Neither Bridge nor Barrier: Towards a New Paradigm in US - Turkish Relations

By
Athanasios Moulakis

November 15, 2006
 
Neither Bridge nor Barrier:
Towards a New Paradigm in US- Turkish Relations.
(from a presentation given at the American Hellenic Institute)

The relationship between the United States and Turkey has often been described as strategic.

Following and seeking to revive well-established terminological precedent President Clinton spoke of a "strategic partnership" when he addressed the Turkish Grand National Assembly in 1999. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul did not fail to evoke the term yet again on the occasion of the latter's visit to Washington last summer.
To call a relationship "strategic" would seem to mean two things:

1) That it represents an ongoing, long-term, sustained pattern of cooperation that rests on substantial convergence of the fundamental international objectives of both partners with their domestic corollaries of such objectives.

2) That it concerns primarily issues of security and military coordination to which other considerations are subordinated.
The subordinate matters include matters of domestic order and good government, human rights, as well as the relationship with other partners and allies, considered, rightly or wrongly, to have less strategic value.
In all cases the relationship is asymmetrical given the immense power of the United States and its unique capacity to put its mark upon the international system.

There was strategic alignment between the US and Turkey during the Cold War. Turkey, a front state, bordering on the Soviet Union, with the second largest army in NATO, appeared as a bulwark or a barrier whose interest in containing the Soviet Union coincided perfectly with that of the United States. The relationship had its ups and downs, such as the Cuban missile crisis, the Johnson letter of 1964 and the embargo of 1974 - the latter two linked to Cyprus. Despite fluctuations, however, the partnership appeared very solid. It is no doubt fortunate that in a period of mutual nuclear deterrence the alliance was never in fact put to the test in operational terms.

Turkey's domestic politics, including ethnic tensions and the play of religious predispositions, were on the whole articulated in terms of an ideological left-right alignment which reflected the polarity of international confrontation. Kurdish nationalism, for instance, presented itself as a "leftist" movement and was in turn repressed as such, whereas the secular military and political elites did not hesitate to encourage some forms of political Islam as part of the struggle against Communism.

Greeks and voices arguing the Greek case before American audiences have frequently attempted to show that Greece's strategic importance was no less significant to the United States than that of Turkey. They argue, for instance, that Suda bay in Crete provides the best natural harbor in the Mediterranean astride the main avenue of energy transports. They point out deficiencies in Turkey's conduct as an American ally, and evoke Greek pages of glory and sacrifice in situations where America and Greece had made common cause.

I will argue, instead, that the relationship with Turkey can no longer be termed "strategic" in any meaningful way, beyond the platitudes of diplomatic exchanges. This change is due to structural reasons that have nothing to do with the comparative strategic value of Greece. With the collapse of Communism the rationale for a shared outlook and posture trumping all other considerations disappeared. Turkish and American interests, overlap in many cases, but they do not coincide and are indeed sometimes widely divergent. Furthermore, with the emergence of the European Union as a motor for economic and political development in the region, the United States, though still extremely important, is no longer - ironically for the single remaining global superpower - the lodestone of Turkish politics. The multi-layered impetus of European integration implies, of course, a departure from a foreign policy approach focused strictly on security in the narrow sense. In terms of Greco-Turkish relations it also means that the hope of Monteagle Stearns, expressed in his book Entangled Allies that the two neighboring countries talk directly to each other rather than playing for the attention and favor of "mama" America, has gone some ways toward being realized.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and more urgently after 9/11, attempts were made from a US point of view to refocus the role of Turkey in the new world order. It was frequently said that its geographic location between the Middle East, the Turcic Republics of Central Asia, the Caucasus, Black Sea and the Balkans was, if anything, more significant than before. The idea of Turkey attached to the West as its shield against a turbulent Middle East, as a barrier against jihadist violence on the European periphery had evident appeal.

Turks are Muslims, so the argument goes, but they are our kind of Muslims and all the better for being Muslim to charm away the self-fulfilling prophecy of the "clash of civilizations". Germans who already have several million Muslims - mostly Turks - in their midst that they find difficult to assimilate, and the French or Dutch who have their own difficulties, may not find the argument compelling. The attempt to enlist Turkey's strategic alignment with the West (itself a term that does not mean the same thing in Milan as it does in Lubbock) takes, however, a subtler form:
To the image of a bulwark or barrier, possessed of hard military power is added that of a bridge, with the capacity of connecting and mediating between East and West, facilitating soft approaches to stability. It is no coincidence that we saw on Television a President of the United States with the new bridge spanning the Bosphorus that divides Europe and Asia in the background.

