to the Turkish public as an enemy, yet now openly plead for cooperation in American newspapers.
Wellsprings of Discord
The current locus of tension in Turkish-American relations is the status of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor of a small church in Izmir, Turkey. In late 2016, Turkish authorities arrested Brunson and subsequently charged him with a number of violations, including being a member of the network of Fethullah Gülen, collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, or PKK), and assisting the attempted coup of 2016. In September 2017, Erdoğan publicly suggested that Turkey might swap one American pastor, Brunson, for another Turkish one, Fethullah Gülen.
Gülen fled Turkey in 1999 and took up residence in Pennsylvania, where he has remained. His followers over the course of more than three decades have established a global empire of schools, test centers, businesses, and organizations. More to the point, they have also been implicated in various forms of systemic financial and visa fraud in multiple American jurisdictions and far more serious crimes in Turkey, including the failed 2016 coup attempt. The Turkish public, as well as the government, overwhelmingly desire his extradition and trial. American authorities thus far, however, have regarded as insufficient the evidence the Turks have presented.
If Erdoğan thought the seizure of Brunson might be a creative solution to the problem of obtaining Gülen’s extradition, he miscalculated terribly. The gambit created the impression that the Turks were attempting to coerce America via a hostage swap. It only hardened the attitude of the Trump administration, which in August 2018 took the unprecedented step of sanctioning two Turkish officials involved in Brunson’s detention. In the meantime, the lira’s fall against the dollar only accelerated, spurring the aforementioned belief that Turkey is a victim of an economic war. Given the stock both Trump and Erdoğan put in their personal images of dominance and the high profile of Brunson’s case in Turkey and the U.S., it is quite possible that both sides will now stubbornly refuse any compromise resolution and Brunson will remain in Turkish custody for years to come.
A plausible interpretation of this standoff would be that it is the product of a contest between two headstrong, bombastic, and mercurial heads of state. That would be a mistake, and not simply because such assessments underestimate the considerable political skills of Trump and Erdoğan. The wellsprings of discord lie deeper. The tensions driving Washington and Ankara apart are not new, but for a decade and a half now they have been outpacing the bonds of mutual interest that have held the two countries together. Washington’s desire for a reliable and pliant client in a part of the world it would prefer to forget has been clashing with Ankara’s aspiration to achieve full or total independence, i.e. the ability to stand wholly on its own without need for allies or partners. This goal is encoded in the Turkish Republic’s very DNA.
Security concerns have always been at the core of the Turkish-American relationship. The two countries began drawing nearer to each other in the waning days of World War II. Not only was it becoming increasingly clear that the Soviet Union would emerge from the war as the dominant power in Eurasia, but Stalin had already started making demands, including territorial ones, on Turkey. In response, the Turkish Republic’s second president and confidant of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, İsmet İnönü, began drawing closer to the Western powers, declaring war on Germany and Japan. For much the same reasons, he introduced a simulacrum of multi-party politics to Turkey 1946 and then in 1950 oversaw Turkey’s first openly contested elections, which his party lost decisively. Turkey’s moves toward the West culminated with its formal entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952.
The U.S. and Turkey subsequently developed a close, albeit far from untroubled, security partnership. Over the course of the next six decades, however, they failed to build up other aspects of their relations to the same degree, and their relationship remained lopsidedly focused on security concerns. Ties in the spheres of economy and culture, for example, remained comparatively undeveloped.
Thus, at the end of the Cold War, many Turks feared that the disappearance of the Soviet threat that had motivated and sustained the Turkish-American partnership would precipitate the end of that partnership. That threat had guaranteed Turkey’s value as the guardian of the southern flank of NATO. Its evaporation, Turks anxiously concluded, would entail a waning of American interest in Turkey and inevitably Washington would discard its Cold War ally. They were mistaken. America’s standoffs with Iraq and Iran, as well as its compulsion to expand, not dismantle, NATO, led Washington to continue to assign value to Turkey through the 1990s and into the 21st century.
Ironically, it was in Ankara where the more profound recalculation of interests occurred. The dissolution of the Soviet Union and the absence of a common border with Russia meant that Turkey, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the 19th century, had no pressing need for a great power patron to protect it. Moreover, the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), of which Erdoğan is a founder and member, in 2002 represented a sea change in Turkish politics as a rising class representing the Anatolian heartland displaced the old republican elites with roots in the Balkans and the Aegean coast.
