By İsmail Duman, World Bulletin
There have been very different scenarios for the Turkish-U.S. relations since Turkey began to become a regional power in the Middle East. In the recent years, the debate of ‘axial dislocation’ on Turkish foreign policy has been on politicians/commentators/columnists/ policy makers’ agenda. In parallel to these debates, differences between the agenda of Turkey and U.S. on the Middle East led to come disaster scenarios about the Turkish-U.S. relations into existence. Especially after 1 March 2003 decision of the Turkish Parliament on Iraq, many American commentators began to question the loyalty of Turkey to the U.S. After this date, the relations between them seemed to zigzag.
Although the signs of improved relations began to emerge only after the Erdoğan-Bush summit on November 5, 2007, after Turkey at the UN Security Council voted “no” to sanctions on Iran and the Mavi Marmara crisis, disaster scenarios came to light again. As Nuh Yılmaz says, “the summer of 2010 witnessed intense debates around themes such as ‘Turkey axis shift’, ‘Who lost Turkey?’, ‘Turkey’s authoritarianism’.”
But today, we are talking about the “golden age“ of the Turkish-U.S. relations. The Arab Spring, Turkey’s position on Libya and Turkey’s hosting missile shield radars on its soil make valuable Turkey in the eyes of Americans again.
Last week, we read a very interesting report on a new era of the Turkish-U.S. relations. “Major changes that have swept both Turkey and its neighborhood since the Cold War require Washington to forge a ‘new partnership’ with Ankara, according to a new report released on Tuesday by the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).”
Today, we want to question the zigzags between the Turkish-U.S. relations. Are they real or fiction? Under what conditions can we understand these zigzags? Is Turkey really independent of American hegemony in foreign policies? In this picture, what is the role of “soft power” concept?
Is there any magic wand?
“Gone are the angry private exchanges of the last year between President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, after Turkey's stunning 'no' vote on UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. Concern about Turkey potentially switching axis and moving away from the West -- or at least open talk of this concern -- has considerably diminished in Washington. Suddenly we find ourselves in what I call the Turkish-American Spring. But is this real? I mean, really real?” says Ali H. Aslan, from Today's Zaman Newspaper. “We owe today's positive atmosphere in US-Turkish relations to many factors, first and foremost, an increasingly humbled US, due to serious economic and foreign policy problems. No matter how irritating the Turks may sometimes be, Turkey has become an indispensable player in its strategically critical neighborhood, if not in the world, and the US has to live with that. Similarly, despite occasional American acts of arrogance, Ankara's need to maintain the influential US as a regional and global partner is also more than evident.”
In addition to this, “So, what happened to effect a 180 degree change in relations in such a short time? There is still the same president in the White House. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) is still at the wheel in Turkey. How can we now refer to the golden age of relations when a year ago everyone in Washington was questioning whether Turkey had been lost or why it had shifted its political axis? If everything changed so swiftly, what is to guarantee it all won't be reversed next year? Suppose Congress announces that Turkey committed genocide against Armenians in the past. Will we return to the dark ages once again? How can relations change so quickly? Isn't there any way to prevent these sudden ebbs and flows?” asks Abdulhamit Bilici, from Today's Zaman. “In my opinion, there are two reasons for the poor state Turkish-US relations were in a year ago. The first was Turkey's saying ‘no’ to the UN Security Council's resolution on sanctions against Iran. The other was the impact of the Mavi Marmara crisis. Given such facts as Turkey's political stability, its economic successes despite economic collapse in the West and the harmony between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and US President Barack Obama were in place last year as well, there remain two developments that could change relations in the course of a year. First, Turkey agreed to host a NATO radar system. Second, the Arab Spring upgraded Turkey's position in the eyes of the US, making it a very valuable player, and both countries are pursuing similar policies in this regard.”
As Ali H. Aslan says, Turkey's recent moves to distance itself from Iran (by agreeing to host NATO's missile defense radar) and Syria (by writing off the Assad regime) have appealed to the US government the most.
