After a series of meetings in my nation’s capital, I have come away with the impression that Washington is keen on encouraging Turkey’s rise and is eager for Ankara to play a more visible regional role. While most of the people I talked to were concerned about Turkey’s democratic backslide, most maintained that the AKP’s democratic reforms had benefitted the country and were, by and large, a step in the right direction. All were eager to engage with their Turkish counterparts, but unsure about how to go about deepening ties with the Turkish bureaucracy.
The United States’ problems with Turkey, in my opinion, are incredibly banal when one considers the problems Washington has with Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors. While the relationship has had moments of tension, these brief spats have always been overshadowed by the two sides’ shared interests. During the Cold War, Turkey was a dependable ally and a critical outpost for American defense planners. Even after the Cold War – and Turkey’s recent pursuit of a more independent foreign policy – these dynamics remain relatively unchanged. The two share an interest in combatting terrorism, cooperate on a host of regional issues, and continue to have tight defense ties. The areas of divergence – extraterritorial sanctions, arms sales, etc. – are relatively minor and are nothing new. (For example, Turkey’s relationship with Iran has been thorn in the side of American policy makers since the Iran-Iraq war. Both have agreed to disagree.)
Critically, both agree that Turkey should play a larger role in the Middle East. As the United States begins to “rebalance” its foreign policy and devote more attention to Asia, the American leadership is comfortable with Turkey filling the region’s leadership vacuum. However, Turkey’s changed political dynamics appear to have befuddled members of the American bureaucracy. During the 1990s, it was understood that if the United States wanted to “get something done”, the Pentagon should contact their counterparts in the Turkish military. Those days are long gone.
Most people I met with were keen on engaging with the Turkish government, but were unsure about whom to talk to. There is a sense that the only way that things get done is when President Obama calls Prime Minister Erdogan, or vice versa. Moreover, I heard stories about AKP officials unwilling to open up during their interaction with American academics for fear of being misunderstood and touching off a rash of op-eds about Turkey’s democratic backslide. Representatives from the opposition, however, have no such reservations and are quite keen on pointing out all of their problems with the AKP. As a result, not many have a real sense about what exactly is going on in the country.
As always, I have some advice. For starters, the AKP leadership should encourage the Turkish bureaucracy to establish more robust ties with their American counterparts. While Ankara often complains that the United States does not do enough to encourage trade, I would argue that the Turkish government has not done enough to cement ties between both bureaucracies. Americans, therefore, are still searching for whom to actually talk to about issues ranging from trade to defense. In Turkey, this has led to a general sense amongst columnists and other influential opinion makers that the UNited States is eager to contain Turkey’s growing clout.
The United States government should engage more with Turkish academics and “people on the ground” to help better understand how Turkish domestic policy impacts the Prime Minister’s rhetoric. Moreover, the United States government should separate the rhetoric from actual policy. As of now, people outside of government tend to react to the Prime Minister’s translated statements, rather than actually analyze his government’s actions. For example, most of the people I talked to were well aware of the Prime Minister’s push for a new constitution and his preference for strong presidential system, but ignorant about the dynamics of his political coalition and how those dynamics influence his political speech. While I would like it if the Prime Minister used less colorful language when describing the opposition and Israel, I am not naive and have learned to separate rhetoric aimed at his “base” from actual policy. (The barrier between words for his base and policy making has narrowed, but that is a subject for another post).
If both agree that Turkey should play a larger role in the Middle East (and I am sure that they both do), then both governments should work harder to engage. The current dynamics, which appear to rest heavily on Erodgan and Obama’s personal relationship, is not sustainable and should not be counted on the long term. Moving forward, I suspect that both countries will continue to be more inward looking. The United States appears intent on “nation building at home” and Turkey is amid an undeclared Presidential campaign. These dynamics, therefore, will continue to lead to friction, unless further action is taken to deepen ties between the bureaucrats tasked with moving the relationship forward.