The AK Party was, and remains, a comparatively mild Islamist party—it has not pursued anything like a sharia agenda and indeed the majority of its members neither want a sharia-based order nor have a concept of what that might even look like. Nonetheless, the crucial fact remains that its leaders and members do assign high importance to their identities as Muslims and conceive of that identity as distinct from, and often in opposition to, the West. The arrival of a Turkish elite that looks askance at the West represents less a rupture with the past than the ineluctable product of a process of evolution.
Although Turkish elites through the second half of the 20th century qualified as pro-Western on the basis of their opposition to Soviet Communism, membership in NATO, commitment to secularism, and faith in the possibility of science and technology for the improvement of human society, an abiding ambivalence toward the West qualified their worldview. The founding narrative of the Turkish Republic is a story of the defiance of the Western imperial powers and their regional partners. It highlights the victimization of the Turkish nation at the hands of the European Great Powers and promises to deliver that nation from future exploitation by forging a state that will be able to stand on its own, wholly independent of outside entities, and defend its interests against the Great Powers. The ascent of a political leadership that was more confident and assertive in its non-Western identity was inevitable.
This political transformation coincided with two other novel developments. The first was a period of sustained economic growth that endowed Turkey with unaccustomed resources and confidence. The second was the opening of an exceptionally fluid environment in regional politics, made possible first by the withdrawal of Soviet power in the 1990s and then by the destabilization of the Middle East following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. This new environment granted Turkey unprecedented scope for activity, allowing it in some areas to act on and pursue new regional ambitions (e.g., Qatar, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, and Somalia), and in others compelling it to act (such as with Iran, Iraq, and Syria).
In this new environment, Turkey’s interests and actions sometimes aligned with those of the U.S., while, at other times, they came into direct conflict. The clashes between Washington and Ankara varied in significance. Some of Ankara’s actions, such as accommodation of Iran and challenges to Israel, contradicted fundamental American policies, and Washington could not write them off easily. The scuffling gradually corroded mutual trust.
From the Turks’ perspective, the Americans have been, at best, cavalier about Turkey’s interests and even security. A great many Turks, whose numbers span both opponents and supporters of the government, suspect worse, namely that the Americans are deliberately subverting their country. The American intervention in Iraq did create severe headaches for Turkish security planners, particularly as the chaos began to spill out of Iraq and into Syria. The question of the future of Iraq’s Kurdish north, Iranian penetration into Iraq, and the intensification of sectarian warfare were intertwined, and all were necessarily of primal concern to Ankara. Some Turks came to believe that the Americans were stoking disorder in Iraq deliberately as a way to keep Turkey and other Middle Eastern states off balance and preoccupied. It was a baseless, even absurd, notion. But when, for example, ISIS acquired its formidable arsenal by taking possession of abundant amounts of captured American weapons, including M1 Abrams tanks (and Iranian militias also laid their hands on captured M-1 tanks), for some the belief that the Americans were playing double games became difficult to shake.
But the revelation that the American military was working closely with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, or PYD) in Syria was something that earlier only paranoid Turkish nationalists could have imagined. To the Americans planning the military campaign against ISIS, the militias of the PYD were natural, and perhaps essential, partners. In order to vanquish ISIS, the Americans needed allies on the ground, and those militias are disciplined, capable, and bitter enemies of ISIS. They possess both the necessary attributes and motivation to counter ISIS. But what the Americans overlooked, whether out of neglect or indifference, was the PYD’s status as a subsidiary of the PKK. The PKK is an organization that has been waging a sustained violent campaign against the Turkish Republic, utilizing tactics that have included suicide bombing, over the course of more than three decades. Indeed, in 1997, the U.S. Department of State designated the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization.
