This post is about a week overdue, but events in the news last week overtook my original blogging plans. As I wrote about here, I recently spent two weeks as part of an Atlantic Council exchange program called Young Turkey Young America that brought together emerging leaders from the U.S. and Turkey to discuss foreign policy issues with the aim of strengthening the bilateral relationship between the two countries. It was a great two weeks, lots of fun and also very informative, and I can’t wait to do the next leg of the program in Turkey in the spring. I was consistently impressed by everyone in the group, and the experience and knowledge that my colleagues all brought to the table was daunting. Since almost all of the meetings and discussions we had were off the record, I can’t write too much about the specific things we heard from government officials, policymakers, analysts, and others, but I did come away with some big picture takeaways that I’d like to share.
First is the absolutely overwhelming view expressed by nearly everyone we spoke with of Turkey’s global importance and the strength of the bilateral relationship. Only one of tens of speakers over two weeks threw some cold water on Turkey’s role in the world; everyone else was about as bullish as you can get. At first I thought that this might be a case of government officials and corporate leaders simply telling the Turks in our group what they wanted to hear, but it became apparent over time that this was not the case and that policymakers genuinely believe that Turkey plays an oversized role in the global economy, geopolitics, and helping secure American interests overseas. On the one hand, I think this is certainly a good thing since it bodes well for a deepening of U.S.-Turkey ties in the years ahead, and it demonstrates that both countries are over the Incirlik debacle of 2003. From a Turkish perspective, it is good to know that the global hegemon (to the extent that the U.S. can still be described as such) views Turkey as nearly indispensable and is grateful for Turkey’s assistance and support in a variety of areas. On the other hand though, I got a clear sense that any possible caution signals are being completely ignored by the U.S., such as Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian posture and limits on the press and freedom of expression in Turkey. Whether this is because Americans in positions of influence either do not realize the extent to which these things are problematic or because they are willing to just look the other way, I am not entirely sure. It is something that bears watching.
Second is the fact that the Turkey-U.S.-Israel triangle came up with current and former government officials over and over again. The deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel is clearly weighing on policymakers’ minds, and it was repeatedly brought up as something that needs to be fixed before it starts to adversely affect Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. A couple of people made allusions to the fact that Israel is always going to politically win out over Turkey in the U.S. and so it is vital for Turkey that the two countries repair their ties. Given the prevailing view in Turkey that the fallout with Israel has been relatively cost-free, I think that some of my Turkish colleagues were surprised to hear that this was an issue that could possibly bleed over into U.S.-Turkey bilateral ties. It’s not terribly surprising from my perspective given that Israel and Turkey are two of the most important U.S. allies in the region and the U.S. would like to go back to the era of being able to coordinate with them in concert, but I’m not sure my Turkish friends had thought about it much from this angle.
Third and somewhat related to this was the viewpoint expressed by Turkish speakers and some of my Turkish colleagues of the importance of ethnic lobbies in creating U.S. foreign policy. There were conversations that centered around the Israel/Jewish lobby but also around the Greek and Armenian lobbies, and I found it fascinating to hear so much focus on ethnic politics as a driver of foreign policy decisions. My own view is that ethnic lobbies obviously have a role but are not powerful enough to override clear U.S. interests, but I can understand why some Turks subscribe to the view that Greeks and Armenians (and over the past couple of years, Israelis) are working to undermine Turkish national interests and priorities. It also got me thinking about just what a unique body the U.S. Congress is from a world historical perspective, in that it plays such a large role in foreign policy and has a clear set of preferences apart from the White House irrespective of which party controls each institution. I think that the interplay of views and competing pressures can be tough to keep track for anyone, let alone foreigners who are not used to how the system here works. In any event, I found that Turks of all stripes were much quicker to jump on the lobbying bandwagon than were Americans, and I think that says something about both groups’ perspectives.