|Transformation of Turkish Foreign Policy and U.S.-Turkish Relations*|
|United States of America|
|Joshua W. Walker|
I get frustrated sometimes. When I first started working on Turkey 10 years ago, I spent all my time, yelling ‘Turkey’s important! Turkey’s geographically in the center of the world.’ As Americans, we need to understand that we need to be better allies than we’ve been in the past. And now, everyone understands Turkey’s important, but now they don’t understand what happened.
‘Where did Turkey come from? What’s changed? Why is Turkey, all of a sudden, shifting axis? Who lost Turkey?’ I’ve been on record many times trying to fight this. But I just want to emphasize the way D.C., in particularly thinkers in the Washington and the West are thinking about Turkey.
In this respect, the first thing to emphasize is that Turkey is, right now, probably at a place where it has never been seen in Turkish history. In Ottoman history, there have been times that Turkey was in the same place. But right now, Republican Turkey is being seen not just as a regional player, but as a trans-regional power that is able to operate in all vectors of its region. Most people would remember Turkey as a country that focuses only on its Western affiliation: NATO ally, OSCE, EU-aspirant country, and a U.N. Security Council member. Then, Turkey became a member, and then founding member, of the G-20 because of its’ economic power. All of its power was based on its Western affiliation, and it, for a long time, decided not to focus on the Middle East. It could be argued that the reason for that was because of the international environment. During the Cold War, there was the Soviet Union and America. Seen from Washington, America’s leadership in the Middle East has always been paramount. In other words, America’s always had strategic interests in this region of the world, due to America’s oil dependence, but also because of America’s allies: especially Israel, but also Turkey as well. One of the interesting shifts that has been seen over the last couple years, particularly since 9/11, is America’s active involvement, with its invasion of Iraq, and its invasion (or attacks) of Afghanistan as well.
Growing Turkish Power, Wavering Turkish Public Opinion
It could be argued that Turkey has risen the ladder. Even five years ago, Turkey was among the top 20 countries. In the last couple years, while it’s certainly become in the top 10, I would argue that it should be in the top 5. Most of America’s strategic partners are countries that America has a historical relationship with, such as countries like Britain and Israel, where there is a large group of people from those countries that came to the States. America is a country of immigrants and different nations. In this case, Turkey is very similar to America [given the multi-cultural character of the Ottoman empire].
One of the challenges that people have in America is reorienting their thinking, because so much of the time, Americans simply look at Turkey’s geography without thinking about the characteristics inside of Turkey. Americans don’t follow domestic politics very closely, and although it’s something I follow very closely, but not many of my friends in government follow. With the Sunday [national] elections that just recently happened in Turkey, in D.C., I have to be honest, no one knew that there was an election in Turkey. Everyone that was watching the elections in America, ‘Turkey-watchers,’ were all very depressed, because many of them have a personal agenda or they just have a problem with the Turkish government. I have a problem with your government sometimes, because of mistakes or policy decisions that I don’t agree with. But in general, if you ask me if Turkey is going in the right or wrong direction, I’d say 80% is in the right direction. It’s more democratic than it was 10 years ago. The economy is growing at a faster rate than has ever seen. In many ways, Turkish foreign policy has been a reflection of it. But like in any country, foreign policy always follows the domestic trajectory. Understanding why there have been some contradictions, there have been some difficulties with the principles of Turkish foreign policy that were laid out with the ‘zero problems’ strategic depth and these ideas. Why they became problematic in the current period with the Arab Awakening is precisely because of the domestic polarization existing in Turkey. Interestingly, at the very moment in which the AKP (as a party) has become the only dominant force, it could be argued that in Turkey, nothing happens without the approval (or some type of control or discussion) with the government. Prime Minister Erdoğan is a type of leader that hasn’t been seen in a long time in Turkey. He has an absolute control, not just because he has certain charismatic and populist tendencies, but also because of the way that the Turkish people have responded to Tayyip Erdoğan. Interestingly enough, in many ways, he’s been able to do exactly what Obama has failed to do. When Obama was elected in 2008 going in 2009, he came on the platform of ‘hope,’ and of ‘change.’ He was going to change the way that the rest of the world saw America, and in many ways, this was an opportunity to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, the moment in which Obama came, America had a major economic crisis. Therefore, instead of focusing on international affairs (such as fixing the Arab-Israeli conflict, the tensions with China, major conflicts in Cyprus, Kashmir, Pakistan and India), America’s been focused (almost exclusively) internally on what’s been going on in the United States. There’s a deep feeling of pessimism in Washington right now. It’s a very strange characteristic. Americans are known for being very optimistic people. America have the ‘American Dream,’ always looking on the positive side of things, as opposed to its European friends, who are always depressed about something. Europeans are former powers, it seems that they don’t really have much of a role as before (except for the European Union). Even in the European Union, they can never agree on anything because they’re always fighting. Whereas now, I would argue that American optimism has actually come to Turkey.
