As a model of a democratizing and secular Muslim state that has been a stalwart ally for more than 50 years, Turkey is of enormous strategic importance to the United States and Europe, especially at a time when the widening chasm between the West and the Islamic world looms as the greatest foreign policy challenge. Yet Ankara’s relations with Washington are strained—over Iraq, Cyprus, Syria, Iran and Hamas—and Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union remain uncertain.
As Washington prepares for a visit Wednesday by Turkey’s foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, the United States and Turkey should explore three initiatives to repair and revitalize their relationship.
First, although the United States and Turkey share broad goals in Iraq, the situation there threatens a potential breach in relations. The Turks feel the war in Iraq has undermined their security by stirring Kurdish nationalism. It also coincided with renewed terrorist attacks mounted by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party from inside Iraq. To address this challenge, the United States should initiate a trilateral dialogue on the future of Iraq with Turkey and representatives of the Iraqi government, including Kurdish leaders.
If the effort to build a functioning Iraqi government is successful, this trilateral consultative process will support the common goal of a unified and sovereign Iraq; should the Iraqi government fail, the dialogue will provide a mechanism for managing some of the worst potential consequences.
Second, Washington must make it a diplomatic priority to persuade skeptics in Europe to take a more positive approach toward Turkey. Peering into the future and considering the strategic implications of a Turkey unmoored—or, more darkly, a Turkey that turns against its traditional partners, aligning itself more closely with Damascus, Moscow or Tehran—should be instructive.
Washington needs to make the case to its European allies that delaying Turkey’s accession to the EU could harm their security. The longer accession takes, the more likely it is that Turks will become disenchanted with the EU and look elsewhere for opportunities; it is also more likely that Turkey’s impressive political reform process, which began in 2002, will stall.
Further, Washington should take a leadership role in working to resolve the Cyprus conflict, which threatens to create further obstacles to Turkish EU membership. Rather than waiting for a new UN or EU initiative on the future of the island, America should catalyze a renewed negotiation process. A special Cyprus coordinator would work with the UN and EU to develop a new plan for reuniting the island, encourage European leaders to use their collective clout to require more constructive behavior from the Cypriot government, and coordinate Washington’s political, diplomatic and economic steps to break Turkish Cypriots from their international isolation.
Third, the United States and Turkey should establish a high-level commission that meets twice a year and provides a structured mechanism for interaction across agencies of government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. At the outset, three working groups should be launched, focusing on security, economic and commercial ties, and educational and cultural exchanges.
A U.S.-Turkey cooperation commission could facilitate the re-establishment of the sustained interaction that characterizes America’s strongest partnerships, and provide a foundation for keeping Turkey aligned with the West should Ankara’s bid for EU membership ultimately fail.
As tensions over the outcome in Iraq mount, the prospects for generating positive momentum in U.S.- Turkey relations are diminishing. The consequences of a disoriented Turkey would be even greater than a failure in Iraq. America and Europe must do everything they can to ensure that Turkey remains firmly anchored in the West.
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