Over the last decade in which I have been working on Turkey I have delivered and listened to more speeches on US-Turkish relations than I care to recall.
Particularly when coming from official sources these speeches tend to cover the traditional contours and terrain of our two nation’s great history, but rarely delve below the surface in a way that can capture the nuances that make ours such a complex partnership. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised last week to listen to one of the best speeches I’ve ever heard on the topic delivered overlooking the Bosporus by one of the least likely and most unassuming American leaders from Washington.
Senator Susan Collins’ speech at Bahçesehir University began with her explanation of how she had chosen to visit Turkey on her way back from the World Economic Forum for the first time instead of China, which she has visited previously. Turkey’s impressive growth rate and the possibility of expanding her home state of Maine’s business interests were compelling enough, but as she prepared she continued to see the relevance to the Senate Armed Services Committee on which she serves. Hitting on the theme of Turkey’s unique potential in a changing world and the possibilities for greater partnership with the United States, Senator Collins offered a refreshingly realistic yet optimistic view of the US-Turkish partnership as it stands today.
As a centrist Republican known for her candor and pragmatism, Senator Collins is exactly the type of friend that Turkey needs right now in Washington. President Barack Obama may be Ankara’s best friend in Washington, but he has little control over a Congress that has become increasingly hostile to Turkey for its rhetoric on Cyprus and Israel. Collins did not shy away from these thorny foreign policy disagreements while also pointing out some of Turkey’s greatest challenges in terms of press freedom, empowerment of women and judicial reforms. However, she offered them in a spirit of sincerity and friendship that I have rarely seen from Congress.
Turkey has led by its example on the virtues of soft power in the form of economic engagement, visa liberalization and “zero problems with neighbors,” yet the realities of the Middle East have once again reinforced the necessity of its partnership with America. Speaking on the day after the Van earthquake and a few days after the deadliest Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) attacks in years, Collins was quick to offer America’s support but also question why Turks mistrusted an ally that has been locked arm-in-arm in fighting a terrorist organization since the beginning. Her fresh perspective and direct words caught me by surprise given how jaded I have become by the DC jargon typically offered after such events.
Being a friend of Turkey does not mean having to be exclusive and non-critical; in fact having a sincere and trusted friend is far more valuable these days. Sometimes not being immersed in the nitty-gritty but being open to listening to all perspectives allows a leader like Senator Collins to speak truths that have often been whispered but rarely spoken. Since the end of the Cold War there have been numerous “historic moments” punctuated by significant international events for Turkey, but with the Arab Spring we seem to be heading towards a new set of realities in which non-state actors and reactions by regional powers will determine the ultimate trajectory of the region. Reinforcing Turkey’s role as a leading and responsible Middle Eastern stakeholder, Senator Collins encouraged Ankara to focus on the importance of consolidating its own domestic politics and democratization process in the same way that America continues to. Pointing out the gridlock and polarization in Washington, Collins equally criticized American politics that reminded everyone of the common struggles with democratic governance. Ultimately stability in the Middle East will rest upon how regional players like Turkey answer its own population’s demands in a responsible and timely manner more than trying to seek ever-illusive strategic balance between various regional engagements. At a moment in which US global leadership is being questioned and Middle Eastern frustrations continue, the timing has never been more opportune to re-focus on the core principles and values that have led to the emergence of the “new” Turkey. Many of these elements have been central features in the US-Turkish relationship and are worthy of being further highlighted. Senator Collins’ trip was far too short, but it reinforced a point I often make about how Americans upon visiting Turkey instinctively relate to a nation in many ways that mirrors our own. Insallah, there will be many more visits for the senator and her many colleagues in Congress who have yet to experience the complexities and hospitality of Turkey. In the meantime pausing to reflect on the senator’s words gives me great hope in the future of the US-Turkish relationship in the midst of so many other bleak relationships these days.
*Joshua W. Walker is a Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund.
Senator Collins’ remarks can be found at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/70694172/Senator-Collins-Speech-at-Bahce%C5%9Fehir-University-in-Istanbul