This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed the U.S.-Turkey relationship from bad to worse. On Tuesday, he claimed that “spies” had infiltrated U.S. missions in Turkey and said that Turkey didn’t consider the U.S. ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, to be a legitimate representative of the United States.
Turkey’s president thus escalated a tit-for-tat diplomatic crisis that started on Sunday, when the U.S. Embassy announced that the United States had been forced “to reassess the commitment of the Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities and personnel,” and as a result would no longer process non-immigrant visas. The decision was undoubtedly a response to the arrest of Metin Topuz, a “foreign service national” who has worked with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s office in the Turkish capital for many years, but was accused of supporting the Fethullahist Terror Organization by the Turkish government, which holds the group responsible for the failed coup in July 2016. The Turkish government responded in kind to the U.S. refusal to process visas — before Erdogan followed up with his rhetorical broadside.
The Topuz case can be logged into an increasingly long list of conflicts that have challenged the U.S. relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey over the last few years. It is now clear that Turkey and the United States are less allies and partners than antagonists and strategic competitors, especially in the Middle East.
But it would be a mistake to lay Washington and Ankara’s troubled relations at the feet of Turkey’s charismatic and pugnacious president. In truth, the United States and Turkey have been headed for a collision since Christmas Day in 1991, when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
So much analysis and commentary about Turkey over the last decade has emphasized Erdogan’s consolidation of his personal political power. Although this work has been generally accurate, it tends to obscure three important factors in Turkish politics and foreign policy. First, for all that Erdogan is the central decision-maker, his ideas about Turkish power and mistrust of the West have broad support among Turks — and with good historical reasons. Second, the United States and Turkey share neither values nor interests. Finally, the world has changed a lot since the heyday of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, over a quarter century ago.
Given the changing international dynamics, the U.S. relationship with any plausible Turkish ruling party would likely be frayed at this point. If Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), were in power, for instance, there would still be considerable tension in the U.S.-Turkey relationship. It would of course look different, but the “strategic relationship” or “model partnership” would have no more content and meaning than it does now. For example, the CHP leadership has taken a pro-Bashar al-Assad stance in Syria and is as strongly opposed to Kurdish nationalism, if not more so, than Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. And to varying degrees, all political parties in Turkey have tended to flirt with Iran over the years.
This is a reality that often dumbfounds American officials, who tend to work with a set of outdated ideas about Turkey. Policy continues to be made based on the mythology of the Cold War, which has produced a romantic retrospective of Americans and Turks “standing shoulder-to-shoulder during the great ideological battle with the Soviet Union” or some such formulation. The myths of the Cold War era obscure the reality that, without the common Soviet threat, there was not much to bind Washington and Ankara together. The bilateral relationship was not based on friendship, trust, or values, but rather the exigencies of the countries’ shared conflict.
Even after Russian guards lowered the hammer and sickle from atop the Kremlin all those years ago, American officials erroneously assumed that Turkey would remain shoulder-to-shoulder with its American partners. In the early 1990s, some in the foreign policy community thought Turkey was uniquely positioned to guide the newly independent Turkic states of Central Asia — whose citizens share cultural and linguistic affinities with Turks — in stable, democratic governance. In the middle and latter part of that decade, the foreign-policy community regarded Ankara as a driver of security and peace in the Middle East. More recently, Turkey was held out as a “model” for Arab countries seeking to build more prosperous and democratic societies.
None of these projects proved successful, because they overestimated Turkey’s capacities, underestimated the historical legacies of the Ottoman domination of the Middle East, and misread Turkish domestic politics and the worldview of the country’s current leadership. With each failure, the United States and Turkey drifted further apart.
Although the details of each of these episodes are important, there was something else at work that contributed to the unsuccessful outcomes. The American foreign-policy community is slowly learning that much of what it believed about Turkey turned out not to be the case. The country’s leaders — including the military command — are neither democrats nor pro-Western. In fact, they are deeply suspicious of the West, especially the United States.
It is a common misconception that relations between the United States and Turkey were always warm, similar to traditional allies like the British or Germans. There were good working relationships between American and Turkish officers at NATO, of course, but those ties always had an element of mistrust, stemming from the often prickly nationalism of the Turkish side suspicious of American intent regarding Kurds and Washington’s commitment to Turkish security. The officers were not as “staunchly pro-Western” as so many press reports over the years indicated, but rather first and only pro-Turkey. The same could be said for the Turkish political leadership.
Most importantly, Turkey’s leaders do not share the interests of the United States. At a level of abstraction, of course, both Ankara and Washington oppose the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, support peace between Israelis and Palestinians, fight terrorism, and want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fall. Yet Turkish and American prescriptions for achieving their ambitions are so far apart that it stretches credulity to suggest that these goals are actually shared. In each case, officials from both governments can articulate how the other has undercut their efforts in these areas. From an American perspective, Turkey’s periodic warming of its ties with Iran has weakened efforts to contain Tehran’s nuclear development, while Ankara is also guilty of enabling extremists in Syria and supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
These tensions pre-date Erdogan and the rise of the Justice and Development Party. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, for example, the Turks chafed mightily over international sanctions on Iraq. And of course, there were differences over many years concerning Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the subsequent American arms embargo, and security in the Aegean.
The world has changed so much that Turkey, a NATO ally, works with Russia — whose leaders are intent on weakening the Western alliance — in Syria while the United States fights the self-declared Islamic State with Syrian Kurdish forces who the Turks believe (rightly) to be part and parcel of a terrorist organization that has waged war against Ankara since 1984. The strategic relationship has now been reduced to American access to Incirlik Air Base, from which the United States and its allies conduct operations against the Islamic State. From time to time, the Turks have threatened to rescind permission to use the facility for this purpose.
The very fact that it has become relatively easy for each country to work with the other’s adversary suggests that the strain in U.S.-Turkey ties is less about Erdogan’s worldview or former President Barack Obama’s retrenchment but about the way international politics is ordered a quarter century after the Cold War.
Since the “war of the visas” began, journalists have been asking whether the spat between the United States and Turkey will escalate. There is no way of knowing, of course, though much depends on Erdogan’s domestic political calculations. Given the reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey, any Turkish leader derives political benefits from conflict with the United States.
But the larger question is: How does the United States manage Turkey’s shift from strategic partner to a relationship that recognizes Turkey’s importance as both a onetime partner and an adversary? If American policymakers continue to view Turkey through the Cold War lens, they will continue to get nowhere. Already, American diplomats are fruitlessly invoking U.S. and Turkish shared values, while American citizens and U.S. government employees are jailed and abused. It’s time to recognize that the world has changed — and so has the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
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