When we look at the history of the Turkish-U.S. relations, we mostly come across “the strategic partnership” in favor of the U.S. But today, there is a new concept-“model partnership”. What is the difference between them and what does this transition mean?
From strategic partnership to model partnership
“The ‘strategic partnership’ was established against the Soviet threat in the post-1945 period based on an ‘asymmetry’ in favor of the United States. Despite the disappearance of a common enemy with the end of the Cold War, this relationship continued under a Cold War framework” says Nuh Yılmaz. “Turkish Parliament’s refusal to allow American troops to invade Iraq through Turkey on March 1, 2003 represented the end of the ‘strategic partnership’.”
According to him, “strategic partnership” refers to two allies’ joint action against a common threat in military, intelligence, and political areas. Such an alliance requires cooperation in numerous areas, mainly against a military threat, or responding to a new strategic realignment in a region, as well as technology and intelligence sharing.
As he says, if we look at the time of its establishment, the strategic partnership is based on Turkey’s geopolitical decision to side with the Western Bloc for security by collaborating with NATO and the U.S. during the Cold War against the Russian threat to its north. In doing so, Turkey protected itself against possible territorial claims and claims over the Straits by Russia.
After the Iraq war, “Turkey began to increase its regional role by taking advantage of the vacuum created by the U.S. In the meantime, Turkey experimented with developing and sustaining bilateral relations on its own while seeking to strengthen its national interests. Perhaps, the most obvious indication of this change in Turkey’s foreign policy was when Ankara hosted Hamas’ political leader Khaled Mashal’s in February 2006. The U.S. considered Hamas a terrorist organization and Turkey did not feel the need to inform the US about the visit ahead of time. This put another strain on relations, but at the same time, it opened a new way for possible cooperation in different areas. Both countries increased their efforts to find areas of cooperation and Ankara’s new relationships in the Middle East could be an asset for an increasingly troubled US presence in the region.”
“The model partnership was to define the new style of the relationship and take the place of the strategic partnership. Yet, the only point both sides agreed upon was this willingness itself. In other words, both sides agreed on the idea of a partnership model and registered this as an ‘empty signifier,’ however, they continued to understand this framework differently” says Nuh Yılmaz. “Turkey understood this as recognition of itself as an actor not a framework to be developed around policy issues. This meant recognition as an independent political entity, and to be seen as an equal partner at the negotiating table, and to base all its relations on this equality. All other policy issues could only be defined on this basis. The U.S. looked at it as a revision of the hierarchical relationship that existed in the strategic partnership. The U.S. sought to address Turkey’s concerns through policy adjustments and arrangements. Turkey’s insistence on its demands to become an equal partner, and American perception of the problem at the level of policy prevented reforming relations even though all necessary conditions were ripe. Therefore, the expected improvements in relations did not come and the year 2010 was a year full of crises.”
He arranges these crises in order as follows:
“Despite all the well-intentioned promises, and willingness to form a model partnership, 2010 began with a crisis in Turkish-American relations. In early March, Turkey recalled its ambassador to the U.S. for consultations after the ‘Armenian genocide’ bill was passed in the House Foreign Relations Committee. Turkey interpreted the bill as contrary to the model partnership, while the U.S. thought that Turkey was overreacting on the issue. The irony of this ambassador crisis became clear during the second half of the year. No U.S. ambassador had been posted to Turkey, as the Senate did not yet confirm the new ambassador.
Following this crisis, relations entered into a downward spiral. Erdoğan’s visit to Washington to attend the Nuclear Summit in early April was not announced until the last minute. Erdoğan met Obama during his visit and the talks were aimed at setting the ground for the Turkey-Iran-Brazil nuclear discussions. When Turkey and Brazil’s efforts resulted in the Tehran Declaration of May 17th, Washington dismissed the agreement on grounds that it did not answer the fundamental concerns of the international community about Iran’s nuclear program. The US announced quickly that it would move forward with sanctions at the UN. Turkey and Brazil continued to defend the agreement stating that the text was written based on Obama’s letters to Brazilian and Turkish leaders and had been brokered in coordination with Washington.
