The U.S.-Turkey Relationship Is Worse Off Than You Think
The alliance between Washington and Ankara needs to be saved—and easy fixes won't cut it.
Once NATO’s model ally, Turkey has since become its bête noire. Both inside and outside the country, there is a growing chorus wondering aloud if it is time for a divorce. Those who disagree dismiss these concerns as a tempest in a teapot. Halil Karaveli made this case recently in Foreign Policy, portraying President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s threats to cut ties with the United States as empty bluster—above all, because of pressures from his political coalition—and exuding confidence that Ankara will ultimately do whatever it takes to restore the relationship.
Such optimism is misplaced. In Turkey, NATO is an object of aversion for Erdogan’s friends and foes alike. The United States is as popular as root canals. Only 18 percent of Turks have a favorable view of the country. Seventy-two percent consider it a major threat. The NATO alliance is in true danger of unraveling, and it cannot survive on its own. Saving it will require persistence, perseverance, and hard work.
Erdogan is surely a part of the problem. Once a darling of the West, he now keeps the company of some of the world’s most unsavory leaders and has come to resemble them. Institutions are weakening. Liberties are declining. Democracy is eroding. Relations with Russia are cozier than ever, while ties with the United States are at their nadir and those with Europe remain crisis-ridden.
Turkey’s crisis with the West, however, dates earlier and runs deeper than Erdogan’s time in office. He only stoked the flames of an already burning fire.
Turkey’s membership in the Atlantic alliance was a marriage of necessity. On both the left and the right, there existed deep reservoirs of antipathy toward NATO. And, even in the better days, the alliance’s grand strategy was somewhat dissonant with Turkey’s security concerns. During the Cold War, the role assigned to Turkey was to bottle up the Soviet Navy in the Black Sea, tie up Warsaw Pact forces along NATO’s southern flank, and serve as a staging ground for a counterthrust against the Soviet Union. Starting in the 1970s, Turkey found itself facing another problem. Its neighbors—particularly Syria and Iraq—were supporting militant groups fighting against it: first the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia and then the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). But Turkey could not fight back, because its forces were unavailable and its allies were uninterested.
With the end of the Cold War, Ankara thought that this picture would change. Then-President Turgut Ozal believed that if Turkey could prove its worth as an ally, it would have a bigger say in how the United States, now the hegemon of a unipolar world, would shape its region. He was one of Operation Desert Storm’s most fervent supporters. He opened Incirlik Air Base to U.S. soldiers, moved 100,000 Turkish troops from the Bulgarian border to the Iraqi border, and lobbied to deploy them in Iraq alongside the Americans. Allegedly, he even asked then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush for U.S. support to annex Mosul and Kirkuk, bringing Ataturk’s expansionist dream to fruition.
Instead, Turkey lost more than it gained. The U.S.-enforced no-fly zone turned Northern Iraq into a de facto Kurdish state under the protection of U.S. and British aircraft. The region also became a staging ground for PKK attacks into southeast Anatolia. The two years that followed the Gulf War are still the deadliest in Turkey’s two-decade-long fight against the PKK—a fact not lost on many Turks, who, rightly or wrongly, blame it on the United States, which was careless at best and complicit at worst. This experience also convinced many in Turkey that Washington favors an independent Kurdistan next door—a sentiment so pervasive that a decade later, it was enough to scare the Turkish parliament away from allowing U.S. troops into the country during the Iraq War, despite intense lobbying from Erdogan and promises of billions of dollars in aid.
Turkey does bear blame for foreign-policy malpractices such as its cavalier attitude toward Iran sanctions, unrestrained enthusiasm for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster, ham-handed response to the rise of the Islamic State, and relations with regional partners such as Egypt and Israel squandered over petty vendettas with their leaders. When Turkey’s allies lambast it for these misdeeds, however, they should also take stock of their own record. Ankara’s life would have been much less difficult had Iraq not been invaded over a hoax, had the West not lacked a sound strategy in Syria, had Turkey’s protests about Kurdish militancy not been dismissed with a sneer, and had the United States not tended to talk down to its allies more often than it listens to them.
