Turkey in the EU Means a New Kind of US-Turkish Relationship

By
Ian Lesser

Turkey's qualified nod from the European Union to begin formal accession negotiations in October 2005 is good news for the United States, but will require fresh thinking about the "strategic relationship" between Washington and Ankara. It is a relationship suffering from deferred maintenance. The historic EU decision paving the way for eventual Turkish membership is the right moment for Turkey and the U.S. to put their own relationship on a better course.
The European Council action marks the start of a long-term process that could well end with full Turkish membership in the EU. There will be many twists and turns, and full membership is still not a foregone conclusion, as the hedged language of the EU decision makes clear. Over the likely course of accession negotiations – Turkish and European leaders talk of a decade or more – both Turkey and the Union itself are likely to change substantially. There will be opportunities for either side to opt out, or to put the negotiations on a faster track.

Given Turkey's strategic location and ability to further or impede American freedom of action from the eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia, the U.S. will be a key stakeholder in this long-term process. The Bush Administration wisely chose to take a low-key approach to Turkish-EU negotiations. Given the troubled state of transatlantic relations, anything else might have harmed rather than helped the Turkish case. But now that the accession path has been clarified, it is time to re-engage with Turkey and reshape our bilateral cooperation. A new U.S.-Turkish relationship will need to reflect several realities, and capture some important new opportunities.

First, Turkey can have a vigorous strategic relationship with the U.S. while moving toward membership in Europe, but it will be hard to engineer without an improvement in transatlantic relations. Prior to the Brussels summit, some opponents of Turkish membership argued that Turkey, with its longstanding security ties to Washington, would be a "Trojan horse" for U.S. foreign policy aims within the EU. In reality, Turkish policy has been moving toward the European mainstream, and away from American preferences, for some time. Turkish views on Iraq, Iran and a range of other issues are much closer to those of Paris and Bonn. As Turkey's convergence with Europe gathers pace, this trend will be reinforced. Turkish cooperation with the U.S., especially on Middle Eastern security, cannot be taken for granted -- a reality evident long before the Iraq War. In the future, the outlook for Turkish cooperation will turn on the outlook for cooperation with Europe as a whole. The prize for the U.S. is a far more predictable and potentially far-reaching relationship with Ankara.

Second, the striking success of the Erdogan government in bringing Turkey to the threshold of EU membership is part of a profound change in Turkish society and politics. Rapid reform, and the prospect of much more to come, has been encouraged by the drive toward Europe. Turkey is now a place where public opinion counts, and few foreign or domestic policy moves are possible if the Turkish public is deeply opposed (a key lesson of the unsuccessful attempt to arrange a Turkish front at the start of the Iraq war). A new strategic relationship with the U.S. cannot be fashioned by engaging Turkey's traditional security policymakers alone. Recent opinion polls point to a dramatic decline in public perceptions of the U.S., and Turkish views of American policy are now among the most negative in Europe. Attempts to expand relations with Ankara will not get far unless this public acceptance crisis is addressed – and that can only be done by taking Turkey's own regional interests, including the fight against PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) militants in Iraq and Turkey, clearly and visibly into account.

Third, the opening of accession negotiations should give Turkey's much improved but still vulnerable economy a tremendous boost. Historically, Turkey has been unable to attract the kind of foreign direct investment its resources, location and entrepreneurial talent should justify. The prospect of EU membership and a more predictable legal and financial climate should prove a great spur to new European investment. There is no reason why American investors should not follow-suit in a rapidly growing market of some 70 million people. A greater role for private sector interaction between Turkey and the U.S. would reflect a changing Turkey, where the business community has led the charge for change in domestic and foreign policy, and would go along way toward building a more diverse, less security-heavy relationship – something both sides have sought since the end of the Cold War.

The Brussels summit opens the way for a different kind of American relationship with Turkey – more predictable, more relevant, but inevitably linked to the overall health of the transatlantic relationship.

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