US-Turkish relations have always been difficult to manage. But even in the context of a relationship prone to stresses and strains, the last few years have been extraordinarily difficult. Some of these frictions are structural, and some are the product of political dynamics in both countries alongside regional developments. The frictions may be managed. They will not easily be resolved. A relationship that both have reason to regard as “strategic” will continue to face tough tests.
In discussing relations with Ankara, American strategists and policymakers draw on mental maps in which Turkey appears at the confluence of multiple fault lines, from the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean to the Black Sea, the Levant and the Gulf. On paper, Turkey is the ideal strategic partner, relevant to American security interests across Eurasia and the Middle East. Traditionally, Turks share this mental map and contribute to the pervasiveness of this image in the US and Europe. This geopolitical mythology is, however, at odds with the practical realities of international politics. It has always been difficult to align geography with policy in US-Turkish relations. In theory, Ankara and Washington may have a shared interest in regional stability and development. In practice, the countries are often on different pages when it comes to specific issues, sometimes dramatically so. This has been the case in the Aegean, on Cyprus, on aspects of Black Sea security, and most recently on Syria, Iran and Russia.
The US and Turkey are not natural allies, separated by distance and the understandable differences in perspective between a global and a regional power. The relationship between Turkey and Europe is multifaceted, with deep economic and people-to-people ties alongside foreign policy interests. By contrast, US-Turkish relations are essentially one dimensional and focused overwhelmingly on security and defense. This lack of diversification lends a brittle quality to relations between two sovereignty conscious partners.
Ankara has always been highly sensitive to questions of national sovereignty and perceived threats to a unitary Turkish state. The emergence of modern Turkey has been accompanied by a strategic culture in which the intentions and behavior of great powers have been viewed with inherent suspicion – even when the powers concerned are NATO allies. The US, for its part, has tended to gloss over these sensitivities in pursuit of policies toward Iraq, Iran, Syria and Russia where solidarity of purpose has sometimes been taken for granted. The continued US backing for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria is a case in point. Washington has seen the Kurdish militia as a very effective partner in the battle against ISIS. Ankara sees the YPG as a thinly veiled offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both countries regard as a terrorist group, and against which Turkey has been engaged in a decades-long struggle. These sharply competing perspectives have been managed – barely – through creative diplomacy on the ground.
Over the past two decades, public opinion has come to play a more important role in Turkish foreign policy. In recent years, public (and elite) perceptions of the US have turned extraordinarily negative. Recent polls place favorable views of the US in single digits. This trend has been fueled by strident anti-Western and anti-American rhetoric from President Recep Erdogan and others in ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) circles. Indeed, this reflexive anti-Americanism can be seen across the political spectrum, from AKP and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) on the right, to opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and others on the left. Nationalism is the order of the day in Turkish politics, and Washington is the target of choice for all. This tendency has been greatly reinforced by a pervasive climate of suspicion in the wake of the failed coup attempt of July 2016. It has not helped that the presidents of both countries are prone to a highly personalized and high-stakes style of diplomacy.
American policy is often at the center of debates in Turkey, and Turks know (or think they know) a great deal about America. In the US, Turkey is a specialist topic even for those in the foreign policy establishment. On both sides, the relationship has traditionally been managed by foreign and security policy professionals, with support from the “strategic class.” This traditional pattern has broken down on both sides. In Turkey, the growing influence of the presidency and the AKP party over Turkish diplomacy has accelerated the movement away from a traditional focus on the US, NATO and the EU as key poles in the Turkish world view. Without question, the prevailing orientation is more Islamic and Eurasian by turns. Above all, it reflects a belief in ruling circles that not all strategies need to be made in the West. There is now a distinctly nationalistic and “non-aligned” flavor to Ankara’s approach. Inevitably, this sits uneasily with the harder-edged interests-based approach emanating from the Trump Administration.
American strategists and defense planners are dismayed by Turkey’s focus on the anti-Kurdish struggle above other objectives in Syria, Ankara’s engagement with Tehran and cooperation with Moscow. The mood in Congress and in wider foreign policy circles has turned distinctly critical, driven by the detention of American citizens in Turkey and, above all, by Ankara’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system. Repeated attempts by the Trump administration to convince Turkey to abandon the S-400 deal have failed. If the purchase goes ahead – and there is every indication that it will – it will make it difficult or impossible for Turkey to take delivery of F-35s. All of this unfolds against a backdrop of deteriorating political and media freedom in Turkey, alienating those who have sought a values-based relationship with Ankara. Longstanding tenets of America’s Turkey policy, including support for Turkish EU accession, have disappeared from the agenda for reasons that go well beyond the impasse in EU-Turkish relations.
Under these conditions, what is the outlook for the bilateral relationship? At best, it is a matter of risk-reduction in an increasingly difficult context. Ultimately, the sheer burden of the challenges on Turkey’s borders and the questionable durability of Ankara’s partnership with Moscow may drive Turkey toward a reconciliation with Washington. The US, too, may be able to reset its expectations about Turkish cooperation in the interest of preserving access to Incirlik airbase and as a hedge against longer-term instability in Turkey’s neighborhood. But the prevailing atmosphere of mutual suspicion will be hard to dispel.