I think the AKP has probably been the best government that America has ever had. Anytime America asks for something, or rather, anything AKP promises, they deliver it. They always are able to do it. They also do it in a way that’s very different than in the past. In the past, Americans would talk to their military counterparts, like the Turkish generals. Those counterparts would deliver it, but in a non-democratic way, so there was sometimes resentment among the Turkish people. Now however, if the Turkish government promises something, they deliver it, doing it on their own strength. But now Turkish-American relations have a small problem, being that we sometimes have a different view on things. We have the same objectives in the long-term, but the short-term means are very different. When one thinks about Iran, this is exactly the case. Turkey does a lot of business with Iran, and there are many strategic partnerships and discussions going on. It makes sense that the people in the eastern part of Turkey don’t want to see sanctions on Iran. From a Turkish point of view, sanctions have never led to anything good. It’s never led to a change of state behavior. But from the West, there are no other alternatives. America’s not going to invade Iran, and since they’re not going to find any other way, it needs Turkey’s support. There’s been a differing approach here. The problem in many ways is that because of the way the international environment is created, there are times in which the following occurs: Turkish leaders say one thing to Americans, another thing to the Turks, and then something very different themselves. This inconsistency in foreign policy causes there to be problems. It’s something every country has, but has become particularly acute in what’s happening now.
There are many models in the Middle East that can be used. Iran has been trying to offer itself as a major model for the last 30 years. No one is appealed by the Iranian model. The economic capabilities of that country have been devastated since the revolution. It still is in a state of decay simply because of this dogmatic belief. They’ve swung from one extreme to the other. They went from an extremely secular society under the Shah, all the way to this Islamist Republic. Turkey’s been able to show that if you’re able to have both: one can have a functioning, capitalistic, secular democracy within a society that values conservative values. When one wants to have a disagreement or have a political fight, you come together and have that discussion.
Every April, there is the same problem: the Armenian genocide resolution. I don’t understand why the Armenian genocide resolution holds the US-Turkish relationship hostage. Turkey and the U.S. have been allies for 60 years now, and the two countries understand each other probably better than almost any other country. And yet every year, something that has almost no value in the American political system causes there to be major problems. There’s threats, for example, about cutting off [American military base in Turkey] Incırlık. I have to say this: because of the problems that currently exist between Turkey and Israel, I almost am willing to predict that the resolution will pass in April. This is going to cause major trouble between our countries because every year, it comes to the same thing. The Turkish government keeps on telling the Americans, ‘if you do this, our relationship will be downgraded.’ This is similar to the way that Turkey reacted after Sarkozy’s comments when the genocide resolution passed in France. The way that Turkey reacted in that instance, is ‘ how we’re going to react to America.’ However, that’s not in Turkey’s strategic interests, nor is that in America’s strategic interests. Leaders on both sides need to find ways to prepare their publics for this. On the American side, the government needs to explain that a congressional resolution means nothing. It doesn’t mean there’s a new law case, and it doesn’t mean that Turkey’s morally wrong. When I come from, my state of Virginia had slaves for a very long period of time. President Obama comes from that tradition, as an African-American president. The state apologized for slavery, and wrote a resolution saying we were wrong. The state also has a resolution that it committed genocide against the Native Americans (the Indians). So genocide is not the same as, you know, a U.N. mandate. The problem in America, in particular, is there are not different points of view. In the U.S., tricky discussions about Armenia and Israel, for example, become very one-sided. There’s not a very big Turkish-American population that can offer an alternative viewpoint. As a friend of Turkey, I go to try to offer different views, saying ‘look, bad things happened in 1915, but why don’t we focus on the future?’ The Turkish-Armenian rapprochement that we’re having right now is far more important in the present. The discussion about the borders, and how we can inter-link the region through a Caucasus plan, through a wider Black Sea region, through a larger Middle East in which Turkey plays a central role as a hub is critical. As a leader in the region, it’s precisely where the United States needs to ‘putting our eggs in the basket,’ as an American expression goes.
American power is on the decline, but America will never going to be completely finished. It’s not like America is going to disappear from the scene. Right now, the country is getting ready for a major election next year. If you listen to many of the Republican candidates who will be challenging President Obama…if you think you don’t like President Obama’s policies, or you don’t like the current U.S. foreign policy, I don’t know what to think in one year’s time if the States has a Republican president. Most of the debates being seen in the Republican primary have been exclusively focused on two foreign policy questions: how close can America be to Israel, and how successful can America be in Afghanistan. As an American, I will tell you very frankly that Israel is a big problem for us. It is so closely linked to the American domestic system, that it’s almost impossible for the U.S. to be rational and for the U.S. to take a middle approach to Israel. Therefore, what Turkey’s trying to do is in the right side, and I think that Turkey’s on the right side of history. One can’t expect a country to accept that 9 of its citizens were killed in international waters. I understand the Turkish position very clear. But what I am concerned about is the rhetoric that comes out of the mouth of both the [Turkish] prime minister and the foreign minister. It’s one thing to have a dispute with the government, it’s another thing to villanize an entire country. They walk a very dangerous line, because in one place, they say ‘we have no problem with the Jewish people, Turks and Jews have a very large history. And we have a big problem with [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu.’ The problem is, if one wants to go about changing the way the Israeli government does things, a way to leverage it strategically must be found. In the past, Turkey was able to do this, by being a broker between Syria and Israel, by being involved in the prisoner deals and Hamas. There will always be a different view of Hamas in these other places. But Turkey offers the West, particularly the United States, an opportunity to work because America can’t do some of the things that Turkey can do. Turkey can offer the extreme (kind of) Palestinian views, a way of saying ‘we will give you dignity. We support the Palestinian state. The international community supports a two-state solution.’ Turkey can be the guarantor of some of these things. When you think about what an international solution must look like, there’s going to have to be peacekeepers at some level in Jerusalem, and in these difficult areas. I don’t think that they want to see American military there. Having American military in the holy sites of Israel would be a disaster in many different ways. But maybe it would be more effective to have an international coalition led by Turkey. But we don’t hear about that right now, because the countries are so angry at each other. There’s so much emotionality between each other that there’s very little room for rational discussion.
The last couple of things to mention is this: at the U.N., it was a more telling time. The United Nations is not exactly the most interesting of world events, with the speeches that are given are never the most interesting. But I think, you can feel the time. There’s a German word, zeitgeist, so a feeling of a time. This U.N. assembly meeting was very telling. The Prime Minister of Turkey had just visited Somalia, and he had just visited all the Arab capitals of the world when he arrived at the U.N. I was up in the U.N. with a delegation, and I can tell you from personal experience: everybody wanted to talk to the Turkish delegation. Everybody. I watched the American delegation; many people tried to meet with the president, many people had meetings, but there was not a clamor to see them. But everyone wanted to talk to the Turks about something. The Balkan leaders wanted to drag the Turks in to talk about their particular Stability Pact, or about what was going on. The Caucasus leaders wanted to bring Turkey in. African leaders wanted to talk to Turkey. Middle Eastern leaders, European leaders; it was a very interesting scene. In the past, when Turkey came to the U.N., they were just seen as ‘oh, another second world country.’ Now Turkey is in a place that actually surpasses many European countries, and many advanced nations. Even though Turkey’s GDP is not at the same level as all these other European countries, because of Turkey’s soft power, and because of the ability and the activism of its foreign policy, many people respect it. There were many mistakes that were made. For example, the Iranian president spoke, and then the Turkish Prime Minister spoke. In the American and Western newspapers, [Iranian President] ‘Ahmedinejad said this, he criticized Israel, Erdoğan criticized Israel.’ They forgot the entire important part of his speech because his speech was focused mostly on Somalia. The way in which he spoke was particularly important. I’m just sad that many Americans and western media missed it, because what he said was telling. He didn’t speak as a leader of the far away; he spoke as a man, as a human being who had visited these countries. He said ‘look, we, as fellow Muslims, as fellow citizens of the world, we have to pay attention to what happens in Somalia.’ He then went on to praise the Palestinians, and congratulated the Palestinians for their state, and then he criticized Israel. Israel was the third case. The challenge here is, how do you strike the right balance between your tone and your rhetoric, and everything else? The meeting between President Obama and Erdoğan, by all accounts, from the inside (I heard both from the Turkish and the American side) was a huge success. It seems that Turkey has no better ally than the President of the United States. Unfortunately, just because President Obama is in a very weak position right now, this does not mean that U.S.-Turkey are on the same page.
I have to tell that in D.C. right now, it’s unfortunately become very difficult to become a friend of Turkey, because they’ve made it into a choice. ‘If you are pro-Israel, you cannot be pro-Turkey. If you are pro-Turkey, you cannot be pro-Israel.’ Unfortunately, this type of heated argument, almost like between brothers, has gotten to the point that most Americans only see Turkey through the prism of Israel. Despite the fact that the Turkey-Israel thing is a small part of the broader Turkish foreign policy, in America right now (in particularly Washington), not the government, but the general feeling in the Congress, in the Senate, in the different places, has gotten particularly bad. What’s has happened is that President Obama is not giving an accurate reflection to his Turkish counterparts. He’s so afraid of offending the Turkish government in saying things that would make Prime Minister Erdoğan and the other Turkish leaders angry and would make them stop cooperating on the areas that are important to U.S. interests, that he’s not reflecting this other current; particularly from Republican lawmakers, but also at the lower levels of the administration.
I think what’s important about what BILGESAM and other places are doing is building the civil society level. The government-to-government relations will always continue. But in a democracy and in a really strong healthy relationship between two countries, one has to focus on the people-to-people. The next generation of U.S.-Turkish leaders are going to have to focus on this a lot more. Right now, it’s very easy for Professor Davutoğlu can pick up the phone and call Secretary of State [Hilary] Clinton, and it’s very easy for President Obama and Erdoğan to have a conversation. But this doesn’t matter as much, as the conversations that are happening on the society level. There needs to be a better understanding between both Turkey and the U.S. if the two countries are going to move forward. In Europe, there’s always prejudice against Turkey because of Turkey’s long history. In America, there isn’t the same historical baggage, and Americans don’t have the same sense of history. As a result, both the U.S. and Turkey have a much more clean slate to work with, and there’s an opportunity here to be able to consolidate this U.S.-Turkish partnership in a really systematic way that not simply based on strategy, but is actually based on something larger. I do believe that the principles and values that guide what the Republic of Turkey represents (sometimes not the Turkish government), but what the Republic of Turkey represents, and what my country represents (sometimes not the U.S. government) are on the same page. Both countries can gain a lot more by working together than of working against each other. Despite all the problems that we have, whether it’s over Israel or whether it’s over Iran, or Syria or anything else, if Turkey and America are able to come together as friends first and foremost, and as people who understand each other, we’ll realize that we share far more than we don’t.