Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Obama's Turkey Policy: Bringing Credibility to "Strategic Partnership"

Academic journal article Insight Turkey

Obama's Turkey Policy: Bringing Credibility to "Strategic Partnership"

Article excerpt

In American foreign policy the urgent often trumps the important. Burdened with global responsibilities, high-level American policy-makers are almost always engaged in either "crisis management" or "damage control." This is perhaps why Turkey rarely and thankfully almost never makes it to the top of first priority items. As former ambassador to Turkey, Morton Abramowitz recently wrote: "Turkey poses no security threat to the United States compared to the situation in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Russia in and around the Caucasus. Turkey is not a key player like the European Union, Japan and China in dealing with the international financial debacle. It's not an energy exporter like Saudi Arabia. It does not harbor terrorists who want to strike the United States, and it is not a proliferation risk like Pakistan and North Korea. In short, Turkey does not make headlines in The New York Times or on CNN."

The downside of not being problematic is not being on the agenda. In fact, American policy-makers think of Turkey only when they need support with something urgent, or in the context of a regional crisis. In that sense, there is simply no clear-cut and well-thought-out American strategy to deal with Turkey. Under such circumstances, Turkey's potential role often comes as an "afterthought." Washington's Turkey policy is a "derivative" of other more pressing regional problems and priorities. And "typically, when we need something from Ankara, we need it right now" points out Mark Parris, another former ambassador to Turkey. Add to this the fact that Turkey often falls between the cracks in the European versus Middle East bureaucratic division of the State Department and the Pentagon. The result is a crucial ally of the United States that is consistently neglected.

Is this situation likely to change with the Obama administration? The short answer is "probably not." Given the unprecedented scale of the global financial crisis and the wide array of foreign policy nightmares awaiting Washington, the new administration may even end up having less time to think strategically about Turkish-American relations. Yet this is not the whole story. It would be unfair to argue that under Obama, Turkish -American relations will face more of the same. Turkey may still end up getting less attention than it deserves. But the Obama administration is likely to be very different from its immediate predecessor in one key aspect: a genuine preference for multilateralism. This will count for a lot because most of the problems faced by the Bush administration were products of unilateralism and mind-boggling incompetence.

In fact, the motto of US foreign policy over the last eight years often seemed to be "unilaterally if we can, multilaterally if we must." Under Obama, however, American foreign policy is likely to revisit the 1990s, when the motto was "multilaterally if we can, unilaterally if we must." Needless to say, the latter approach strongly contributed to the positive image of the United States under the two Clinton administrations. Although Obama will seek to restore America's lost sense of moral authority and political legitimacy, there will always be limits to American multilateralism. If necessary, Washington will continue to act alone. But it's the little things that will make a big difference. Just shutting down Guantanamo and changing the approach to the Kyoto Protocol will be symbolic gestures reminding Europeans that America shares the same planet with them. In turn, this change in transatlantic atmospherics will make it much easier for Washington to forge a better partnership with key allies such as Germany and France.

Such improvement in transatlantic relations is good news for Turkey for a number of reasons. The most obvious one is the positive impact on Turkey-EU relations. The logic is simple: Washington has always been a strong and vocal supporter of Turkey's European vocation. Therefore, the better America's image in Europe the better it is for Turkey. …

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