Turkey has no more dangerous or tenacious foe than the PKK, and the sense of betrayal that American collaboration with the PYD provoked is impossible to overestimate. Washington, however, has by all appearances regarded the matter as something akin to an inconvenience to Turkey. Moreover, in directing their outrage at Ankara for its backing of jihadist elements opposed to the Assad regime in Syria, American critics of Ankara too conveniently overlook both the cooperation with the PYD as well as American efforts to mobilize so-called “moderates” from jihadist ranks, including from groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
American strategic myopia has unquestionably been a crucial factor compounding the disintegration of the Turkish-American relationship. As I have written elsewhere, American inattention facilitated Russia’s efforts to draw Turkey closer. Those efforts, while thus far falling short of pulling Turkey decisively away from the West, have been remarkably successful in stoking Turkish recalcitrance by feeding into Turkish delusions of having a viable strategic alternative to the United States. Coming after the sharp clash between Turkey and Russia over Syria that resulted in Turkey downing a Russian jet in 2015, the Russian success, and concomitant American failure, is all the more remarkable. Yet, there is no denying that Turkish ambitions, be they misplaced or sound, are the key driver in the unraveling of the relationship, and the salvaging of the relationship is not solely in Washington’s hands.
It is common, indeed stereotypical, for practitioners of international and security affairs proudly to forswear sentiment in favor of “cool” and “hard” reasoning and “logical” analysis. The reality, however, is that emotion is no less a factor in international politics than in any other form of politics. Emotion has exacerbated and deepened the sense of betrayal in America and Turkey alike. Turkish-American relations are unraveling against a background of grand foreign policy failures for both countries. These foreign policy failures and embarrassments color attitudes and thought processes in Washington and Ankara.
For nearly two decades, the Middle East has served as the focus of American foreign policy. Despite the expenditure of inordinate attention, exorbitant amounts of money, and considerable blood, American policy has yielded results precisely the opposite of what policymakers promised. Fiasco is perhaps the proper description.
Far from becoming a beacon of pro-Western democracy, Iraq became both a font of instability and a vassal of Iran. The Arab Spring, initially ballyhooed as the overdue democratic windfall from the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s Ba‘thist dictatorship, failed, and in doing so reinforced the cycle of government repression and Islamist opposition that American intervention was supposed to break. Al-Qaeda has not been vanquished. Indeed, radical Islam has proven resilient, making bids for power in Syria, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere and metastasizing into still more virulent forms, notably the Islamic State, powerful enough to dictate the course of U.S. policy. The rise of the Islamic State made shreds of Obama’s much-heralded pivot to East Asia. In Afghanistan, despite 17 years of fighting, all the U.S. can do is hold on to prevent the Taliban from triumphing.
Amidst this unfolding string of disappointments and failures, Turkey, formerly taken for granted as a pro-Western pillar of stability and a promising example of democracy in the region, emerged as a cantankerous and quarrelsome partner, or even rival. Turkey’s newfound defiance was yet another indication of a flailing American policy and flagging American power. Turkey’s diffidence in the face of Russia’s trouncing of Georgia in 2008 was one example. Although Georgia’s bid to reconquer South Ossetia was indisputably reckless, because Washington had already billed Georgia as a beacon of democracy and close ally, Ankara’s reticence to back the U.S. and Georgia was a telling indicator of a decline in American power. Similarly, Turkey’s collaborative effort with Brazil in 2010 to offer a nuclear fuel swap to Iran represented a brash challenge to American leadership and efforts to deter Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program. Turkey’s decision to sign a contract to purchase the Russian S-400 air defense system for $2.5 billion in December 2017 represented an unprecedented move by a NATO country and was a deliberate act of defiance toward the United States.
Turkey: Irreplaceable, but not Indispensable
After years of emitting a steadily increasing stream of complaints, criticisms, and expressions of outrage at Turkish policies, American policymakers and Turkey watchers are now calling to end the pretense that any meaningful partnership exists with Turkey. One forthright such call has come from Steven Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), who states flatly, “Turkey is no longer an ally or a partner.” This is not bomb throwing for effect or clickbait. The CFR is as centrist and sober as an American think tank can get. Indeed, the President of the CFR, Richard Haass, similarly declared the Western partnership with Turkey finished and is calling for America and Europe to adjust accordingly. Haass is not a Turkey-watcher, but a senior diplomat, prolific author, and president of the CFR, and his judgment is indicative of mainstream thinking. The aggrieved tone of his analysis betrays a powerful emotional undercurrent in American thinking.
That America can manage without Turkey is an unassailable proposition. Indeed, America can thrive without Turkey. What it cannot do without Turkey, however, is to continue to pursue the same policy goals in the Middle East, Eurasia, and Eastern Europe that it has been pursuing for the past decade and a half or more. The strategic value of Turkey’s geography is a cliché. And for good reason: it reflects a truth.