US-Turkey relations had become tenser with the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010. Nine civilian activists (eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American) had been killed by Israeli soldiers in international waters in an operation to prevent the international aid convoy from reaching Gaza. Turkey was disillusioned with the US, as it did not get the support it expected from Washington against Israeli aggression. At the same time, pro-Israel groups in Washington started to campaign against Turkey and especially against Erdoğan. In this negative atmosphere and following the Tehran Agreement, fresh sanctions against Iran were imposed by the Security Council. Turkey and Brazil, who were non-permanent members at the UN Security Council voted “no” to sanctions on Iran. They argued that their possible vote to impose sanctions on Iran would simply invalidate the Tehran Agreement.”
The Lisbon Summit of NATO on 19-20 November 2010 put an end all these debates and fears. In this summit, the old partnership Turkey showed its loyalty to world hegemonic powers. After this date, in parallel to giving bribes by Turkey in this summit, NATO members, Western countries and the U.S. were able to breathe again and put question in their mind in Turkey aside. But, all the countries knew any more that although this Turkey is loyal to NATO and Western bloc, there are some structural changes in Turkey’s position and policies.
As Nuh Yılmaz says, the desired content of the model partnership is very clear. Turkey is saying that it is sitting at the table, it is independent, and it wants recognition as an independent actor. The very basis of the model partnership has to be based on a framework supporting Turkey’s independent posture.
What has changed?
“A former U.S. ambassador to Turkey described to me the recent state of the relations between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan as ‘the best since the one between George [father] Bush and Turgut Özal’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s” says Murat Yetkin, from Hurriyet Daily News. “Is it worth asking what has changed? Is this a new Turkey or are there new U.S. expectations from Turkey? After having a lot of conversations with American and Turkish sources, I can say that both are valid.”
Before looking at this process, we want to focus on different scenarios about the framework of this relationship.
According to Gokhan Bacik, we are living in the age of contradictions in world politics. “It is now very difficult to understand who is with whom in foreign policy. The Turkish-US strategic alliance is a brilliant example of the age of contradictions in world politics. There are very few, if any, essentials of this strategic alliance that both sides display carefully. Instead, despite the persistent strategic-alliance narrative, both sides have different agendas on many important issues of global politics” he says. “Turkey, for example, believes that Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, embodies a vital risk to the country’s interests in the region. However, the US has a different perspective. Many key actors in Washington seem unconvinced by the Turkish argument. Moreover, there are very many influential people in Washington who believe that strong relations with Maliki will help the US in the region, especially vis-à-vis Iran. On Syria, even though Turkey and the US act in line, their levels of political involvement are totally different. Unlike Turkey, the US has a somehow low-profile stance on Syria. In Egypt, it is mainly thanks to the US that the Supreme Command of Armed Forces of Egypt (SCAF) is still on the political scene with absolute authority, so much so that it can hijack the revolution. It is no secret that a SCAF-dominated Egyptian politics will be a difficult place for Turkey.
The more ironic situation arises with regard to China. While Turkey and the US are at odds with China on all major issues of world politics, their key priority is to advance good relations with China. Ironically, one may argue that having good relations with China is a new essential of Turkish-US relations.”
After presenting his arguments, he concludes his article as follows:
“So, what are the essentials of the Turkish-US strategic alliance? I believe there is no one essential in a Cold War sense. Maybe there are several ‘sleeping’ essentials that might become important in a crisis like a war. Or one can formulate this to project a broader picture, such as ‘the key American interest is to keep Turkey a market-based liberal democracy’. But I am not sure that such essentials are operationally effective.”
On the other hand, according to Assoc. Prof. Tarik Oguzlu,there is a very different picture in the Turkish-U.S. relations in Obama administration in favor of bilateralism. “What seems to have changed in the US approach to Turkey under Obama is that Americans are now more tolerant of Turkey playing a more assertive role in the Middle East. Unlike the years of Bush era, Turkey’s growing engagement in the region, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring, do no longer rise eyebrows in Washington. The suspicion that the so-called ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy aimed at turning Turkey’s face away from the west to the east has already evaporated.”
According to him, the prime reasons for the growing bilateralism in US-Turkish relations are threefold:
“First, the United States does now very much value bilateral security cooperation with such key countries as Turkey as part of the so-called ‘pivot to Asia’ and ‘offshore balancing’ strategies. In a time of diminishing economic capabilities and relative global decline, the US can no longer afford a global preponderance strategy. Prioritization of the strategic engagements is now the only game in Washington.
Second, NATO, the most important multilateral platform tying Turkey and the United States to each other in the context of ‘European’ security has already lost a great part of its significance in Turkish and American eyes; as the United States has begun to define its security interest beyond Europe, as Turkey’s security has become increasingly exposed to developments in the larger Middle East rather than Europe, as Europe does no longer hold a vital place in global security calculations, and as European allies resist the attempts to globalize NATO and prefer to live in ‘fortress Europe’.
Third, Turkey’s commitment to become a genuine member of the western international community is no longer as strong as it used to be in the past. As of today, there is not a single western community uniting the United States and European around common values and strategic interest. The European Union has for some time been experiencing serious financial and institutional crises diminishing its ability to become a truly global actor speaking with one voice on as many realms as possible. That Turkey becomes a member of the European Union is still a rare possibility that might come true in distant future. And the European Union has begun to lose its soft power of attraction in Turkish eyes, as opposition to Turkey’s membership in the EU has been on the rise and Turkey’s increasing soft and hard power capabilities encourage Turkish leaders in their efforts to pursue more multi-dimensional, multi-directional and Ankara-centric policies.”
“Turkey is showing vague signs of moving away from one part of the West — Europe — but at the same time growing closer to America. As Cyprus takes the reins of the European Union in 2012, the direction of Turkey's movement should come into focus” says Ihsan Dagi, from Zaman Daily Newspaper. “In my opinion, the claim of an ‘axial shift’ is unfounded; the concept of multifaceted foreign policy is more appropriate. Turkey’s redefined relations with Israel do not signal a ‘break with the West’. Indeed, since the Arab Spring last year, it is now being written that Turkey under the AKP could be a model for the governments emerging in the Middle East. Turkey's opposition to Gadhafi and Assad has made Western countries, especially America, forget all that talk of an ‘axial shift’. What's more, support for to the NATO missile shield seems to have brought an end to all other disagreements. Lately, the papers have been writing about what good friends Obama and Erdoğan are and how U.S.-Turkey relations are entering a new ‘golden age’. The America that yesterday accused Turkey of trying to transform regional politics is now extolling its virtues, to which I do not object.”
When Murat Yetkin mentions changes on the U.S. and the Turkish sides, he gives place to these sentences:
“One of the changes on the U.S. side can be summarized in the words of a top American source who told a group of Turkish opinion holders last week that relations with Israel was not the only parameter in relations, leading them to try and understand the ‘New Turkey’.
The changes on the Turkish side were summarized into three points:
1) The change of the Turkish stance on Libya; 2) Turkey’s agreement to host missile shield radars on its soil; and 3) Erdoğan’s speech in Cairo.”
On the other hand, according to Kilic Bugra Kanat, the state of Turkish-American relations in the last eight years has become a subject of controversy, debate and in some instances polarization among pundits from different political and ideological backgrounds.
