Opportunities and Pitfalls for The U.S. and Turkey

May 10, 2012 § 1 Comment

The Council on Foreign Relations has a new report out on U.S.-Turkish relations that looks at Turkey’s rising geopolitical role while acknowledging some of the more worrisome authoritarian trends taking place, and calls for growing the U.S. bilateral relationship into more of an equal partnership in order to recognize and take advantage of Turkey’s new position. I was at the report’s DC rollout yesterday where Madeleine Albright, Steven Hadley, and Steven Cook talked about the report’s conclusions and answered questions, and I have some thoughts about some of their comments and the recommendations contained in the report. I think that the report is overall an excellent document with a great assessment of Turkish accomplishments and ambitions, and it is undoubtedly good strategy for the U.S. to deepens its strategic relationship with Turkey and expand it on issues of joint interest. I do worry, however, that too heavy a reliance on Turkey risks putting the U.S. in a bind since there are going to be issues on which the two countries are never going to agree and Turkey’s rising ambitions may get in the way of U.S. interests in crucial areas.

As the report notes, Turkey has recently been an important and helpful ally in many ways, and the U.S. would be smart to deepen the relationship across all sectors of government and the bureaucracy. Either Steven Cook or Steve Hadley (don’t remember which) observed that relations have traditionally been based on defense and military issues but that this is changing and is part of a natural evolution. I actually wonder if defense issues are going to become even more important in the years ahead while the relationship’s foundation broadens. Aaron Stein pointed out to me yesterday that there is a split in NATO over hosting U.S. nuclear weapons, with Turkey and Italy agreeing with the U.S. on keeping nuclear-armed aircraft on their soil and Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands wanting them gone sometime during the next decade. This makes Turkey an even more valuable defense ally than it already is, and makes me wonder whether the combination of the differences within NATO over its future and the fact that Turkey already has the largest military in Europe means that there will be an eventual shift away from U.S. reliance on NATO and more of an ad hoc coalition between the U.S., Turkey, Britain, and other countries. No matter what happens, a real partnership with Turkey is unquestionably in U.S. interests and will only be beneficial since it makes lots of sense to closely align ourselves with the dominant growing power in the region.

What concerns me is a point made by Albright, when she said that people ask her if its a problem that we are too reliant on picking up the phone and calling Erdoğan whenever we need something, and her response to that is that its not and that we should be relying on him even more. On some issues our interests with Turkey align perfectly but on others they don’t, and this notion that the U.S. should be depending on Erdoğan to always advance our interests is a dangerous one. Turkey has its own goals for the region and the world, and on issues from Iran to Israel to Sudan its interests might not be in concert with American ones. Turkey is also madly casting around for ways to solve its growing energy consumption problem and this inevitably leads it to look to Russia, and tighter ties between Turkey and Russia are not necessarily a good thing for the U.S. given recent Russian intransigence on a number of issues and the return of Putin as president. All of this is perfectly understandable on Turkey’s part, but it means that leaning on Erdoğan and Turkey to solve all of our problems has the potential to seriously backfire. Albright’s stance on this appears to be more extreme than that laid out in the task force report, but the report does suggest that better lines of communication might have averted the spat over the Turkey-Brazil-Iran nuclear fuel deal, whereas I am not so sure that is the case. Aligning more closely with Turkey is smart, but farming out parts of our regional policy in the Middle East to Ankara is not.

There is also the fact that Turkey has been displaying some worrying authoritarian tendencies which the report does not at all downplay or whitewash, but that might throw a wrench into developing a genuine partnership. One of the reasons that it has become easy to view Turkey as a real ally is because of its democratic status, but it hints of cynicism to continue deepening the relationship on all levels and relying on the friendship between President Obama and PM Erdoğan while Turkey continues to imprison journalists and even members of parliament at an alarming rate and prosecute officers in trials that have become discredited. It is beginning to cause embarrassing incidents with other countries, and both Erdoğan and Hüseyin Çelik acknowledged yesterday that the February 28 coup prosecutions are beginning to get out of hand, with Çelik worrying aloud about “trouble in the international arena” over the nature of the trials. This suggests that Turkey recognizes that it has a growing public relations problem, although not necessarily that it thinks a solution is required other than speeding up the process. This kind of thing needs to be solved and Turkey needs to move unambiguously in a democratic direction lest it gum up progress on modernizing the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

Two other observations from yesterday. First, much of the discussion got off track and moved away from Turkey and toward the issue of American intervention in Syria, which both Hadley and Albright went on record as supporting (although Albright qualified it by noting that intervention encompasses a wide range of action). I don’t know if this is a harbinger of more intense U.S. involvement down the road, but it’s something to think about. Second, I wonder what Israel’s reaction is to the bipartisan call for a deeper and more equal partnership with Turkey. One of the problems noted by Steven Cook is that stereotypes and negative views of Turkey are more prevalent on the Hill than in the administration which is a barrier that must be overcome, but in my view it will be difficult for this happen while Israel and Turkey are still feuding given the pro-Israel sentiment in Congress. Yet another good reason for Turkey and Israel to resolve their differences…

P.S. Perhaps the best thing about yesterday was Yigal Schleifer suggesting that I find a picture of Ben-Gurion as a law student in Istanbul to use as my blog icon, which I promptly did. So next time you share one of my posts on Facebook, you will be rewarded with the image of Ben-Gurion wearing a tarboosh and looking like quite the Ottoman Zionist.

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