After eight years of periodic crises in Turkish-American relations, the two countries are increasingly revitalizing their relationship in the age of the Arab Spring and a Pacific Century for the United States.
The new paradigm in relations seems to be working so far in critical issue areas, including Syria and NATO’s missile shield. However, the endurance of this partnership has yet to be seen. The future of cooperation in bilateral relations depends on multiple conditions, including preventing misperceptions and misunderstandings on both sides, respecting individual interests and concerns and diversifying the areas of cooperation. In addition to its current level, the partnership also needs a more complex bilateral engagement with economic, social and political ties on multiple levels in order to become resistant to crises and conflicts of interests in current issue areas.
The state of Turkish-American relations in the last eight years has become a subject of controversy, debate and in some instances polarization among pundits from different political and ideological backgrounds. The “Who lost Turkey?” debate in the early 2000s evolved into a “shift of axis” argument in the last years of the decade, and for a considerable number of these pundits this period marked the end of a half-century-long alliance. Although in the first months of the Obama administration, the parties tried to reconcile the differences between them and put forward the concept of “model partnership” in order to create a new form of cooperation, these efforts failed to come to fruition.
The final nails in the coffin were considered to be when the two parties confronted each other at the UN Security Council regarding sanctions against Iran and when a trilateral relationship between the US, Israel and Turkey was damaged due to the flotilla incident. In fact, the last decade was a “crisis period” for bilateral relationship after the dominance of the Cold War alliance paradigm that had somewhat survived after the fall of the Soviet Union. In this period of crisis, both parties were trying to redefine the relationship while each in itself was recalibrating their foreign and security priorities and evaluating their strategic environment.
Jumpstarting decades-old partnership
With major changes facing the Middle East, the two countries finally found a common ground to jumpstart their decades-old partnership. Throughout 2011 and especially during significant periods of the Arab Spring, the two countries followed parallel policies in the management of events in Egypt and Libya and showed similar strong reactions against the Syrian government. In the meantime, Turkey agreed to host radar systems for the NATO missile shields, and the US showed strong support for Turkey in its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both verbally through condemnation of PKK terror and militarily by selling Turkey three SuperCobra attack helicopters and four Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The increasing rapport between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Barack Obama, and their constant communication to evaluate regional developments, helped to revive their mutual trust.
In recent days, in both capitals the debate on Turkish-American relations is taking place on the premise of an emerging partnership. Some pundits who used the “shift of axis” framework in describing the relationship became ardent optimists of the future of bilateral relations. Even analogies started to be drawn with the alliance between the US and Turkey during the Cold War.
However, one needs to be cautious about this new partnership. The emerging paradigm of cooperation and partnership is different than previous Turkish-US engagements. First of all, there is neither a systemic source of partnership, such as a bipolar world, nor is there a solid common threat or threat perception which can bring these two countries together in a security-oriented partnership. Moreover, the US does not have the same clout in international relations that it had enjoyed in the formative years of the Cold War, and Turkey is no longer a country paralyzed by constant military intervention into the political realm, chronic inflation and a totalitarian enemy spreading across its borders. In particular, the disputes between the two countries have demonstrated that Turkey aims to follow a more multidimensional policy with involvement in different regions and a more multilayered strategy in its relations with individual countries. Thus this new partnership needs to be less hierarchical, more horizontal and considerate of mutual interests and concerns.
In order to revive or revitalize this new partnership and consolidate it in a way that will cause it to not fluctuate in the coming years, the relationship needs to broaden and deepen at the same time. The partnership should not be constrained by current levels of cooperation and engagement but spread to other issue areas in the Middle East, as well as to other geographical regions. For example, the bilateral cooperation will be critical in the period following the pullout of US troops from Afghanistan and Iraq. Turkey and the United States share similar concerns about the future of Afghanistan, and many of Turkey’s diplomatic initiatives in the region have similar goals with US objectives, which include improving relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan, stability and cooperation in the region and economic integration.
They also have rightful concerns about the future of Iraq. Turkey is particularly concerned about the security of northern Iraq, cross-border infiltration of PKK forces into Turkey in the absence of US forces and the overall stability of Iraq. The US is vigilant about a possible increase in Iranian influence in the region which would be at the expense of the US as well as Turkey. When combined with the US apprehension over the Iranian nuclear dilemma and last year’s rift between the two countries over the Tehran Declaration and the related UN Security Council vote, the issue becomes even more sensitive on both sides. Although the parties partially resolved this impasse when Turkey allowed NATO radar systems to be hosted on Turkish territory, and came to a consensus on the issue of Syria, despite a considerable amount of uproar on the Iranian side, the issue is still “too nuclear to underestimate.”
New venues of cooperation
The new era, and especially the shift in US foreign policy towards Asia-Pacific, may also pave the way for new venues of cooperation between the two countries in different regions, such as in Africa and Central Asia, which had been left unattended for the last decade and where other countries have become important power players. In recent years, both countries have recalibrated their foreign policies towards these regions and initiated a new set of policies. In Central Asia, both are balancing relations with other regional powers, cooperating to facilitate energy transfer from the region and trying to coordinate the stability and security of the region in the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. In addition to Central Asia, another region of possible future cooperation is Africa, where in the last decade each country followed independent humanitarian and development initiatives. Turkey’s Africa opening following the “Africa Year” in Turkish diplomacy and the increasing proactivity of the US in the region, especially during the Bush administration, may pave the way for new grounds for cooperation on that continent.
Finally, the economic interactions between these two countries, which have been considered as the weakest link in relations, need to be strengthened in the coming years to consolidate the relations. An increase in the volume of trade and economic interdependence that does not harm foreign policy independence can create more grounds for partnership and stability, and a more business-oriented base in relations may be vital to support the smooth functioning of the relationship. In this sense, the establishment of the US-Turkey Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation, and regular meetings of the Turkey and United States Economic Partnership Commission are important steps to raise the level of economic relations to political dialogue.
The revival of the Turkish-American partnership last year has been a result of mutual respect and understanding, and if both actors want to pursue the relationship in the coming decades, these delicate principles need to be observed by both parties, and attempts need to be made to diversify the extent of cooperation. To reinforce binary dialogue and a horizontal relationship, while precluding the possible clash of ideas from transforming into crisis and expanding into other realms, is a key requirement. Ultimately, Turkey and the US should now prepare for the possible opportunities, problems and troubles in this new international system and take strategic revisions into consideration by understanding new dynamics of domestic policy, elements of power and regional realities.
*Kılıç Buğra Kanat is a research fellow with the SETA Foundation in Washington, D.C.