The Turks themselves trumpet their capacity to mediate between East and West, and no doubt Turkey can offer invaluable good services by means of its pragmatic and prudent links with its neighbors to the East and South. But proud Turks would bristle at the suggestion that this is because of cultural affinity. It is fair to say that, all things being equal, Turks despise Arabs, their former subjects, and Arabs detest the Turks, their former masters. The last thing Turks want is to be cast in the role of the native interpreter in the service of the great white hunter.

It is significant that it is no longer merely Turkey's geographical position but its political and civilizational character that is being promoted as marking it out for a special role in spanning the differences between East and West. The frequently repeated formula of "a secular and democratic Muslim country attached to the West" has many uses. Turkey's participation in allied operations in Afghanistan helps make the case that the so-called war against terrorism is not a war against Islam. As advocates of regime change repeatedly point out Turkey's political system serves as evidence that democracy and Islam are not essentially incompatible. Even more pointedly in American pronouncements, especially after 9/11, the Turkish Republic as a Muslim, secular, democratic nation was held up as a model for the Islamic world.

This apparently flattering view of Turkey can, however, be misleading if the terms are not precisely understood, and it is, surprisingly perhaps, offensive to many Turks. Turkey is a country in which the vast majority of the population is at least nominally Muslim, but it is not a Muslim country in the sense that say Saudi Arabia or even Pakistan is a Muslim country. The dominant form of Bekhtashi Islam provides for mild forms of private and communal religious practice that is a far cry from Wahabi or Shia rigors. This, of course, can change given circumstances favoring fundamentalist revivals, as has alas happened in Bosnia, under the protection of Western guns, under the double influence of the renewed salience of identity politics on the one hand and money and propaganda from the Gulf on the other. Such a radicalization would by the same token work to the detriment of Turkey's quality as an exemplar.

This is not a likely scenario in today's Turkey. Nevertheless, the migration of religiously conservative – Ataturk would have said backward – people from deeper Anatolia to the urban centers is changing the composition of the politically mobilized population. As a result there have been attempts to prohibit the sale of alcohol, for instance, or to set aside certain parks for women only.

More importantly, at the foundation of the Republic Mustafa Kemal abolished religious institutions and suppressed the more fervent religious manifestations. The republic is secular, not in the sense of a separation of Church and State and the free practice of religion, but rather on the French Jacobin model of laicite, that places the exercise of religion under the control of the state. There can be no "in God we Trust" or "One Nation under God" in Turkish public life, things that Ataturk would undoubtedly have dismissed as superstitions carried over from an obscurantist past, inimical to the achievement of efficient rational modernity that he wished Turkey to embrace. There is, in other words, an illiberal, even intolerant aspect to Turkey's secularism, that is felt by girls who cannot attend classes wearing a headscarf, as they are by the Ecumenical Patriarch whose travails are not due solely to ethnic persecution but also to a Kemalist state imperative to regulate cults.

The present governing majority AKP, a party of islamist ascendancy, if not with an explicitly islamist program, has to proceed with great prudence in order not to provoke the intervention of military and civilian keepers of Kemalist orthodoxy. To salute Turkey's experiment in moderate Islam as a Muslim equivalent of Christian democracy, as many Western commentators have done, is to take sides in an extremely contentious matter of Turkish politics. To the entrenched Kemalist elite to hold up such moderate Islamic pattern of government as a pioneering model for the Islamic world is an intolerable attack on the sacrosanct principles of Ataturk's republic. To the extent that the play of multiparty democracy throws up elements of Islamism, as it almost invariably has, the play is chaperoned and when deemed necessary suspended. Turkey does not wish to be a tolerable, or even an exemplary Eastern country. It does not want to be an Islamic republic, no matter how mild. It wants to be a full-fledged Western country. But the model of modernization and westernization that it has embraced, and embraced with a passion, is not a liberal one. The usphot is an on again off again democracy that is no doubt far preferable to the tyrannies to its East and South, but nonetheless falls short of the liberal democratic political culture of the Europe it wishes to join.