Consider two of the most controversial aspects of Turkey’s foreign policy: the military presence in Syria and the S-400 deal with the Russians. Ankara’s concerns over the growing strength of the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the implications of an autonomous Kurdistan in northern Syria were well known and well grounded. The PKK’s campaign for secession from Turkey took tens of thousands of lives. Yet, Washington made allies with it in Syria, while the Europeans have been allowing it to operate freely in their countries for decades. Turkey’s allies expected Ankara to make nice with its enemies and faulted it when it did not—a fact made even more disturbing because, ostensibly, the PKK was an enemy of NATO as well since it is designated by both as a terrorist organization.
A similar dynamic was at play in the S-400 deal, a crisis that was by no means inevitable. With Russia’s growing footprint, the security situation in Syria and Iraq, and the expanding missile programs of other regional powers, Turkey had a well-founded rationale to seek air defense capabilities of its own. It is no secret that Ankara has high ambitions for its defense industry. The country is already investing billions into building its own battle tank, combat warship, and fifth-generation fighter jet. One of Ankara’s key strategies in this pursuit has been to leverage its purchasing power to gain know-how and build capacity, which its NATO allies knew full well because their companies—including the two NATO bidders in Turkey’s air defense deal, Raytheon and Eurosam—have long been in such partnerships with their Turkish counterparts. Nonetheless, they gave Ankara the cold shoulder.
Also worth mentioning is the matter of Fethullah Gulen, the controversial cleric Ankara holds responsible for a failed coup attempt in 2016. At the height of his power, Gulen had millions of followers worldwide and controlled billions of dollars in assets. He was a powerful ally to Erdogan in his early years and instrumental in the success of his campaign against the secular military establishment. With the failed coup, he turned from Erdogan’s best friend to his worst enemy. Ankara describes him as Turkey’s Osama bin Laden. (Whether there’s any basis for that comparison is another question entirely.)
The merits of Ankara’s claims about Gulen, the evidence it furnishes, and the demands it makes—such as the cleric’s extradition from the United States to Turkey—are matters of legal judgment. The optics of America’s perceived complicity, however, is a question of political consequence. Gulen is almost universally unpopular in Turkey. Even years before the failed coup, his favorability ratings were on par with PKK founder Abdullah Ocalan. Worries about his network’s influence over the bureaucracy, infiltration of the military, control of the judiciary, and use of the state apparatus to silence its secular critics have been in the public domain for decades. Seeing Gulen and his lieutenants living comfortably in the United States, getting fawning profiles from the country’s leading newspapers, and spending millions on lobbyists, including the former chief of staff of U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, leaves many Turks thinking that their country needs no enemies when it has friends like these.
Those bidding good riddance to Turkey should be careful what they wish for. Despite the challenges aplenty, Turkey drifting away from the West would be geopolitical mistake of enormous proportions. Finding a substitute for Turkey is not easy. The risks of cutting it loose are not few. Although there is no denying that Turkey’s anchor in the West is dragging, losing it would only cast the country further adrift. Nationalist patriotism and religious fanaticism would run amok, risking an unraveling at home and ruinous adventures abroad. How would the recent flare-ups between Turkey and Greece, two countries that have come to the brink of war many times in the past and are once again set on a collision course, or the humanitarian crisis in Syria, which left the country fighting jihadis and separatists at once and saddled it with almost 4 million refugees at a cost of over $30 billion, have looked had Turkey been a NATO adversary, not an ally?
Anyone who thinks that the alliance can survive without significant changes—including by the United States—is sorely mistaken. Neither side has been a perfect ally to the other; the good news is that it’s not too late to make corrections. Meanwhile, neither Russia nor Iran is a natural ally for Turkey, which many officials in Ankara, as Karaveli points out in his article, understand. Turkey cannot ignore these countries, but it will not happily embrace them, either.
For better or worse, the civil war in Syria is approaching its finale, which removes from the agenda a key sticking point. On all other issues—including the detention of an American pastor and the S-400 purchase—there is common ground to be found, if only both countries’ leaders choose to find it. But the battle to save the U.S.-Turkish relationship will not win itself. And the challenge is not to win debates in Washington’s think tanks or Brussels’s conference rooms; it is to make the publics on both sides of one heart and mind, as Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmet Fuat Koprulu said at NATO’s 1952 summit in Lisbon. That’s where people on both sides will have to step up. Thankfully, there are many—both inside and outside Turkey—who firmly believe that the alliance is worth preserving. Their creative thinking, collective energy, and shared commitment are needed to remind the United States and Turkey that there is more that unites them than divides them, that neither side can afford to lose the other, and that the task of building the alliance’s future begins today.