from From the Potomac to the Euphrates

The Case for Reshaping U.S.-Turkey Relations

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Last updated November 15, 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey during the U.N. General Assembly in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
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When Andrew Brunson, the North Carolinian pastor, was released from Turkish custody in October, President Donald J. Trump tweeted that he was looking forward to “good, perhaps great, relations between the United States & Turkey.” The administration then subsequently lifted sanctions it had imposed on Turkey’s ministers of interior and justice over Brunson’s detention. The Turks responded by lifting sanctions Ankara had imposed on then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and—not understanding what his portfolio entails—the Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke. The change in tone between the two governments is a welcome development, but it does not change the alternate directions the two countries are moving. Put simply, the United States and Turkey do not share interests, priorities, or common values. 

The divergence between these two NATO allies reflects the changes in international politics since the end of the Cold War nearly a generation ago. Absent the common threat posed by the Soviet Union, there is no strategic rationale for the U.S.-Turkey partnership.  The sooner American policymakers understand this fact, the greater likelihood that the Washington can pursue a more realistic approach to Ankara, which means working together when possible, working around Turkey when necessary, and publicly opposing the Turks where they seek to undermine American policies and interests.

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Ankara wants to be a regional power in its own right and as a result, opposes the U.S.-led regional political order that helps to advance American power and interests in Turkey’s neighborhood. Turkey’s foreign policy is complicated, but Ankara’s desire to be a leader in its region and beyond has compelled the Turkish leadership to improve ties with Russia, cooperate with Iran to evade UN sanctions, and oppose the United States in Syria.  It also happens to be good politics for President Erdogan to oppose the United States given the reservoir of anti-Americanism among Turks. Although it is clear that Turkey and the United States differ in important areas, American officials have sought to narrow the divide between the governments through intensive diplomacy.  These efforts have produced few tangible results.  Consequently, it is time for the United States to try a different approach. This includes:

1.    Recognizing that the strategic relationship is a relic of the past. Going forward U.S. officials should ask for and expect less from their Turkish counterparts. This includes expectations concerning Turkey’s involvement in the fight against the Islamic State as well as Turkey’s cooperation in adhering to recent U.S. sanctions on Iran.

2.     Developing alternatives to Incirlik Air Base without abandoning it. While Incirlik was important to the fight against the Islamic State and may be important in future crises, the base has also become useful to Turkey’s leaders in domestic politics. Turkish officials have threatened to rescind permission for the anti-ISIS coalition’s use of the facility over the U.S. relationship with the YPG—a warning that plays well with nationalists. Options in Greece, Cyprus, Romania, and possibly Jordan or Iraq would insulate the United States from periodic Turkish threats to revoke American access to the base.

3.     Continuing the relationship with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). It is true that the YPG is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging a terrorist campaign against Turkey for three decades, and it is also true that the YPG and its affiliated political party do not represent all Syrian Kurds.  Still, the YPG has been critical in the fight against the self-declared Islamic State in Syria, especially in contrast to the Turks, who have been ambivalent in their involvement.

4.      U.S. officials should take a strong public stand on Turkish policies that undermine U.S. policy. Private diplomacy and persuasion behind closed doors has little, if any, effect on the policies that Ankara pursues at home and abroad. Toward that end, the United States should end its cooperation with Turkey on the F-35 program, preventing Turkey from accessing the newest high-tech jet in the American military inventory.

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The Turkish government simply cannot purchase advanced weapons from Russia, undermine American efforts and threaten U.S. forces in Syria, aid Iran, arrest American citizens, detain Turkish employees of the U.S. embassy, and carry out repressive rule of its own citizens that violates the principles of Ankara’s NATO membership and expect to enjoy the benefits of America’s most advanced military aircraft.

Turkey is and will continue to be a member of NATO, but it is not the partner it used to be. In the future, U.S. policy should be based on the fact that while Turkey is not an enemy of the United States, it is also not a friend. Washington can work with Ankara where it remains possible, work around the Turks where it is necessary, and work against them where it has to.

I explore this argument in greater detail in a new Council Special Report, Neither Friend nor Foe: The Future of U.S.-Turkey Relations

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