Events

Prospects for U.S. - Turkish Cooperation in the Black Sea, and Beyond

April 09, 2007 // 2:00pm3:15pm

Remarks by Ambassador Ozdem Sanberk
Washington April 9 2007

Mr Chairman, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great honour for me to have been asked to address such a distinguished audience in this great city. Throughout my professional life, Turkish-US relations lay at the heart of Turkish foreign policy. The alliance was always regarded as a central fact.

Both sides have gained so much from our alliance that I trust this will continue to be the case. But during the opening years of the twenty-first century, Turkish-US relations have been beset by problems and reactions to the problems. These have been allowed to overshadow the achievements of the past half century of close partnership.

Today I am going to offer a few very simple thoughts about the Turkish-American relationship and also add some ideas about possible issues and opportunities in the Black Sea Area.

Of course I don't speak for the Government. The views I am going to share with you are my own views.

Recent background
The Turkish-American alliance will be coming up for its sixtieth anniversary in just another year or two. Turks still believe strongly in the need for the alliance. Turkey, and Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, have repeatedly emphasized their willingness for continued close cooperation with the US and made many trips to Washington to deliver this message. Turkey is well aware that the cost of a Turkish-American rupture would be very high for both sides and indeed for a much wider region beyond.

Problems and gains of the alliance
Of course Alliances often generate pressures. They always need a lot of work to maintain them. Tensions between the US and Turkey are not new. There were a number of times, notably the late 1960's, when Turkish-US relations were beset by much more volatile tensions and hostilities.

Yet if Americans look for an outstanding example of what they can achieve through "partnerships for peace" in Europe or the Middle East, they should surely point to modern Turkish society and Turkey's modern industrial economy. When the Turkish-American partnership began at the end of the 1940s, around 80% of Turks lived in villages and self-sufficient agriculture. Today, only one in four Turks work in agriculture and a million workers leave farming each year. Turkey in 2007 is a dynamic modern industrial society with a market economy. Imagine the Middle East today, if Turkey had not gone down this road but had taken the path to poverty and extremism that some of our neighbours across the Middle East have done.

This achievement should be a source of pride to Turks and Americans—and a stimulus to cooperation for further achievements. And it is something that we can now roll out to other nations in the Black Sea. I will come to that later on.

Underlying Problems
There are two sorts of complications always facing Turkish-US relations. One is that we in Turkey live right beside the Middle East and we are naturally risk-averse and respect the aspirations of our neighbours. So we are gradualists. We know that military strength is always an essential shield, but that the soft power of diplomacy and international cooperation are more effective instruments for dissolving problems and creating a new international order. We too have our own local "partnerships for peace" by encouraging bilateral relations which try to promote political détente, trade and prosperity. The US has sometimes disapproved of them, or do not see them as we do, but they have proved quite effective over the years.

A second complication, which we are seeing in Washington today, has dogged Turkish-US relations for nearly a century and a half. It is ethno-nationalist hostility to Turkey in certain quarters. I call it "the post-Ottoman Eastern Question." The original Eastern Question, let me remind you, was breaking up Turkey. Unfortunately in some people's minds those issues are still alive. Turkey cannot be expected to compromise on issues which involve terrorism and national security any more than the US would be expected to do so. The voices of ethno-nationalism are like sirens. They aim to draw US policy on to dangerous rocks and reefs and foster antagonism and conflict and kill cooperation between two crucial allies.

Turkish-American Cooperation today
That cooperation is always going to be badly needed. The real interests of Turkey and the US are surely still identical on every key point: multiparty democracy, free market economics, liberty and the rule of law. Turkish society's modern culture and life-styles are highly oriented towards the US and American ways of doing things.

Turkey's strategic interests are those of NATO and the Euro-Atlantic community. The new need for guaranteed transit security for oil and gas travelling from the Caspian basin strengthens our long-standing common interests. By and large Turkish interests are exactly congruent with those of the rest of Euro-Atlantic world. (The exceptions tend to be ethno-nationalist disputes directly affecting Turkey's own territory and borders).

In the Middle East, Turkey is one of the strongest remaining bulwarks against a possible cultural and political meltdown which might leave a radical Islamic terrorist movement bent on conflict with the West as the main reality in much of the region, with the remainder being Shi'a areas dominated by Iran.

