Beyond Suspicion: Rethinking US - Turkish Relations
Dr. Ian O. Lesser, a former Public Policy Scholar with the Southeast Europe Project from September 2005 through March 2007, engaged in a major eighteen-month research project on the current disrepair in U.S.-Turkish relations and exploring ways to rebuild bilateral ties. He is currently a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund, president of Mediterranean Advisors, LLC, and an adjunct staff member at RAND.
"Beyond Suspicion: Rethinking US-Turkish Relations" is both diagnostic and prescriptive in nature. The research project that culminated in this book began in an environment in which problems in the US-Turkish strategic relationship were already visible. However, with the current diplomatic crisis stemming from heightened PKK attacks and the untimely introduction of the Armenian genocide resolution, the US-Turkish relationship has only become a more pressing concern for both NATO allies. Although this analysis was drafted before these issues came to the fore, it both anticipates many of these problems and takes the long-term approach that will be necessary for strengthening the US-Turkish strategic relationship as the immediacy of these concerns passes.
Lesser first revisits the existing strategic relationship and deconstructs it by examining changes in the internal perspective on this partnership within both countries. The emergence of a 'new Turkey' and recent changes in US foreign policy have both affected the broader strategic relationship and can be analyzed to produce three major problems which, in their current state, are hampering US-Turkish relations.
First, there is a tremendous gap between expectation and reality in both countries that has produced suspicion on both sides. It is often lamented that a so-called 'golden age' in US-Turkish relations harking back to the Cold War and/or the Clinton administration has been lost. Although there have been very important periods of cooperation, this statement is deceptive as even these periods have also been marred by several episodes of extraordinary crisis stemming from concerns ranging from the Cyprus crisis to the PKK, human rights, and arms transfers. From the Turkish perspective, anti-Americanism is not a new phenomenon. And while the current lows in public opinion, especially among youth, are unprecedented, this trend is not without cause. Despite the general compatibility between Washington and the ruling AKP party in Ankara, the American pursuit of a more vigorous policy in the Middle East has not always been complementary as Turkey has also sought to play an increasingly active role in its neighborhood. This is a reality that will not soon pass, and, as a result, one to which the US must adapt.
Secondly, the US-Turkish relationship cannot continue to be conceived of in a strictly bilateral manner. The majority of the most pressing issues will be more effectively addressed if dealt with in a multi-lateral context. This is of particular importance as it has become increasingly difficult for the US to advocate Turkey's candidacy for EU membership, as has been traditional in the recent past. The American stake lies more in convergence in the economic, political, and security policy sectors, which has in fact successfully and steadily occurred, than in membership itself. This synchronization with European standards appears likely to continue in the future, but the new reality is that Turkish foreign policy may diverge from American preferences even if it is in line with European interests. Despite the discomfort this may generate on the American side, it simultaneously necessitates a more multi-lateral approach.
Third, the US-Turkish relationship must become more diverse and less centered on security concerns. Although the current focus is somewhat understandable due simply to the high level of US engagement in Turkey's neighborhood at present, it ultimately renders the partnership fragile when disagreement emerges because of its limited depth. This has been made painstakingly obvious by the current difference of opinion over security cooperation in Iraq. As a result, there need to be more diverse ties to fall back on, perhaps eventually more closely mirroring the US-Indian partnership. In many ways precisely the reverse of the American relationship with Turkey, its almost exclusive focus on economic and people-to-people relations allows for the flexibility missing from the US-Turkish context. Although these diversification initiatives will primarily emerge from within non-governmental institutions, their resiliency will be ultimately dependent on mutual governmental support. The bottom line is that the constituency of people receptive to positive relations within both countries must be broadened.
From this diagnosis, several policy priorities for the future emerge.
First, the US must be more responsive to Turkey's concerns with the PKK. As the leading security concern of a NATO ally and an issue that is extremely resonant among Turks, it must be dealt with more responsibly and respectfully. At the end of the day, US desires to neither become distracted from an already very problematic Iraq strategy nor open yet another front in the only stable part of Iraq are not sufficient excuses. As part of this and because near consensus has now been achieved that regional involvement is the new way forward for Iraq, Turkey must take a central role in this process. Although rarely mentioned, it is in fact the most logical and constructive choice, as Turkey's relationship with the US lacks the baggage of many other regional actors. Serious dialogue on this opportunity would be beneficial.
Secondly, the strategic dialogue between the US and Turkey must be refocused on a series of shared long-term challenges, with emphasis placed on the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the threat of Russian re-emergence as a more competitive world power, and the need for energy security. Although Turkey is not a primary actor in any of these cases, its geographic position renders the country vulnerable in all. Despite Turkey's interest in avoiding another war in its neighborhood, a nuclear Iran would be profoundly threatening as it would be both the most-exposed NATO member and directly affected by the changed strategic balances that would follow in the region. A declining relationship between Russia and the West also affects Turkey's security, despite its own relatively benign view on the matter, because it would be geographically stuck in the middle should a 'Cold War revisited' take place. Additionally, although successful cooperation on energy security has occurred in the past with the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, both Turkey's willingness to partner with Iran and the reality that this is partially a reaction to the paralyzed status of its primary pipeline that has been adversely affected by the security situation in Iraq are indicative of the need to clarify the US-Turkish long-term relationship in this realm.
Finally, in light of the need for diversification of the US-Turkish relationship, efforts must be concentrated on strengthening the civil society dimension of the partnership. This is currently underdeveloped in a way that is very meaningful given the crises faced today. The sharp deterioration of Turkish public opinion both toward the US and the West is especially problematic because opinion is disproportionately negative and nationalism particularly resonant among young people. This sharp decline in constituencies has even taken place in groups such as the military that have traditionally been receptive and strong, yet its existence will be crucial to the future of US-Turkish relations. Although a joint strategic vision for the improvement of civic relations was recently drafted, funding has been non-existent, despite the need for numerous initiatives by foundations, think-tanks, and universities.
As a result, the primary message to be taken away from this analysis, beyond the problem of suspicion, is that the US must begin to focus on policy coordination and managing public opinion in both the short- and long-term rather than defining its interest in Turkey as merely one of geo-strategic importance.