David Ignatius’s column in yesterday’s Washington Post argued that the heart of the U.S.-Turkey relationship is the one between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan. Ignatius detailed the way in which Obama has asked Erdoğan for a number of favors, such as reopening the Halki seminary and installing the X-Band radar system in Turkey, with the implication being that such moves would never have occurred had Obama not assiduously worked to develop a close friendship with his Turkish counterpart. Ignatius concludes with the following: “It seems fair to say that no world leader has a greater stake in Obama’s reelection than the Turkish prime minister.”
It’s tough to argue with the notion that the Obama-Erdoğan relationship has paid dividends for both countries. By all accounts, the two men like and trust each other, and this mutual respect and friendship definitely makes things easier. It is no coincidence, for instance, that Obama relies on Erdoğan to convey messages to Iran. I think that Ignatius takes things a bit too far though, and is ignoring important structural factors to instead tell a good story that chalks everything up to a personal relationship. The clues to what is really going on lie in Ignatius’s piece itself, where he notes that since the AKP has come to power Turkey’s annual average growth rate is 5.3% and its GDP and foreign reserves have tripled, and refers to Turkey’s regional ascendancy and the darkening of the Arab Spring. Turkey is a country that is unmistakably on the rise, and the U.S. heavily relies on it now and will continue to do so in the future because Turkey is a NATO member and has credibility in the Arab world, a vibrant economy with a large merchant class, a large and modernly equipped military, and most importantly a democratic political system. No matter who the president is come January 20, the U.S. is going to be leaning on Turkey to advance its interests in the Middle East, and Turkey has embraced its bridging role wholeheartedly.
Let’s take the two foreign policy examples Ignatius mentions, the X-Band radar and Turkey’s reversal on Libya. He says that Obama persuaded Erdoğan on both of these issues, but Turkey’s coming around on both of them likely would have happened anyway. The radar system was a NATO priority, and when push comes to shove, Turkey is not going to piss off its NATO allies or weaken its own defense umbrella by letting Iran dictate what security measures it takes. On Libya, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu quickly realized that Turkey had misread things and stumbled early on, and given that Ankara lagged behind on Syria, they aren’t going to make that same mistake again. Where the relationship between the two leaders factors in is that Obama might have convinced Erdoğan to install the NATO radar in a quicker fashion, which is certainly useful and important but also ancillary to the main point, which is that it was firmly in Turkey’s interests to do so no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office. The same goes for prying Turkey away from Iran. I have noted in the past that Turkey is looking to disentangle from Iran for economic reasons, and while Obama is certainly able to speed this process along by appealing to Erdoğan personally, it would be slowly taking place anyway. Turkey does not want to play the part with Iran that Russia is now playing with Syria of being its international patron and defender, and Erdoğan does not need Obama to convince him of that.
This is not to minimize the value of personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy. I have heard multiple people who have served in high government positions stress that the one thing that surprised them most about their job was how much personalities and relationships matter, and I am certainly in no position to argue with this given my absence of firsthand knowledge. Yet, the fact remains that states are going to generally act within their own interests, broadly defined, and Ignatius does not point to anything that has specifically happened from a foreign policy standpoint that would have been different were Obama and Erdoğan not good buddies. No doubt Erdoğan treasures and benefits from his relationship with Obama and wants to see him reelected, but if Mitt Romney is our next president, I don’t think that Erdoğan needs to be too worried about anything.