Turkey with its tradition of separating politics and religion is also, or could be, the key to the successful absorption of Muslim communities into their host societies in north-western Europe.

Any loss of Turkey as a regional partner would be a major brake on an effective US policy implementation in the wider Middle East and elsewhere. More generally it would accentuate international impressions of a collision between the US and Islamic countries.

Russia and the Black Sea
Furthermore, though Turkey is on the periphery of Europe as traditionally understood, it is not marginal or optional to Euro-Atlantic strategic concerns. This is especially true now that the Black Sea Zone is being incorporated into the Euro-Atlantic system. The future of the Black Sea will be an important determinant of the future of Europe, (where issues such as the Moldova/Dniester Dispute) mean that stability may still be fragile. It has a part to play in Afghanistan, the Caucasus, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East—where some regional radicals would love to see the US alienating Turkey and falling into their arms instead.

The Black Sea is also the zone in which the Turkish, Russian, and US interests intersect.

During my recent visits to Washington I have been struck by the attention which Russia, and potential strategic dangers it poses, occupy in the minds of many analysts here. Now Russia is a topic about which we Turks like to think we know a thing or two. For the last three hundred years Russia has been our number one strategic concern. There were many points during those three centuries when the perceived threat from the North looked very serious indeed. Currently however we do not see things that way. This is not of course because of the warm things that President Putin says to visitors from Turkey. But it is largely because of what we see as the strategic fundamentals of the situation. Let me spend the next few minutes looking at some aspects of them.

Developments in Putin's Russia
First there is the bad news. Russia's internal life, and in particular its apparent regression away from a pluralistic democratic system since the mid-1990's, is currently a strong source of disappointment to most western observers including myself. Putin's political strength and popularity rest on the real benefits he has brought to ordinary Russians. But the style of politics which has gone with them is, to put it mildly, very disconcerting for those who want to see Russia evolving towards an open society with multi-party democracy and competitive politics.

Russia still has the arsenal of a nuclear super-power. So to some degree military vigilance and encirclement have returned as the main thrust of US-Russian relations—a question to which differing answers are given here in Washington. In November 2005, the US completed agreements with Bulgaria and Romania to set up bases at Kogalniceanu airport and Fetesti in Romania and at Bezmer and Novo Selo in Bulgaria. Their establishment has upgraded Romania and Bulgaria's importance for the US, though without superseding the importance of the Turkish-US military partnership and the Turkish facilities at Incirlik.

Turkish Views of Russia
Despite all that, when seen from Ankara, surely we have to agree that Russia in 2007 is very different and much less threatening than either of its two predecessors, the Soviet Union and the Tsarist Empire.

Russia is a country in no position to dream of expansion. It is made up of diverse ethnicities and at risk of further unravelling. Any instability could lead to further dismemberment. Some of its concerns, as with France in the 1960s, are a post-imperial agenda set by millions of individuals and their families displaced by the upheavals which brought independence to territories previously incorporated into the country. The Trans-Dniestrian dispute is an example of this. It will take a further generation or two until Russians on one hand and the peoples they formerly ruled grow accustomed to thinking of each other as separate entities.

Energy: Risks and opportunities
For many in the Western world, the key question is how to set safe boundaries on Russia's role as an energy supplier.

Turkey's energy cooperation with Russia goes back to before the fall of communism. It has been basically very successful. But there obviously are risks.

The energy deals being worked out today are not simply a question of trade and markets. They involve the setting up the commercial and physical transport arrangements which will shape the pattern of trade for the foreseeable future. Obviously bargaining and haggling are always part of the picture in a trading relationship and they will sometimes be difficult. But the story does not stop there. We in the West must be extremely careful that we do not seal ourselves into a set of transport arrangements with our new energy suppliers to the east which create an asymmetric dependency which we would be powerless to alter.

Many people in Turkey are disturbed by a number of recent Russian actions. One is the undermining of the $6.2 billion Nabucco pipeline Project to bring natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Western Europe via Turkey. Russia's recent agreement with Hungary seems to me to have exactly that aim in mind.

