Normalizing American-Turkish Relations

Last night, before I read the Council on Foreign Relations’ Task Force report on US-Turkey relations, I had a lengthy Twitter conversation with Michael Koplow, Steven Cook (the director of the report), and Laura Rozen. It turns out I agree with much of the report’s recommendations; but in some ways I don’t think it goes far enough.

Koplow is right to warn that the US should be careful about tying its interests and policies too closely to Turkey. But I think the American-Turkish relationship can be made stronger, and closer, without letting Ankara drag Washington along to places it would rather not go.

Turkey and the US have a long history of tense moments in their relationship, and it would be fair to say that most of them involved American insensitivities to Turkish interests. In the 1960s it was over Cyprus (particularly US President Lyndon Johnson’s outright threat that he would not defend Turkey from the Soviet Union over the island) and Turkish poppy production (which the US wanted banned). In the 1970s it was again Cyprus, lack of US diplomatic support, an American arms embargo, and consistent criticism over Turkey’s domestic policies.

The 1980s were better, but the end of the Cold War and bipolarity in the early 1990s prompted many in the US to question whether Turkey (like Israel) was still a strategic asset. Such questions were soon put to rest with the 1990-1991 Gulf crisis and war, and the turn by many US analysts to recognizing Turkey’s regional importance.

This turn was the beginning of a series of regular “discoveries” of Turkey’s importance. Located in the middle of several strategically important and/or volatile regions, Ankara was argued to be key to US and Western policy. Simon Mayall, writing in 1997 for the Institute for National Strategic Studies, best represents this view:

[i]n a bipolar world Turkey had had the luxury of an uncomplicated security policy in which, broadly speaking, it aligned with the West, opposed the Soviet Union, and ignored the rest….In the new security environment, Turkey’s geographical position and its military strength now made it a European, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Near Eastern, Caucasian, Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Sea power. Sharing borders with Greece, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, Turkey’s control of the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardenelles also made it a Black Sea neighbor of Russia, the Ukraine, Romania and Moldova. Turkey’s ethnic roots lay in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the Balkans, influencing its interests, concerns, and sympathies. Its Muslim identity demanded a community of interest in the Middle East, through Pakistan, and across to South East Asia. None of the immediate and demanding post-Cold War issues of Bosnia, the Middle East Peace Process, Iraqi sanctions, Operation Provide Comfort, Trans-Caucasus separatism, Russian activities in the ‘Near Abroad,’ CFE flank issues, NATO enlargement, Cyprus, Central Asia, and energy pipelines could be discussed without reference to Turkey.

Today, some of these issues have passed from importance, and others have been resolved. But think of how we might replace those that have with: Iran, the Arab Spring, Afghanistan, Syria. Add in Turkey’s growing economic strength, a dynamic AKP government, and concerns over a decline in US influence in the Middle East, and Turkey remains no more or less important to US interests and policy than when it was so discovered to be in the 1990s.

My point is not that Turkey shouldn’t be considered relevant: it clearly is. Instead, I would argue that the American-Turkish relationship needs to be normalized. Rather than regularly highlighting its position and what it can do for US interests, make the relationship like the American-British one: treat Turkey like a brother, not the strange cousin we invite for supper every once in awhile. Don’t speak of its indispensability every few years; make it a standard assumption.

Ties should be strengthened, in the manner set out in the CFR report. But these should be routinized, made mundane. Not only will this enhance the American-Turkish relationship, by creating a set of expectations and norms on both sides; it will also help reduce the over-heated rhetoric coming from US analysts and Turkish columnists and politicians that we heard in the 1990s and in the wake of the Arab Spring. These create false expectations, and subsequent disappointment, and waste time.

A normalized relationship will help sensitize Washington to Turkey’s needs and interests, particularly while Turks themselves figure out their foreign policy directions. It will allow the US to call upon Turkey when it needs to, without having to make it seem like a major favor. And it will construct an underlying, stabilizing platform in the relationship—and by extension in other arenas, like NATO and Europe.

The benefits for Turkey are clear: a healthy, stable relationship with the world’s most powerful country; a status as an understandable “regular” country among more American policymakers and the public (this is, in my view, one of the most critical recommendations of the CFR report); and the ability to disagree with friends over differences of opinion without having to suffer a negative backlash.

Clearly the two countries will continue to disagree over issues, and—again, similar to Israel—there will be different expectations given their different locations and positions in the international system. Canada and the US have had severe disagreements over issues (softwood lumber, Iraq), but that relationship remains strong and healthy. Much work remains to be done, on both sides; but it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing.


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