U.S.-Turkey Relations in Crisis: Where Are We Headed? | Wilson Center

U.S.-Turkey Relations in Crisis: Where Are We Headed?

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The U.S.-Turkish relationship is in crisis. The disagreement over the detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson has exposed deeper fault lines in U.S.-Turkish ties that have been building for a decade or more, undermining any sense of confidence and trust. Are the ties that bind Washington and Ankara stronger than those political, economic, and regional forces threatening to pull them apart? And is there hope of a pathway back to a more functional relationship? 

In this Ground Truth Briefing, four veteran observers and analysts of Turkish politics and U.S.-Turkish relations addressed these and other issues.

Selected Quotes

Aaron David Miller

“Whether this crisis is a headline or a trendline remains to be seen, but at a minimum it certainly reflects a kind of crisis of confidence between these two partners – where trust and the importance of giving each other the benefit of the doubt seems very much at risk.” 

“The issue has also entered the domain, perhaps it never left it, of internal politics – certainly on the Turkish side. And we know that once a foreign policy issue becomes embedded in domestic politics, it becomes incredibly important to a leader’s credibility and believability – particularly on the street. It becomes even more difficult to resolve.” 

Henri Barkey

“The [failed July 2016 coup attempt] became a major, life-changing event, if you want, for the Turkish political system and for President Erdogan, whereby he used the coup to essentially consolidate power, change the Turkish political system, and the coup essentially became the rallying and defining point for this new regime that Erdogan instituted.”

“I would say, fundamentally, the Turkish-American crisis today is actually very severe… since 1974, when the U.S. imposed a temporary arms embargo on Turkey before invading Cyprus. The rhetoric in Turkey against the U.S. has never been this bad.”

“There is a very anti-American atmosphere in Turkey… Most people in the United States don’t care about Turkey, don’t think about Turkey, don’t even know what’s going on in Turkey or the crisis that we are experiencing. But I can assure you that every single person in Turkey knows about the United States, knows about the crisis with the United States, is angry at the United States, and is being pushed, if you want, by the government to be anti-American.“

Asli Aydintasbas

“[The chemistry between Trump and Erdogan] was supposed to be the one thing that may have kept the relationship going. In Donald Trump, Erdogan [saw] a like-minded, practical guy, and also someone who is the antithesis of the Obama administration that he thought was somewhat complicit in the coup. But the relationship – and this is why the Brunson saga matters – very quickly became a very personal negotiation process, not necessarily through the Foreign Ministry and the State Department, but through various proxies and intermediaries – and it failed.”

“In six months’ time, we could see this issue resolved, but we would still end up with the same background story, which is a Turkey that doesn’t necessarily see its destiny in the West, that is more interested in regional leadership than being a junior member of the Western league, that has suspicions, essentially, about the Western liberal order. It was this suspicion about the Western liberal order that brought Donald Trump and Tayyip Erdogan together in the first place.”

“It is important to note that there’s a new Turkey. I think that the old parameters for the strategic relationship – which was essentially a defense, security relationship – is not necessarily there. The two countries will work together when it suits their interests and will go around each other when their interests are not overlapping, and at times, I think this will be marked by tension.” 

Soner Cagaptay

“At that moment, I think the President took over what was a long process of talks on a variety of issues and negotiations between the bureaucracies of two countries. He decided to pick it up himself. It got escalated to his level because, I think, as the man of deals, Trump felt that his part of the bargain was not delivered by Erdogan – that Brunson was not released. So he tweeted on this issue, asked for Turkey to release him, and when no progress came, he started to move ahead with economic sanctions.”

“Looking at Trump and Erdogan’s tweets and commentary, so far they have never targeted each other personally. They have never said anything bad about each other. They have said ‘they,’ used pronouns to refer to the other side, used passive speech. Both leaders, while they’re angry at each other and have walked into this crisis unwillingly, always want to be able to walk away from it.” 

“The U.S.-Turkey crisis has helped a Turkish-European spring. Erdogan has balanced out, reaching out to European countries, normalizing relations, moving fast forward on a variety of issues, where no progress was [seemingly] possible.”

Lisel Hintz

“There’s been some of these major policy disputes, but now I think we have something fundamentally different and unprecedented. And I do think that this is a crisis of confidence and trust on both sides. And the reason that I think that’s important is that it’s very hard to roll back from that.”

“This sort of rhetorical vilification of 'others,' both domestic and in the international arena, is something that Erdogan has honed. He can call them terrorists, he can call them lobbyists – all of these sorts of ways, blaming others for what are domestic problems. I think this is important in terms of where we are with the U.S.–Turkey relationship."

“I think this all speaks to this sort of entrenchment on both sides. The personalities are very important to focus on. I think, particularly in studies of foreign policy, we don’t focus enough on the individuals and the personalities. I think, with two different leaders, you would not see it escalate to this point, necessarily.” 




  • Asli Aydintasbas

    Senior Policy Fellow, European Council on Foreign Relations; columnist for the Turkish daily, Cumhuriyet
  • Henri Barkey

    Bernard L. and Bertha F. Cohen Professor in International Relations, Lehigh University; Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; former Director, Wilson Center Middle East Program
  • Soner Cagaptay

    Senior Fellow at The Washington Institute and author, "The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey"
  • Lisel Hintz

    Assistant Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies