Today in Washington, the nation of Turkey is no longer portrayed as a democracy or even an ally. The perception of the country as a whole is overshadowed by its strongman leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has ruled the country from 2003 to 2014 as prime minister and since 2014 as president. As a result, perhaps the most consequential election in Turkish history has received scant attention and will most likely not be on the radar for most in Washington regardless of the results. The entire Turkish system is on the line, and Erdogan’s opposition, despite the long odds and challenges of a snap six-week election period, has managed to draw even in polling. While Erdogan may indeed triumph in the end, it may be on a second ballot, and with an opposition-dominated parliament, that has real consequences for the future of one of the most critical countries in the world.
Washington ignores what happens in Turkey at its own peril and may create a self-fulfilling prophesy by dismissing Ankara as no longer being an ally. At a time when pointing fingers internationally is increasingly more difficult for the United States given its own internal challenges and lack of consistency, Turkey’s imperfections make it a perfect ally to further engage rather than abandon.
While the West has never seemed more vulnerable to challenges from within along with serious threats from without, Turkey is a harbinger of the very international system that has been in place since the end of World War II. Despite the tension between Ankara and Washington, US-Turkey relations can grow with the proper framework and vision like America once set after WWII. The support that the Marshall Plan and Truman Doctrine provided Turkey was far less significant than the symbolic nature of its inclusion in the West, which is now being challenged. Focusing on future areas of agreement, which include both opportunities and threats, can reinvigorate and even reinvent this historic relationship as businesses, citizens, and commercial interests are prioritized.
Turkey was neutral during WWII, having learned from the Ottoman Empire’s mistakes and defeat in World War I. But at Washington’s insistence, it eventually joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952 as the only Muslim-majority and Middle Eastern country, thanks to its strategic location and Western orientation. Serving as a barrier to further Soviet penetration into the Mediterranean, Turkey has been a critical ally for America since the second half of the twentieth century, and the two allies have fought shoulder-to-shoulder from Korea to Afghanistan. Entering the twenty-first century, its role as a secular-Muslim democracy in the wake of 9/11 helped the US prevent a “war on Islam” and, more recently, helped eliminate the so-called Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq (ISIS).
Unfortunately, because of a lack of US leadership and strategic vision, Erdogan’s Turkey is today much closer to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Xi Jinping’s China than the West. Membership in the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union or Shanghai Cooperation Organization seems more likely than the European Union. Deals from energy pipelines, nuclear power plants, and various trade routes along China’s Belt and Road Initiative (formerly referred to as the One Belt and One Road Initiative) seem more likely than anything that could come out of the upcoming NATO or G20 summits. The July 2016 failed coup attempt, which saw F-16s bombing the Turkish parliament and killing 200 citizens, traumatized Turkey. Rather than bringing it closer to America, this event made Ankara angry at Washington for not immediately extraditing Fethullah Gulen, whom Erdogan blamed for orchestrating the entire episode without sufficiently convincing the US government through legal proceedings or in the court of American public opinion. At the same time, geopolitical tensions over Syria are reaching a head. In its short-term goal to eliminate ISIS, Washington continues to privilege Kurdish soldiers—who are aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US and NATO designate as a terrorist organization—over its long-term allies in Ankara, who fear that the Kurds’ military actions pose an existential threat.
Turks have complaints of their own on a broad range of issues, including the US moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and suddenly pulling out from the Iran deal, along with the coup attempt and developments in Syria. These grievances unify many in Turkey, regardless of party affiliation. Therefore, even if Erdogan or his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are defeated, there would be no genuinely pro-American leaders left in Turkey. No election is going to fix this broader problem. Like Trump in America, Erdogan in Turkey is a symptom and not the cause of the challenges we face. As a result, Washington must start by understanding the present realities in Ankara along with the domestic and regional politics that have led to this point.
Public relation disasters, like Turkey buying Russian S400 surface-to-air missile systems as a NATO ally or Erdogan’s bodyguards beating up protestors outside of the Turkish ambassador’s residence in DC, have only further isolated Turkey in Washington, particularly on Capitol Hill where the country once enjoyed bipartisan support. Now with declining Turkey-Israel relations and accusations of hostage diplomacy over a highly publicized American pastor who sits in a Turkish jail, Ankara’s once dependable friends can no longer be found, endangering everything from lucrative F-35 contracts to critical cultural and educational exchange programs.
The tried-and-true formula of military cooperation and diplomatic ties that had served the modern Turkish republic and the United States has fallen short. US government officials should work with their Turkish counterparts to invest in minimizing tensions and expanding commercial and economic interests that unite both countries toward common objectives. Washington must hedge the future of the US-Turkey relationship with additional options, new bilateral priorities, and mutual goals. Promoting a vision for US-Turkey relations that goes beyond security relations, which have become so tangled as to strangle the alliance, is easier than headlines might indicate. Despite major political differences and after several years of decline, bilateral trade between the two nations hit an all-time high in 2017.
Notwithstanding tensions between Ankara and Washington, saving Turkey as an ally is worth it in the long-term given the investment successive generations have already made. Dynamics in American and Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy environments are shifting, so there has never been a better moment to expand our conception of the North Atlantic beyond NATO’s security construct to include an economic one. Ultimately, the US-Turkey relationship will be determined not just by the decision-makers in Washington and Ankara, but by the businesses, entrepreneurs, and other leaders from Istanbul, New York, Izmir, San Francisco, Bursa, Boston, Kayseri, Chicago, and beyond. This is why a concerted effort must be made by both governments and nations to expand relations and save the alliance.
Regardless of the election results on Sunday, it is an opportune time to reset relations with Turkey and its leaders. Turkey is certainly not a perfect ally, nor is the United States. But the US-Turkey relationship is worth saving precisely because of how complicated and intertwined the two countries are. Ignoring Turkey’s election and reducing the nation’s voice to that of Erdogan simply plays into his hands. Turkey is not Russia, and while its state of emergency has abused Turkish civil society from academic to media, it remains a democracy whose institutions desperately need America’s support and active engagement, not isolation.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a recent contributor to Providence and serves as the Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan in the Office of the President at Eurasia Group, the world’s leading political risk consultancy.
Photo Credit: President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey at the United Nations General Assembly on October 2, 2017. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.