Today’s post comes from the great mind of Alexander Slater, who aside from being a close friend and one of my all-time favorite intellectual sparring partners is also a counsel at O’Melveny & Myers, where he works in the White Collar and Corporate Investigations practice. He has degrees from Yale, Harvard, and Oxford, is a former foreign policy adviser to Chuck Schumer, and is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Network. He and I were in Turkey together in March, and as Prime Minister Erdoğan is visiting DC this week, it is a good opportunity for Ally to expound on the gap between the constant rhetoric from the U.S. and Turkish governments about the friendship between the two countries on the one hand and the reality of the public opinion numbers on the other.
When the Obama Administration originally announced yesterday’s White House meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it explained that “[t]he Prime Minister’s visit underscores the close friendship between the United States and Turkey.” But are Turkey and the United States really friends?
This is not an idle question. As the United States’ close relations with Canada and the United Kingdom show, genuine friendships among states, as opposed to alliances based on the coincidence of national interests, can be powerful strategic assets. Especially in electoral democracies, relationships based on a mutual admiration among their people, not merely their governments, can endure beyond momentary, or even lasting, differences in foreign policies. (Canada’s refusal to join the coalition of states participating in the Iraq War is a case in point.)
Given the importance that Turkey and the United States place on their bilateral relations, then, the White House’s statement should be seen as more than polite diplomatic speak. Unfortunately, it also appears to be wrong, at least if the results from Pew Research’s 2012 Global Attitudes Survey are to be believed.
According to the survey, only 15 percent of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States. Even fewer —only 13 percent—indicated they have a “favorable view of the American people.” (This was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed. By contrast, 32 percent of Egyptians and 39 percent of Chinese—nationals of countries with arguably more contentious relations with the United States than Turkey—had a favorable view of Americans.) These results are surprising because many people from both countries have a lot in common, even if their historical, religious, and cultural backgrounds differ.
I know this because in March I spent two weeks in Turkey as a participant in the third installment of the Young Turkey, Young America program, an intercultural exchange run jointly by the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC, and Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Center. As part of the program, fifteen Turks and fifteen Americans, all young professionals, spent a month together traveling across the two countries, meeting with officials from their commercial, political and civil society communities. The Pew survey results paint a very different picture than what I saw and heard during our travels.
For instance, according to the Pew survey, only 14 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ways of doing business.” (Like the results discussed above, this was the lowest score of people from any of the twenty-one countries surveyed.) And yet, while in Turkey, I saw officials and executives promote commerce and conduct business in ways similar to Americans: The Izmir Chamber of Commerce advertised how the region was a great place for investment; a government official in Ankara proclaimed that Turkey would inspire other countries as a modern economic power where markets and debtors could be trusted; and, while in Istanbul, an executive at one of Turkey’s leading conglomerates sought our ideas on using social media to promote brand development.
There seems to be a similar dynamic at play on political issues. According to the Pew survey, only 13 percent of Turks said they “like[d] . . . American ideas about democracy.” (This was the second-lowest rating, ahead of only Pakistan.) However, what I observed of the practice of politics in Turkey reminded me of these activities in America. At a meeting with an AK Party official, we saw a savvy integration of public relations and religious overtones that could have come straight out of the political handbook of Karl Rove. And almost every day during the trip, newspapers carried stories about Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to resolve the Kurdish conflict, including a push for constitutional reform that recognizes Kurds’ minority rights, which would make Turkey’s democracy will look more, rather than less, like its American counterpart.
A sharp critic might respond that these observations are based only on visits to the urban areas of Izmir, Ankara, and Istanbul—places where one would expect there to be convergence with Western commerce and political practice. This is true. However, together, these three regions represent approximately 30 percent of Turkey’s population and 70 percent of Turks overall are city dwellers, with more moving in every day. These places are increasingly representative of what Turkey is all about.
The issue seems to be that, among large portions of the Turkish public, there are substantial misperceptions of Americans. While recent political differences over the Syrian conflict and the Iraq War may contribute to Turks’ overall negative view of the United States, these policy problems seem unrelated to their apparently unfavorable view of American ways of doing business and democracy. This negativity is all the more surprising given that President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan reportedly have a deep personal relationship.
As the survey data shows, however, a connection between leaders, no matter how popular they are, is not enough to create friendship among peoples: if the two administrations are intent on forming an American-Turkish alliance built on more than a coincidence of interests, they must also devote effort to building up its foundations. One place to start would be to add to a future agenda the development of a bilateral strategy to emphasize domestically what Turks and Americans have in common.