The conditionality of the process of European integration has worked wonders in the case of its members - including the problematic former dictatorships of southern Europe – in terms of consolidating liberal democratic institutions, human rights, entrepreneurial scope, prosperity and quality of life. There are very real benefits for meeting and tangible penalties for failing to meet European standards such as to encourage the right things to happen.

It is to be hoped that the same dynamics will work for Turkey, thus extending the European zone of security and prosperity, to the enormous benefit of both Turkey and its neighbors. It will not be easy. In many respects Turkey is unlucky. Whereas the collapse of communism released many of its latent energies, it also put forward a large number of more self-evidently European countries, which, as it were, jumped the queue in front of Turkey. The absorption and the need to develop operational institutions to catch up with this expansion means that Turkey faces Europeans tired and leery of further expansion. Skeptics say that Turkey is too big (its population equals that of all 10 recent entrants into the EU put together), too poor and too different to be integrated into Europe. Perhaps, but I believe that all of these can be overcome. The important thing is in fact not so much the accession itself as the convergence with European standards, the process of adaptation of political mores, the expanding of the paleo-modernistic Kemalist civil religion into a liberal democratic political culture. In this Turkey will be assisted by the emergence of new actors – a rapidly diversified civil society, an energetic industry independent of the old entrenched state-centered elites, new highly educated cadres, a far more participatory and politically engaged public opinion.

The interim progress report of the Turkish EU accession process that was published last week is not very encouraging. It is clear, that after a most impressive series of reforms – legislation being of course well ahead of implementation – there has been a slow down in the reform process. This recoiling from reaching towards the Copenhagen criteria may be because there is deep political and cultural resistance to their adoption, because, in other words, Turkey really is too different. But it may also be because, listening to a Nicolas Sarkozy, a Silvio Berlusconi, or even Pope Benedict insist that East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet, they expect to be snubbed in the end whether they meet the criteria or not. The process may fail, then, not because Turkey is too big, too poor, or too different, but because it is too thin skinned, for which some attitudes of the Europeans may give them cause. A prickly national pride is, moreover, also a useful mantle for entrenched elites who would rather keep their privileged position in a stagnating, isolated country, than risk sailing on a tide they do not control.

The truth is Turkey has no alternative but Europe. Pan-turanic unions reaching to the Great Wall of China such as Torgut Ozal used to envision are but racial daydreams that upon waking up turn out to be nothing but the bleak Russian near abroad. Culturally, furthermore, proud as they are of their national independence and sovereignty, Turks are imbued by the Kemalist aspiration to be part of contemporary, that is Western civilization.

The United States has been a consistent champion of Turkey's accession to the EU, partly for "high" reasons, because it viewed the European framework as a way to overcome Turkish democratic deficits, to strengthen the economy, and to alleviate ethnic conflict, but also because of the down to earth to gain favor with an ally it considered very valuable for its power projection in the Middle East. American lobbying (along with the change of the Greek position) in favor of Turkey's European bid was decisive in achieving the opening of access negotiations at the Helsinki Summit. Ironically this very success deprived the United States of important leverage on Turkey while earning the resentment of some Europeans who thought it was none of America's business to tell the European Union whom it should or should not admit.

In fact on many questions, unilateralism, preventive war, regime change, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Israel-Palestine, Turkey is much closer to Europe – what Donald Rumsfeld deprecated as the "old Europe" - than to the United States.
The divergence of Turkish and American strategic perspectives became apparent at the latest on March 1, 2003. To Washington's surprise, disappointment, indignation and anger, the Turkish parliament denied United States troops access to Iraq through Turkey. A coincidence of security interests and ultimate compliance of Turkey was so much taken for granted that Secretary of State Colin Powell in his several trips to the Near East in the run-up to the Iraq war, did not take the trouble to stop in Turkey until a month after the fateful March 1 vote.

The Turkish parliament's decision upturned the results of lengthy and contentious negotiations between American and Turkish officials. It had serious consequences on the conduct of the campaign that could no longer be conducted on two fronts as the American planners had originally intended. Donald Rumsfeld went so far as to blame the Sunni insurgency on the vacuum created by the Turkish refusal to allow the opening of a northern front. Americans felt betrayed or at least let down by a country they had praised and supported in many ways. Turks, on the other hand, felt that that they were being bullied without due consideration of their own vital interests. The Americans for their part thought the Turks had been dragging out negotiations to wring more financial concession. In so doing they paid little attention to the ultimate dependence a popularly elected, populist prime minister, in power against the suspicions of the Kemalist "deep state", on the opinion and consent of his followers.