I regard Russian attempts to block the transport of natural gas and oil from its southern neighbours and create a monopoly as profoundly unhealthy. I do not want to see a situation in which Russian pipelines in the Baltic, Central Europe, and the Black Sea area create an energy supplier monopoly. The new crude oil pipeline which Russia is building from Burgaz to Dedeagac on the Black Sea with EU members, Greece and Bulgaria, bypassing Turkey, gives Russia 51% control over the flow of crude. I think that is unwise. Russia appears to be obstructing development of the pipeline that brings crude oil from Kazakhstan to Novorosissk. That is not encouraging. It is also discouraging our efforts to build a new pipeline from Samsun to Ceyhan while trying to get us to enlarge the Blue Stream pipeline under the Black Sea.

So while Turkey is cooperating actively with Russia in the Black Sea within the framework of Black Sea Harmony for instance and shares its views on some matters, such as the legal arrangements governing the Black Sea and access to it, I do have, as far as I am concerned, potentially very serious reservations as well. Turkey may be an energy transit country, but its major interests overlap with those of Europe and the US, The Baku Tibilissi Ceyhan pipeline shows what we can achieve in this area.

The BTC is a practical example of Turkish American cooperation in the energy field. In natural gas diplomacy the stakes may be higher. And there is a big difference when it comes to the construction policy of gas pipelines where the role of the consumer countries plays a decisive role. Pipelines to bring Caspian basin gas to Europe over a conduit country such as Turkey cannot be built without the cooperation of the European consumer countries. So the diplomacy involved is much more intricate.

I, therefore believe, that if the US and/or Europe want to reduce or balance the pressures from Russia on the producer countries of the Caucasus or Central Asia, they should give support behind Turkey's policies. Turkey should pursue a closer and more coordinated policies with its American and European partners in this field.

But here, of course the picture is complicated by the attitude towards Turkey of some important elements in the Europe Union, and the consequent treatment of our application for membership and also by gestures against Turkey in some member countries. These obscure real common interests which the EU and Turkey both share with the US as well.

The need to involve Russia
Nonetheless Russia's relationship with its Black Sea neighbours is today an economic one. The Russians are still key players in our region.

Under the Soviet Union, Russia exported an ideology and subversion. Today it exports oil and natural gas. Its revenues from energy will have to be used to bring prosperity and modern conditions to its 143 million people: success in doing so can only mean a deeper and broadening involvement in the world economy. There are hazards in economic relationships, but they are less great than those of an implacable expansionist country. The disagreeable and undemocratic features of Putin's Russia are real and objectionable, but are they more worrying than the prospect of an unsuccessful and impoverished Russia which fails to overcome its internal challenges?

Frozen conflicts and Russian policy
An antagonistic policy that sees Russia essentially as a strategic threat, apart from ignoring the fact that there are currently other urgent threats from other directions to the international community, risks triggering Russian rejection of the new emerging international order in the Black Sea and attempts to set the clock back. Frozen conflicts and ethnic discontent offer obvious scope for a radical revisionist Russian Black Sea policy, in the Crimea, Abkhazia, and elsewhere.

Confrontation with Russia by the Atlantic Powers could be followed by a dangerous two stage scenario. The first would be ethnic disturbances by ethnic Russians or pro-Russian elements in mixed areas around the Black Sea. An active secessionist movement in Crimea for example could create challenges which would pose very awkward choices for the EU and NATO. Similarly the final detachment of Abkhazia, with its coastline, from Georgia would also be a major strategic upset.

Both developments are conceivable if Russia is estranged from the rest of the Black Sea community. The Russian people need to be encouraged to accept that there are real rewards for them from persisting with a status quo that at first sight perhaps seems humiliating for to a nation accustomed to the post-1774 political geography of the Black Sea.

If relations between the Russian Federation, its Black Sea neighbours, and the EU and the Atlantic community could be put on a stable basis, then arguably an important component of overall Russian-Western issues would be solved. Such stability can be reached through two avenues. One part is to persevere in keeping adequate working relations with Russia. The other is a piecemeal approach to solve all the "micro-conflicts" of the Black Sea in an acceptable way by creating an improved political and economic environment for them.

Partnership in the Black Sea
So let us look at the Black Sea from the other side of the coin, the non-Russian one. It is an area dominated by "end of Empire" problems as new States struggle to define their identities, emancipate their citizens, resolve unresolved post-imperial problems, create stable democracies, and build prosperous economies. All those tasks are interrelated. Turkey, I believe, has a particularly crucial role to play as a democratic western country, with Muslim population and with a strong regional economy, and good relations with virtually all sides in the Black Sea world. And we believe that while the shield of military readiness should not disappear, it is only gradualism, soft power, partnership and engagement which can sustain a real transformation along the lines I have described.

