Present Stage of Turkish-US Relations

Professor Ali Karaosmanoglu is the Head of International Relations Department of Bilkent University. These comments were made during the Diplomatic Discussion Group meeting in Ankara on March 14,2007

Turkey’s relations with the United States have never been a steady one. There have been many ups and downs during the history of these relations. Therefore, these relations may be looked at from an optimistic or pessimistic perspective. Today pessimistic perspective is preponderant. This relationship has always been problematic; even in the Cold War years, we had misunderstandings, disagreements and even serious crises. The reason for this is that even during the Cold War, Turkey had to pursue its own particular interests, despite its NATO membership and despite its strategic partnership with the United States. Turkey’s particular interests have arisen from the peculiarities of the region where Turkey was located. These interests did not always converge with the interests of the United States and with Strategic plans of NATO.

There were three  periods of most serious crises: One was the withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey without consultation with the Turkish government in 1962; another important crisis arose from the famous Johnson letter regarding Cyprus events and third important crisis was the arms embargo imposed on Turkey by the United States Congress. However, despite all these difficulties, the vital strategic nature of the relationship arising from the presence of a common enemy assured the continuation of the strategic nature of the relationship between the two nations. Today as an American writer pointed out “Turkish American relations can no longer be imprisoned in a narrow strategic concept.” The convergence and divergence of concrete interests must be brought to the fore  and if we want to deal with them properly we should openly discuss the problems arising from competing interests and indeed this is what we are trying to do today.

There is a fundamental difference between the problems we face today and those of the Cold War period. In the post Cold War era Turkish public  opinion is increasingly involved in Turkish foreign policy. I will give a few reasons for this change. Democratization of  Turkey and rising nationalism may be conjectural but it is a fact today and this has made public more engaged in international politics and  has become more vociferous. Moreover, the spectacular changes in the former Soviet states,

The Balkans and Iraq have all drawn the attention of the public to foreign affairs, to United States and Europe more than ever. If you look at the newspapers of the Cold War period and of today you will see a striking difference. During the Cold War the pages devoted to world affairs were no more than one, may even be less than one; but today there are three or four pages in some newspapers devoted to foreign affairs and about half of the columns are devoted to foreign affairs.

Naturally the bloodshed in Iraq, torture incidents, the perceived anti-Moslem discourse in the United States and in the West in general, angered the public and led them to take an anti-American stance. In the United States, on the other hand, certain politicians and military especially do not seem to forget the parliamentary rejection of the famous resolution in 2003. The rejection by the United States to take effective action against the PKK in Iraq makes the United States an unreliable ally in the eyes of a great majority of Turks. However recently within the Baþer-Ralstone process, the financial measures taken in France and Belgium against PKK is a positive development.

There is also a divergence of opinion on the question of Kirkuk, not only in the timing of the referendum. The problems are much deeper than that. Turkey is also disturbed by Iraqi Kurds moving towards an independent statehood for reasons we are all aware of. There are other and probably fundamental disagreements on the future of the Middle East between the United States and Turkey.

For the United States, Iraq is an independent state; whereas from Turkey’s point of view this may not be the case. For Turkey Iraq is a state in “being” passing through a complex warfare. Therefore, according to Turkish Government,  Iraq is a direct and serious security concern for all its neighbours. So, regional multi-lateralism is essential for the creation of a new stable Iraq. >From this perspective, the meeting of Iraq’s neighbouring states may be a first step for a more fruitful diplomatic process. Secondly, Turkey, like the United States and European allies, supports projects for the democratization of the Middle East and of Iraq in particular. However, according to Turkey democratization cannot be imposed by force. It must be a gradual process and Iraq’s present constitution does not pave the way for democratization. There are many reasons for this. For example Iraqi Kurds do not consider the present constitution as an adequate instrument for the establishment of a secular state system in Iraq. Secondly, the recognition of a privileged status to Iraqi Kurds is another handicap for the future of Iraq. Turkey harbours some suspicion that the Constitution may prepare conditions for the division of Iraq.

It may be useful to turn one’s attention to the possible implications of Turkish American relations for transatlantic relations. I would like to base my remarks on certain scenarios. For instance if the overall Turkish convergence with EU is to continue, Turkish foreign policy would get closer to that of the European Union.  Even today Turkey is aligning its foreign policy with EU. It is being made clear that when Turkey becomes a member of the European Union, Turkey will not become a Trojan horse. So, the Trojan Horse scenario is not relevant at all.

Turkish foreign policy towards the Middle East and Iran is far closer to European policies than American approaches even today. In the case of alienation for Turkey from the European Union Turkish public opinion may shift towards an even more independent foreign policy and this would complicate relations not only with EU but also with the United States. On the contrary, the continuation of the accession process will be  in the interest of the United States because this will imply in the anchoring of Turkey in Europe and in the West in general. Another impact of the process of Europeanization will be on the Turkish US economic relations. The continuation of the EU process will improve Turkey’s economic infra-structure and this in turn will encourage American direct investors to invest in Turkey. This is probably important for the Turkish US relations in the long run because the improvement of economic relations will alleviate the pressure on strategic relations. In case that strategic relationship may have difficulty, the good economic relations will facilitate the solution of problems. The interaction between economic and strategic relations would be helpful for the future or our relations.

Improved and healthy transatlantic relations are of utmost importance for Turkey because Turkey does not look at NATO only as defence alliance but also as a functioning link between itself and the Western World. The weakening of NATO would put great pressure on Turkey’s relations with the United States. On the other hand, Turkey’s integration with EU will heighten EU’s posture in critical  Middle East, Persian Gulf, Caucasia regions and the Black Sea basin, consequently, increasing EU’s role as a strategic partner in transatlantic relations. In other words, Turkey’s integration in the EU will help the extension of Europe’s soft power to these critical regions.