Communications between the two sides were burdened by the habits of the Cold War era – that were primarily military to military. It was thus easy to overlook the emergence of new actors in the Turkish polity. The problem was aggravated by the US military command responsible for Iraq not being EUCOM, in whose sphere Turkey normally belongs, but CENTCOM accustomed to dealing with Arab decision makers and Afghan warlords not concerned with catering to democratic constituencies. Getting the Turkish military to sign on to the use of Turkish territory in the Iraq war was difficult enough, but the plan ultimately failed because the now salient significance of public opinion in Turkey was ignored. Paul Wolfowitz, who headed the negotiations for the US, should have known better. But then he should also have known better than to believe our soldiers in Iraq would be showered with rose petals.

Needless to say, given the asymmetry of their relative position in the world, America is much more present in Turkish opinion than Turkey is on the mind of Americans. In what became known as the "sacking" incident the 173d airborne captured Turkish troops on Iraqi soil and proceeded, in a gesture not exactly calculated to win hearts and minds, to handcuff and hood them. Even if the purpose of the aborted Turkish commando operation was, as Bremer maintained, to assassinate personalities in Kirkuk, accusation the Turks deny, the indignity and insult is not likely to be forgotten or forgiven soon.

At a time when America, or at any rate the Bush administration and its policies, are highly unpopular in many places of the globe, BBC, Pew, and German Marshall Fund surveys show that Turkey has the highest degree of Anti-Americanism of any Western country. Much of this Anti Americanism is quite irrational and laced with conspiracy theories and often accompanied by virulent anti-Semitism. An op-ed piece by Robert Pollock in the Wall Street Journal (Feb. 17 2005) with the characteristic title The Sick Man of Europe - Again denounced these excesses. Yet its title alone, evoking the rhetoric of Western imperial powers bent on carving up the Ottoman empire, added oil to the fire.

One should not be misled by the populist excesses and conspiracy mongering into thinking that the differences between American and Turkish position are merely whipped up ideological constructs of easily stirred up mobs. A large number of the sophisticated and prudent Turkish elite, the traditional bearers of the "strategic partnership" are highly suspicious of American motives and seek to take their distance from the United States and its policies.

The March 2003 vote in the Grand National Assembly is a turning point in US – Turkish relations. The crisis, however, did not, cause the moving apart of US and Turkish strategic interests so much as reveal them.

Since the consolidation of the Republic as a national state under Kemal, Turkish foreign policy has been deliberately conservative and defensive, seeking to uphold its territorial integrity – including the inner "jacobin" integrity of a single and indivisible nation, intolerant of "disloyal minorities" - but avoiding adventures abroad. This includes Ismet Inonu's balancing act that kept Turkey out of World War II. The invasion of Cyprus is an exceptional event, due to circumstances that had not been provided for in the Lausanne settlement. Turkey is a status quo power – and its long-lasting alignment with the US during the Cold War was also rooted in the essentially conservative policy of containment.

The first Iraq war already involved a delicate tight-rope act for Turkey. Iraq was after all Turkey's major trading partner. Loss of that business was costly. Revenues from energy transit were also severely curtailed. The no fly zone over Northern Iraq, was kept up with fighter planes based in Incirlik in eastern Turkey. The operation of that base was a major pillar of Turkish American cooperation, but also carried considerable political cost, as an indication that Turkey subordinated its national interest in the Kurdish question to the desires of its powerful ally.

All of this was exacerbated by the second Iraq war. The activist neo-conservative project of democratization through robust intervention was deliberately aimed at upsetting the status quo, thus removing the underpinnings of Turkish-American strategic understanding. The Turks failed to be reassured that their national interests would be adequately served by a stable, democratic, federal Iraq achieved by means of preventive war. In retrospect such skepticism does not seem out of place. What did emerge, as the Turks had feared, was a de facto independent Kurdistan, that aids and abets their own insurgent Kurds. Despite certain verbal assurances it is not likely that the American command in Iraq, with bigger fish to fry further south, will intervene against Kurds in the one zone of relative stability in what remains of the state of Iraq. Nor can the Americans on the other hand allow the Turks to intervene against the Kurds on Iraqi soil, for fear of losing the allegiance of the Iraqi Kurds and of creating precedent for intervention by other countries such as Iran or Syria. Turks, in turn, wonder aloud why, if Israel is allowed to hunt down Hezbollah on Lebanese territory Turkey should be prevented from pursuing the PKK in Iraqi territory. Such apparent double standards in a so-called global the war on terror feed the conspiracy theory mills of Turkish opinion where there is wide speculation of an American plot to dismember Turkey, reviving the specter of the treaty of Sevres, the nightmare of Turkish historical memory.