“The ‘Who lost Turkey?’ debate in the early 2000s evolved into a ‘shift of axis’ argument in the last years of the decade, and for a considerable number of these pundits this period marked the end of a half-century-long alliance. Although in the first months of the Obama administration, the parties tried to reconcile the differences between them and put forward the concept of ‘model partnership’ in order to create a new form of cooperation, these efforts failed to come to fruition” he says. “Throughout 2011 and especially during significant periods of the Arab Spring, the two countries followed parallel policies in the management of events in Egypt and Libya and showed similar strong reactions against the Syrian government. In the meantime, Turkey agreed to host radar systems for the NATO missile shields, and the US showed strong support for Turkey in its war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), both verbally through condemnation of PKK terror and militarily by selling Turkey three SuperCobra attack helicopters and four Predator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The increasing rapport between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Barack Obama, and their constant communication to evaluate regional developments, helped to revive their mutual trust.”
According to Aaron Stein, the divergence in opinion over the United States' and Turkey's Middle East policies stems from an ideological difference over how to implement foreign policy.
“The United States has long favored a policy of coercion, while Turkey has turned its back on this policy and is now convinced that ‘soft power’ is best suited to achieving its objectives. Despite this, the two countries share an overwhelming interest in maintaining friendly ties and working together in the Middle East. In order to maintain these relations, both countries have to work together to clearly enumerate each other's immediate interests, identify areas of convergence, and respect areas of disagreement” he says. “The most practical method moving forward is to decouple the Israeli issue from broader Middle East issues, quickly followed by working together to resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. By doing so, the allies can redefine their alliance to meet the challenges each country faces in the 21st century. In the absence of the Communist threat, the two allies can chart a new path forward that favors regional diplomacy and the pursuit of each other's interests. This will necessitate a more open dialogue on each side that downplays Turkey's religion and the United States' coercive policy, in favor of each other's complementary interests. The fact of the matter remains that the two countries share more interests than differences over the threats and opportunities they face.”
However, the Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu answers the question “President Gül has spoken of a ‘golden age’ of relations with Washington. Ties were not so good after the AKP came to office a decade ago? What happened?” in his interview with Cairo Review cautiously:
“Turkey and the U.S. currently enjoy an advanced level of cooperation. President Obama paid his first bilateral overseas visit to Turkey soon after becoming president. However, we do not always pursue identical approaches on international issues. As Turkey has traditionally strong ties with its neighborhood and beyond, sometimes there may be nuances in Turkey’s approach on issues taking place in our region. Turkey’s geography necessitates a multidimensional foreign policy. Therefore, we have many issues concerning Turkey and the U.S. Turkey is ready to work with every country that embraces the goals of peace, stability, and economic development. It is not possible to accept the assumption that “ties were not so good after this government came to office a decade ago.” There is always speculation following a change in governments in all countries. Turkey’s decisive journey, encompassing comprehensive democratic and political reforms and brilliant economic performance in the last decade or so, is self-explanatory to dispel such groundless assumptions.”
Up to this moment, we looked at the different opinions about the changing framework of the Turkish-U.S. relations. Most of them are talking about the structural changing in this relationship. But, we do not know these assumptions true or not. Here, focusing on the new report released on the last Tuesday by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) can give us some clues.
A new report
“To do otherwise would be to miss a historic opportunity to set ties between Washington on a cooperative trajectory in Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa, for a generation,” according to the 90-page report, “US-Turkey Relations: A New Partnership”.
According to Jim Lobe, the report comes amid a growing - albeit slow - appreciation here for Turkey's emergence over the past decade as a global economic powerhouse, evidenced by its membership in the Group of 20 (G-20), and as a regional superpower with significant influence on not just the evolution of the past year's "Arab Spring" but also the ongoing crisis between Iran and the West, and the future supply of oil and gas from the Caspian and Central Asia to Europe.
While the report is conceding that Washington will disagree with Ankara on a number of important issues, including the pace and direction of political reform inside Turkey and Ankara's relations with Israel, it concludes that “it is incumbent upon policymakers to make every effort to develop US-Turkey ties in order to make a strategic relationship a reality”.