Ukraine
The emergence of an independent Ukraine is one of the boldest changes to emerge from the collapse of the Soviet Union. If it succeeds, Europe will eventually possess another 'major league player" --- a strong industrial nation of nearly 50 million. The current political cohabitation between President Yushchenko camp and his rival Viktor Yanukovych exposed an unexpected degree of flexibility in the country's national life. But the contest for more democratisation and a more pro-western orientation will continue. It is important both that Ukraine continue its political reforms and liberalisation, but the manner and timing of these changes carries risks. Too great a polarisation between east and west of the country and the result could be a serious political instability with threats to the nation's cohesion. The course of Ukraine's evolution since 1992 suggests that long-term trends will be in the direction of integration with the West.

Georgia
One of the key issues in framing Black Sea policies over the last ten years has been to finding ways to assist Georgia in maintaining its unity and independence. Its internal ethnic and cultural diversity has led to two attempts at secession on its frontiers with Russia in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. A third, in Ajaria, on its frontier with Turkey, failed largely because Turkey denied any support to the dissidents. The division between Russia and Georgia was arguably more painful for Russians than almost any other territorial loss in the break-up of the Soviet Union. Even more than Ukraine therefore, Georgia is the focus of Black Sea contests between Russia and the West.

Partnership in the Black Sea
Closer cooperation between the Turkey and the USA in the Black Sea, resolving the region's issues and relieving its poverty, would surely dissipate suspicion in other areas and build up confidence and working relationships which would make progress in other areas easier.

A stable and developing Black Sea region will in turn assist the strategic interests of the Euro-Atlantic world over a much wider area. It is the unspectacular but real achievements of the post-Communist period in the Black Sea region, owing much to the wisdom of US policy makers, rather than any radical initiatives, which should point the way forward. Let us not forget that one of the main reasons why the West won the Cold War itself was economic growth across the western world.

Emancipating the Black Sea
In presentational terms a policy of this kind might be seen as the "emancipation" of the Black Sea area rather than its "Americanisation" but if the US was clearly perceived as one of the driving forces behind benign changes, the lesson would be clear. In the background, dialogue between Turkish and US officials on other regional issues, particularly the Middle East and Iraq, should continue so that in due course a way may be found out of the present labyrinth.

How should this be achieved? As a basis for moving ahead, Turkey and the US need a common agenda. And perhaps a common success. An indication of what this might be like was given in the "Common Vision Paper" of Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in July 2006.

But I believe the cooperation model adopted between India and the US may be a better indicator. Like that cooperation model, the Black Sea Partnership should be long term, not exclusively or even mainly security-oriented. We should open up new avenues for trade and investment cooperation, particularly in areas such as Information Technology, electronics, energy and especially environment and other new industries.

The growth potential of the "new" Black Sea Countries, and the Turkish Customs Union with the EU, hopefully combined with the good offices and support of Bulgaria and Romania inside the EU, could create real opportunities attractive to all sides. Long term cooperation in non-military and commercial areas would be linked to enhanced democratic practices. The outcome would eventually be a shared success story for Turkey, the US, and other the countries of the Black Sea basin. Deeper strategic cooperation would follow as a natural consequence.

The bad resonances, on both sides, of 2003 might thus recede into the past.

To sum up
My basic ideas therefore are the following. The Turkish-American alliance is needed today at least as much as it ever has been. It has a bearing on the outcome of events in a wide area. The volatility of the Middle East and the European rejection of Turkey, as it is perceived there, will make management of the situation tougher than in the past. But in NATO and on the economic level, the core components of the alliance, despite everything, are working well.

In the Black Sea there are many jobs to be done. I see the main work there as being to roll out democracy and prosperity in a spirit of good faith and gradualism which will win the confidence of all involved. We are both well qualified to do that. What we should now be doing is working on designing practical instruments, such as a cooperation model, to carry out that task, in a workmanlike spirit not a grandiose or presumptuous one. And we should be aware that, as with the industrialisation and modernisation of Turkey, this is an agenda which could take few decades but will yield constant rewards in terms of security, energy, environment, prosperity and democracy during that time.
 

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Kristina N. Terzieva // Program Assistant
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant

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