By not participating in the campaign the Turks of course forfeited the right to have a determining role in the restructuring of Iraq. That said, American commanders were concerned from the beginning by the Turkish military concentrating its interest on Northern Iraq, rather than on capturing and holding Baghdad.

Turks and Americans would have been uncomfortable bedmates even if they had acted in concert. At the same time the Turkish refusal to cooperate naturally led the Americans to rely more heavily on the Kurds, thus leading to further weakening of the bonds and an increase of tension with Turkey. The existence of major American bases within Iraq makes bases in Turkey largely redundant. Incirlik is useful. Its use makes for serious savings in the logistics of American operations. But it is not essential. Turkish leverage on the relationship is accordingly diminished. The partnership has its uses, but it is not strategic. Short of a renewed major threat from a revived Russia or by a nuclear Iran it is not likely to become so again.

Turkey might indeed prove useful in dealing with Iran and Syria, but its standing with respect to both regimes depends on treating them as pragmatic interlocutors with whom she shares borders, not in isolating them and branding them rogue states. A friendly Turkey can, then, indirectly help bring greater elasticity to US relations with these countries, but it is far from sharing the "axis of evil" approach that characterizes official American proclamations at the moment. In many respects Turkey has serious common interests with these two countries, who also have Kurdish monorities. Having said that, we must not forget that not long ago Turkey almost went to war with Syria over the latter's protection of Ocalan.

Trade between the United States and Turkey has been declining. This is only in part because of American protectionism and Chinese competitiveness in textiles. It is largely a result of a decline in the supply of armaments that is of a piece with the traditional security-heavy Turkish American partnership. Turkey's rapprochement with Europe and the concomitant recasting of specifications is read by American arms manufacturers as intended to disqualify them as bound by higher technology transfer limitations thus endangering to their traditional privileged position as Turkey's suppliers. Should that occur, one side effect could be a decline of the force of the Turkish lobby in Washington which draws much of its strength from the connection of military decision makers with the arms industry.
Energy transport presents a wide field of possible cooperation between Turkey and the US.

The pipeline to Ceyhan in S.E. Turkey is a colossal undertaking. The criteria that led to its adoption are however almost entirely geopolitical, trying to bypass difficult intermediaries, rather than seeking the technically shortest and cheapest way. How valid these criteria will remain in the long run remains to be seen. The capriciousness and bullying of Russia may offer some justification, but in any case one should expect Turkey to weigh its options not according to what it considers its national advantage. In general, the potential of Turkey as a transit country for energy, notably natural gas, is great, but its fullest development will require multilateral networking rather than any one-sided attachment.

What we should expect in future US – Turkish relations is a pattern of cooperation following ad hoc opportunities. The NATO link remains important, possibly also necessary in terms of deterrence of a nuclear armed Iran, but in the "new world order" it no longer has the "flywheel" effect it used to have to carry other things before it. NATO's current outlook o engagement "out of area", looking eastward, away from its Euro-Atlantic home furthermore runs counter to Turkey's historical aspirations facing westward.

It is time that Turkey be understood on her own terms, as a complex society with a life and interests specifically her own, rather than reduced to her simplified instrumental value for the projection of US military power. The concessions granted to Turkey and the concessions demanded of it, also with regard to Greece and Cyprus, can no longer be subordinate to the desire to secure an unsinkable aircraft carrier. A whole range of American interests, less crudely evident perhaps than geopolitical calculations, but nonetheless significant, investment opportunities, financial services etc. will be better served by a diversification of exchanges. American business with Turkey can go piggy-back on the improved regulatory climate brought about by Turkish convergence with Europe, and by so doing in turn further the convergence process.

Finally it is also time that the relationship between Turkey and Greece no longer be viewed as a zero sum game in which the loss of one is considered the gain of the other, including the culling of favor of their giant friend, the United States.

 

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
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant