Last chance for Turkey and the United States

In June 1964, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü, inviting him to meet for talks in Washington and spurring a turning point in Turkish-American relations.

Johnson sought to dissuade Turkey from intervening in Cyprus, and informed Ankara that its armed forces would be barred from using any U.S. military equipment should it proceed with an intervention.

The letter reminded Turkey that the countries were part of an alliance that required Ankara not to make decisions without consulting Washington, and the intervention was avoided, at least for a while.

Last week, Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan sent a letter to his Turkish counterpart that echoed the one sent by Johnson 55 years ago this month. 

Shanahan urged U.S.-ally Turkey not to acquire Russian S-400 air defence missiles, pointing out the risks of the S-400 in Turkey, warning of harsh sanctions and arguing that Ankara still had time to change course.

Shanahan’s letter also broaches several issues of Turkish foreign policy.

The letter does not hold back from threatening Turkey, though within the limits of diplomatic language, for her close relations with Russia. For the United States, Ankara’s ongoing rapprochement with Russia “undermines Turkey’s very capable defence industry and ambitious economic development goals”. Pursuing “this path will cause a loss in jobs, gross domestic product, and international trade,” the letter said.

The U.S. administration’s message is not only about the S-400 issue; Washington is alarmed by Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation. The S-400 issue is more of a symptom of the deterioration in relations between Turkey and the United States.

The United States reminded Turkey that it is not possible to enjoy the economic benefits of good relations with the West while developing over-dependence on Russia in the defence industry. The letter in effect says Turkey has to end its maverick foreign policy and make a final decision about its global position.

Shanahan’s letter has the same logic as the Johnson letter of 1964. Even though both letters apparently focus on specific technical issues, their main aim is to bring Turkey’s foreign policy in line with that of Washington.

As in 1964, the Turkish reaction is to galvanise anti-American nationalism. Burhanettin Duran, a columnist whose opinions reflect those of the Turkish government, warned that recent developments “would create a very strong and permanent nationalist reflex in Turkey” and “that reflex will inevitably be based on anti-Americanism”.

The big question is whether the United States will be able to stop Turkey’s deployment of Russian S-400s on its territory. We should know by next month, when the S-400s are expected to arrive.

But a number of points should be noted.

To begin with, on many issues, Turkey is no longer a traditional pro-Western state.

Given how Turkey acts on many issues, Turkey is now a pro-Russian state, or is a country under heavy Russian influence.

The root cause of the changes to Turkish foreign policy is the political regime in this country. Politically, Turkey is now more similar to Russia than to Western countries.

Finally, since the July 2016 failed coup, Turkey is ruled by a coalition of groups from a range of ideological backgrounds, but what unites these seemingly disparate groups is anti-Westernism and ultra-nationalism.

The coalition has all but ended Turkey’s relations with the European Union. Ideologically, the coalition would also be happy to halt Turkey’s traditional relations with the United States and even NATO. But given economic necessities, the coalition might take a pragmatic track. That is the last chance for Turkey and the United States.


The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.