- To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.
Longstanding U.S. ties with Turkey, which have stressed security and strategic arrangements, have the potential to develop into a robust economic and diplomatic partnership, especially in the Middle East and Central Asia, according to a new CFR Task Force report on U.S.-Turkey relations. Turkey’s dramatic changes in the last decade make it ripe for a stronger collaboration with the United States, but the terms of the relationship need to be changed, says Stephen Hadley, co-chair of the report and a former U.S. national security adviser. "We have to really meet as equals. We have to respect each other’s national interests," he says. "We need to be very transparent with one another. We need to have a sort of ’no surprises’ rule in our foreign policy." Hadley says while the report lauds Turkey’s gains, it also is frank about its democratic challenges.
What are the big takeaways from the Task Force report?
The first is that Turkey has changed dramatically over the last ten years. It’s really a new Turkey, and we need to see and think about it differently as a consequence. Secondly, that means there needs to be a new relationship between the United States and Turkey. Three, Turkey and the United States working together can do some very important things, particularly in that region of the world--that is, the Middle East and Northwest Asia, and the Central Asia area.
And lastly, Turkey has a lot of choices it will make and has to make if it goes forward in terms of both deepening its democracy and expanding and building on the successful economic growth that they have--the reform and growth that they’ve started out over the last ten years.
The report mentions that Turkey is doing well enough to be put into the same category as BRIC countries. Can you compare and contrast U.S. relationship challenges with Turkey to challenges with countries such as China and Brazil?
It’s quite different, because the history of the relationship is different. Turkey has been a NATO ally of the United States for the last fifty, almost sixty years. Turkey was with us in South Korea. They were certainly with us in Afghanistan. And this is a partnership between two democratic countries.
In the old days, when [discussing] Turkey, we’d always start with the military, and it’s interesting how changed the situation is [since] it’s the area that is probably treated less extensively than any of the other areas in our report. If Turkey had gotten into the EU, in some sense, it never would have been heard from again in terms of its diplomacy, but precisely because the EU spurned it, Turkey is now one of the six or seven most important countries in the world.
The potential for collaboration in areas that benefit both Turkey and the United States is very high--probably higher than the potential for all the other BRICS, with the possible exception of India--because of the history, because of the alliance character, because of the common values, and that’s the real opportunity and plus in the relationship.
For us to have a new partnership, we have to change the terms of that relationship [and] really meet as equals. We have to respect each other’s national interests. We need to be very transparent with one another. We need to have a sort of "no surprises" rule in our foreign policy, and we really need to sit together at all levels--not just at the head of government, but really down into our various bureaucracies and departments, sit together to try to identify common strategies for dealing with common problems, because we can get a lot done if we can work together with a common agenda to solve common problems.
How does this work at a practical level, say, on an issue like Iran, to avoid the tension that happened when Turkey and Brazil attempted to broker a nuclear fuel deal in 2010?
In the old days, when [discussing] Turkey, we’d always start with the military, and it’s interesting how changed the situation is.
Part of it is the rules that I just described: close consultation, respecting each other’s interests, and no surprises. If those rules had been adhered to, we might not have had the situation we had with Turkey over Iran. That said, one of the things that has happened since that event is that over the last year, Turkey’s view of Iran has somewhat changed. You’ve seen [that] Turkey’s relationship or its attitudes toward Syria have evolved. As a consequence, [there is probably a] greater likelihood and possibility for collaborative action on Iran than maybe there was at the time [of the] incidents that you referred to.
Can you talk about Turkey’s role in the Syria situation?
Turkey initially had a policy of no problems or tensions with its neighbors, and what it found was that its neighbors were a bit more problematic than perhaps what they thought. Turkey made a good-faith effort to try to convince [President Bashar] Assad to listen to his people and to respond to their demands with reform, not oppression and violence and killing. Assad would not listen. Turkish authorities and Turkish leaders became appalled at the violence and the loss of life, [which] of course resulted in refugees coming over the border into Turkey.
You then saw, over this last year, toughening calls by Turkey for Assad to step down, support for the opposition--both rhetorical and some tangible support in terms of giving safe havens for some of the Syrian military people that have defected from the army and have now become part of the opposition. As that has happened, it has brought Turkey’s policy in sync not just with the United States, but with the European community and the international community more generally, trying to bring a halt to this terrible situation in Syria.
The report sees potential for Turkey to be a significant leader in the post-Arab Spring region, but notes there are other countries also vying for power. What does Turkey have going for it compared to other potential regional leaders, such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar?
A number of the post-revolutionary Middle Eastern states--Egypt, Libya, Tunisia--are looking to Turkey and looking to the AK Party (AKP) as an example of a party that has a Muslim identity in a majority-Muslim country, but nonetheless was able to be an engine for democratic reform and economic prosperity and still have broad-based support within the society.
This is important because all these parties emerging from these revolutions, at the end of the day, are going to be held to account by their people. One of the principal things they’re going to be held accountable for is bringing prosperity, getting the economies back in shape, getting tourism up, getting jobs for all these young people who have education but no jobs and are not confident they have a future. So these parties are going to have to produce what the AK Party has produced in Turkey.
As the report discusses, now that Turkey’s political sphere is becoming more Islamic, secularists fear they may be shut out. How well is Turkey reconciling these religious political challenges?
One of the things I like about the report is that while it is very clear that there is a new Turkey--a Turkey more democratic and more prosperous with a more enhanced role in the region, if not the world--it is also clear that there are troubling elements in recent behavior by the regime, and even what we call authoritarian instincts from time to time.
[The report] tries to recognize the accomplishments of what has happened in Turkey over the last ten years but to be clear of the challenges, particularly the political challenges, that Turkey faces.
[The report] talks about the restrictions on the press, the number of journalists in detention, the continuing crackdown on military and other elements of the Kemalist establishment for this Ergenekon conspiracy. It calls very clearly for Turkish leaders to use this opportunity to come up with a new constitution to deepen Turkish democracy, provide a meritocratic way to select judges, institutionalize separation of powers, checks and balances on the executive authority, respect for individual political rights and human rights. And it calls for the release of these journalists and the completion promptly of whatever judicial proceedings are being brought to those who are incarcerated, so they can be concluded and people either are brought up on charges or are freed.
So [the report] tries to recognize the accomplishments of what has happened in Turkey over the last ten years but to be clear of the challenges, particularly the political challenges, that Turkey faces. Democracy is not an end state; it’s a journey. The United States has been on that journey for over two hundred years. Turkey is on its own journey. Because it is their country, they will make these decisions. Nonetheless, as a panel of friends of Turkey, our report urges Turkey to take advantage of this opportunity and for its leaders to take advantage of this opportunity to deepen and consolidate Turkish democracy.
What’s Turkey’s economic potential going forward?
Turkey is a very dynamic economic engine. It has a very aggressive and entrepreneurial business class, not just large enterprises but mid- and even small-size enterprises, and it is looking outward. Turkish businessmen are going all over the world into places like Africa, which Turkey has not traditionally been to. So this is a Turkey that is really opening and being more active in the world, and business and commercial activity [is] at the forefront. Turkey also continues to have strong economic and business relations with Israel, notwithstanding the problems that have developed at the political and diplomatic level. That has helped buffer a bit the effects of some of the political and diplomatic disagreements.
The report points out that the economic relationship is one of the underdeveloped aspects of the relationship with Turkey and the United States, and it encourages and makes a number of concrete recommendations as to how we can encourage and improve relations--commercial relations, business ties --between Turks and the United States. Both [of these are] valuable in themselves, but we also think that U.S. businesses and Turkish businesses can partner together and do things in places like the Middle East to help with political and economic reform and the revitalization of economic activity required in that part of the world.
Even though one of its largest customers is still the EU, and the EU is having its own economic problems, Turkey nonetheless is a very dynamic economic engine that can be very useful in encouraging economic activity in the Middle East and in Central Asia. In some sense, Turkey can be an engine of economic progress, which those regions really very much need.