I spent the better part of last week in Istanbul talking U.S. and Turkish foreign policy under the auspices of the Hollings Center, and I came away with a lot to mull over, but if there was one big overarching takeaway, it is that the U.S. and Turkey have a serious and real communication problem. There are structural issues that are complicating the bilateral relationship as well, and I’ll save those for a different post, but much of the recent downturn in relations (and yes, the relationship at the moment is at an ebb, no matter how much spin and damage control came from Ahmet Davutoğlu prior to his Washington visit this week) is resulting from a lack on both sides of understanding the other country’s priorities. The U.S. and Turkey are hearing each other, but not really listening.
This has manifested itself in a few ways, but the easiest way of illustrating the problem is by looking at the contretemps over Turkey’s decision to chose a Chinese firm to partner with in order to build an anti-missile defense system. When Turkey announced the decision, the reaction from the U.S. and other NATO allies was swift and furious. In their eyes, Turkey was turning its back on the NATO alliance and going with a Chinese firm – one that is under sanctions, no less – simply because it was cheaper. Turkey’s reaction to U.S. displeasure was that the U.S. does not understand the “new Turkey” that is stronger and more independent than it has been in the past, and does not feel like it needs to be tied down to whatever U.S. preferences are in every situation.
The Turkish decision, the U.S. reaction, and the Turkish counter-reaction have been acutely felt in both places, but in both instances they are partially predicated on fundamental misunderstandings of decision making and preferences in each country. Starting with Turkey, the decision to go with the Chinese tender was not made on the basis of price alone, nor was it done to stick a thumb in NATO’s eye. As Aaron Stein very accurately pointed out at the time, the Chinese firm offered a complete technology transfer and a favorable co-production agreement, and co-production was the most important factor in the decision on which of the four bids to accept. As multiple of my Turkish colleagues stressed to me last week, the Turkish defense industry has been on a mission for years to become self-sustaining, and the anti-missile defense system is no exception. Prime Minister Erdoğan actually changed the tender process midway through in order to incorporate co-production agreements, which effectively eliminated the U.S. bid since there are export control laws against this sort of thing. The point was not, however, to put the U.S. at a disadvantage, but to benefit the Turkish defense industry to the maximum possible amount. Yes, this had the side effect of making the U.S. bid a surefire loser, but that was not what Turkey was purposely aiming to do. According to the Turks, this was a strategic decision at heart, and while the Chinese bid was the highest rated one on both cost and price, it was the technology transfer and the co-production that were the decisive variables. The U.S. is understandably and justifiably upset at a NATO ally going to China to purchase an anti-missile system that is not able to be integrated into existing NATO defenses, but the U.S. government seems to be misunderstanding how the decision was made and what factors were most important to Turkey.
On the flip side, the Turks are downplaying U.S. and NATO anger under a mistaken impression that this is about lost money for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or a desire not to see Turkey pursue an independent defense policy. What Turkey does not understand is that accepting the Chinese bid is an enormous deal because the Chinese system cannot and will not be integrated into NATO combat management systems – can you imagine giving the Chinese access to such sensitive information? – and Turkey is now cut out of the NATO sensor system. Following the deployment of the X-Band radar on Turkish territory and Patriot missile batteries in Gaziantep, Turkish obtuseness on this issue is puzzling, to say the least. I was told that the defense industry committee that made the decision to accept the Chinese bid did not involve the foreign ministry at all, which makes the picture a bit clearer, as had there been any type of foreign policy aspect to this decision, the Chinese firm would have been eliminated from the start. To reiterate, this is a Chinese firm that is under sanctions for violating the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act, and by going with this firm, the Turkish defense industry is opening itself up to its own round of sanctions. U.S. anger on this is genuine, yet the Turks keep on insisting that the Chinese system will be compatible with NATO – which is incorrect – and that the penalties for cooperating with a firm under sanctions won’t apply to Turkey – which is also incorrect. Turkey is convincing itself that U.S. anger is about not wanting to see an independent Turkey, which is a load of utter nonsense, and is missing the point about the message that it sends to the U.S. and NATO, who do not see why a desire for co-production outweighs a defense alliance that is more than half a century old.
The fallout from this decision is going to reverberate, and hopefully going forward each side will do a better job of realizing the core interests of the other. In the meantime though, if Turkey thinks it can smooth things over by referring ad nauseam to the countries’ shared values and pretending in hindsight that it welcomed the Gezi protests, then there is a delusion at the heart of Turkish foreign policymaking these days that is worse than I thought.