“In the past 20 years, but especially since the accession to power of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, however, Turkey's position has changed dramatically” says Jim Lobe. “Economically, its growth rate has been sustained at close to Chinese levels over the past decade; politically, the AKP has significantly weakened the once-dominant military and instituted other democratic reforms; and internationally, Ankara has emerged as a confident and independent actor, even as its loyalty to NATO, as shown by its continuing troop commitment in Afghanistan and its agreement to station an anti-missile radar system on its soil, appears undiminished.”
As Jim Lobe reminds us, just two weeks ago, one of the most influential US geostrategic thinkers, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, compared Turkey's importance to those of Washington's most powerful NATO allies. “I would view Turkey personally today as one of the four most important members of the NATO, certainly right there with Britain, France, and Germany,” he said in a lecture at the Brookings Institution. He also argued that Turkey's political and economic evolution could serve as a model not only for newly democratic Arab states, but also for Iran and Russia.
“The new Turkey is not well understood by US administration officials, members of congress or the public,” the report notes, adding that one of the aims of the task forces precisely to build a better understanding of Turkey's importance.
While the report mentions many rights- and democracy-related complaints, noting, for example, that the AKP's constitutional reform program has slowed unnecessarily and that the government has sometimes resorted to the “same non-democratic tools” as its predecessors.
At the same time, the report insists that some of the fears about the AKP's direction are exaggerated or unfounded. “In particular, the decline in the role of the military in Turkish political life does not mean that Turkey is inexorably headed toward theocracy or movement away from NATO,” it insists, adding that “the United States must not view the sum of US-Turkey relations through the narrow prism of particular issues, whether they be Armenia, Israel, or ties to NATO.”
On the other hand, the report declares that “The US-Turkey relationship is much broader than the Armenian tragedy, the parlous state of Turkey-Israel relations, or the false debates about Turkey's place in the West.”
As Jim Lobe says, on more specific recommendations, the report suggests that domestic politics in both Israel and Turkey are unlikely to favor any rapprochement in the near future, so Washington should encourage the two countries to maintain what it calls the "one bright spot" in bilateral relations - trade. It also calls, among other things, for greater US efforts to advance the normalization of ties between Turkey and Armenia and to contain Ankara's long-standing territorial disputes with Greece and potential disputes with Israel over gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean.
While the two countries have differed on a number of fronts and popular distrust of the United States is especially high in Turkey, those differences “should not preclude the development of a partnership, in particular as Ankara has moved closer to Washington's position on Syria and Iran”, according to the report, which also stressed Turkey's “constructive” role in Iraq despite its opposition to the invasion.
This is a fact that there is a new era for the Turkish-U.S. relations. But what the essential motive is in this changing relationship is a more important fact/question. If we read this process isolated from the contexts of world political system, we will suppose that Turkey is a regional power and play maker. But, this is not true.
In the post-modern and neo-liberal era, regional independency does not mean that you will act independently of imperialist systems and policies. So, if we do not question the loyalty of Turkey to NATO, Western Bloc or any other superpower, we will not understand the real structure of changing Turkish reflexes.
As we know, all the powers regenerate their opponents according to conditions. So, although there seems that there are huge differences between the policies of Turkey and U.S., in the last phase, we see the commitment between them. This means that when Turkey does not run over red lines of U.S., in these conditions Turkey as a regionally independent power but globally dependent factor will be more suitable for the American policies in the Middle East. As we have seen, in critical times, Turkey is always with the U.S. such as in Libyan operation, hosting missile shield radar system or Syrian crisis.
Because of these realities, by the time the U.S. needs to Turkey more than ever, it will be no wonder to read different reports and articles about the golden age of the Turkish-U.S. relations.
If we fail to produce alternative scenarios against imperialist projects and policies, we will be either convict or false characters in the world hegemonic theatres.