Beyond Suspicion: Rethinking US-Turkish Relations *

By Lesser, Ian O. | Insight Turkey, July 2007 | Go to article overview

Beyond Suspicion: Rethinking US-Turkish Relations *


Lesser, Ian O., Insight Turkey


Mutual suspicion has been a pervasive feature of US-Turkish relations since the Iraq war. It has become fashionable for Americans to ask: "Who lost Turkey?" For Turks, it is equally fashionable to question American motives in dealing with Turkey and its region. This analysis rejects these assessments. To be sure, key aspects suffer from deferred maintenance, and a reshaped bond needs to reflect critical changes in the strategic environment and the emergence of new perspectives and new actors on both sides. Turkey has been moving toward a more active and diverse foreign policy, driven by new sensitivities, changing affinities, and evolving relationships between religion and secularism, state and society, and nationalism and reform. Some of this new foreign policy will be in accord with American interests, and some will not be. Yet to take the long view, the US-Turkish relationship has often been characterized by sharp disagreements alongside areas of shared interest and cooperation. There is no lost golden age in US-Turkish relations.

Turkey's political crisis over the selection of its next president, and the broader debates it has spurred about secularism, civil military relations, and the relationship between state and society, is vitally important to the future of Turkey. The cleavages it has revealed may take years to reconcile. But it is a crisis that can only be resolved by Turks. The United States should not hesitate to make clear that American interests are served by democratic solutions, but Washington must also realize that American influence in Turkish domestic politics is limited--and properly so. Political turmoil may make Turkey a less active and effective partner for a period, but eventually the relationship will need to be put on a better footing, whatever the political constellation in Ankara.

Understanding what has changed in the relationship, and what will be possible in the future, is not simply about assessing changes in Turkey. Also needed is a sober assessment of what has changed on the US side, and in the strategic environment as a whole. Many of the elements affecting relations between Ankara and Washington, from the sharp deterioration of public attitudes toward the United States to the resurgence of nationalism, can be seen in abundance elsewhere on the international scene. Policy differences over the Iraq war have been reinforced by wider unease about the nature and direction of American power, and Turks are more affected than most nations by these concerns. The challenges to the US-Turkish strategic relationship are neither new nor unique.

Towards a Sustainable US-Turkish Partnership

A strategic relationship on the pattern of the Cold War years is unlikely to reemerge in the absence of wider, negative developments on the international scene. Relations could drift toward a scenario of strategic estrangement, but this would be avoidable. The most likely--and desirable--scenario will be the development of a recalibrated, sustainable partnership. Movement toward a sustainable relationship requires avoiding nearterm crises over highly emotive issues on the bilateral agenda, but the essential contours of this approach are broader gauge and longerterm.

First, expectations need to be brought into line with reality. Turkey has a long history of ambivalence toward American access and power projection in the Middle East, especially in the absence of United Nations (UN) or North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) mandates. This is most unlikely to change, and American policymakers and strategists must take this reality on board. It is unrealistic to assume that Turkey, with its pro-nounced sensitivity to questions of national sovereignty, will automatically agree to facilitate American action in the Middle East or Eurasia. But substantial cooperation on regional security is achievable. Turkey has, in fact, been quietly supportive of coalition operations in Iraq, despite overt differences over Iraq policy. …

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