The adjective “strategic” is one of the most abused and overused in the English language. Among the common tasks that American commentators use that adjective to fulfill is to imbue remote, poorly understood, and “exotic” lands with significance. Commentators routinely tag Afghanistan, for example, as “strategic,” despite the fact that it is poor, landlocked, and near the center of the Eurasian landmass, remote from any appreciable center of power, and incapable of projecting any real power beyond itself. To be sure, Afghanistan neighbors “strategic” territories, such as Iran, Pakistan, and China, but its innate strategic importance to the United States is marginal.
The Ellipse of Instability and Its Center
Turkey is not Afghanistan. Here, the adjective strategic is meaningful and multidimensional. Turkey’s service as the guardian of the southern flank of NATO against Soviet invasion secured its importance in the Cold War, but it also supported U.S. efforts in the Middle East during that period. Ankara served as the headquarters of the Central Treaty Organization from 1958 to 1979. Following the Iranian revolution, Turkey hosted American and European listening posts expelled from Iran, and it lent its territory as a platform for the conduct of surveillance and other intelligence operations against revolutionary Iran, Iraq, and others in the Middle East. A partial list of the U.S. military operations and international flash points that have erupted in Turkey’s neighborhood since 1991 make clear Turkey’s strategic value: Yugoslav wars (1991-1995), Kosovo (1998-1999), Nagorno-Karabakh (1988-1994), Iraq (Gulf War, 1990-1991; Operations Supply Comfort and Northern Watch, 1991-2003; Operation Iraqi Freedom, 2003-2011), Syrian Civil War (2011-current), Russo-Georgian War (2008), and the Russian annexation of Crimea (2014). To have at the center of this ellipse of instability a resilient state and durable host of American military facilities has been a boon for American policy. The death of the Turkish-American partnership will reverberate throughout the regions that ring Turkey.
The containment of Iran, the containment of Russia, and the containment of radical Islam are three of the most pressing objectives of American foreign policy. Critics of Turkey are correct to question Turkey’s contributions toward these goals. Turkey’s intention to purchase the S-400 air defense missile system from Russia, the role of Turkish bankers in subverting sanctions on Iran, and Ankara’s collaboration with jihadists in Syria and sympathy for Hamas and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood illustrate how in recent years Turkish priorities have been at cross-purposes with American.
Washington is experiencing difficulty pursuing each of the three objectives named above. The rout of the Islamic State in 2017-2018 did represent a victory in the struggle against radical Islam, but there is no reason to believe that it represents a decisive blow to radical Islam, especially given the inability of the U.S. earlier to even anticipate ISIS. In addition, the U.S. and its allies were not alone in battling ISIS. It had picked fights with multiple local constituencies, and Russia and Iran contributed to its defeat as well. As for containing Russia and Iran, the successes that those two countries have achieved in Syria testify to the ineffectiveness of American policy there. Russia’s defeat of Georgia in 2008 and annexation of Crimea in 2014 cannot be considered American successes either. Israeli, Saudi, and Gulf state expressions of fear of Iran, as well as European alarmism over Russia, may be exaggerated and directed at extracting benefits from Washington, but the increase in expressions of anxiety sooner testifies to the erosion of containment than its fulfillment.
Breaking with Turkey may help clarify the diplomatic terrain. The stripping of illusions is always a prerequisite for sound planning and action. But such a break will not advance American efforts toward achieving the aforementioned three goals. Depending upon the nature of the break, it may so significantly impair American policies as to render those goals impossible to achieve. An actively anti-American Turkey could create multiple headaches for Washington in each of the three policy areas. Although Turkey’s relations with the countries of Western Europe are also strained, there is little reason to expect that the Europeans would follow the American lead and downgrade their relations with Ankara. This is particularly the case for Germany, which has a long and complex relationship with Turkey, one that is inherently contentious, but also robust and, unlike the American, multifaceted and more durable. Not least important, because NATO has no mechanism for expelling members, a recusant Turkey could sabotage and gum up Washington’s efforts to mobilize NATO. The failure of Western policy elites, and particularly American, to restructure NATO prior to pushing its expansion is one more indictment of their carelessness after the end of the Cold War. It may very well be true that Turkey has been an overrated, uncooperative, and at times even troublesome partner for the past five decades. But from this fact it does not follow that a hostile Turkey inside NATO will be incapable of working against U.S. policy effectively. This could deliver to Russia in particular enormous benefit. Undoubtedly, one of the motives for Moscow’s courtship of Ankara in recent years has been the chance to stoke dysfunction and friction within NATO. On the other hand, in the event such a scenario comes to pass, creative American policymakers perhaps could exploit it to create a new alliance system to supersede NATO.
If the loss of Turkey as a partner will force Washington to reconsider core foreign policy goals, a break with America will have still greater consequences for Turkey. Some will be grim. There is no other country that can replace the U.S. for Turkey. Although it is true that Russia does much larger volumes of trade with Turkey than does the U.S. and could also go far to supplant America as an arms supplier, a close partnership with Moscow would be difficult—and dangerous—for Ankara to sustain. Turkey is an energy poor country, and is among the world’s most dependent upon imports. Russia supplies over half of Turkey’s natural gas and is that country’s third-largest source of oil. Turkey is pursuing a nuclear power program precisely to lower its dependency upon imported gas and oil. The rub here is that Turkey has chosen Russia to supply the nuclear technology and expertise it needs. Russia is the lead partner in building the first Turkish nuclear power plant at Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast.
Russia thus holds formidable leverage over Turkey in the area of energy. To be sure, it is true that economic dependency often runs two ways. If Turkey depends on energy from Russia, Russia needs the income generated by those sales. Yet, we already know that the Russo-Turkish relationship is asymmetrically structured in Russia’s favor. As Vladimir Putin demonstrated in the wake of Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet in 2015, Moscow can and will use economic leverage to bend Ankara to its will.
What is more, Russia has more than economic leverage at its disposal. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Russia posed the greatest of military and political threats to Turkey. Although Turkey and Russia no longer share a border, Russia through its intervention in Syria is again in position to squeeze Turkey politically and militarily, including through the sponsorship of Kurdish separatism, a force that Russia began cultivating in the 19th century. The future of the Kurds in Syria is one of the questions that awaits resolution, and, however it is decided, it will impact Turkey’s future prospects for civil peace and prosperity. The PKK in the past used Syrian territory as grounds for training and staging operations into Turkey. Although as of late Russia has seemingly been solicitous of Turkish concerns about the PYD in Syria, it can, of course, change its attitude. Moreover, should Russia in the future opt to play the Kurdish card, Turkey would find itself alone. However justly Turks might lament America’s recent cooperation with the PYD, it is a fact that the U.S. has a long record of backing Turkey in its fight against the PKK. Not the least illustrative example is the assistance the U.S. provided to make possible the tracking and capture of Abdullah Ocalan, the founder and leader of the PKK, in Kenya in 1999. A Turkey without America will be more vulnerable, not less, to subversion, chronic insurrection, and potentially even partition.
Is There a Way Out?
As discussed above, behind the current crisis in Turkish-American relations are the sharply differing worldviews of Turkish and American political elites. Although these worldviews are not so starkly divergent so as to dictate a breakup in ties—see the oscillation on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal—they do create a predisposition on both sides to magnify, rather than minimize, disagreement. Miscommunication, discoordination (particularly in Syria), and negligence on both sides have exacerbated those differences, contributing to what has become the most sustained and serious crisis in the history of Turkish-American relations.
One step that Washington could take that would advance U.S. interests and improve relations with Turkey while at the same time also bolstering the principle of the rule of law would be to take seriously the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen. Given the litany of documented crimes and subversive activities that Gülenists have perpetrated in Turkey, presenting a credible case for extraditing Gülen should not be impossible. Yet, by all reports, American authorities have deemed the evidence submitted by the Turkish government thus far as not sufficient for extradition. If the Turkish request is incomplete or incompetently presented, professional help should be rendered to remedy this situation. If the Turkish request for extradition is too tainted by legal and procedural irregularities to accept, there is the option of putting Gülen under investigation for the multitude of crimes and infractions he and some of his followers committed in the U.S. In itself, putting Gülen on trial will not repair Turkish-American relations, but it would send an important message that the U.S. understands the concerns of the Turkish public (not to mention the signal it would send to the American taxpayers defrauded by Gülen’s network). Given the current state of relations and the depth of suspicions, that message could spur both sides to step back and evaluate their mutual interests more dispassionately and to ask what unites them rather than dwell on what should divide them.