Turkey sees Washington a declining rival - Howard Eissenstat

Turkey considers the United States not simply a rival, but a declining opponent, which has abandoned foreign intervention in the Middle East following the political vacuum created with the departure of the Obama administration, Howard Eissenstat, an associate professor of Middle East history at St. Lawrence University, said.

In a podcast with Ahval’s Editor-in-Chief Yavuz Baydar, Eissenstat said that Turkey and the United States would continue to cooperate despite growing tensions over a string of issues between the NATO allies.

‘‘It is utterly unsurprising that Turkey, which has long believed that it had a natural role of leadership in the region, would try to step into that gap,’’ the analyst said in reference to Ankara’s view of itself as an ‘‘ascending power’’ against the ‘‘declining hegemony’’ that is the United States.

According to Eissenstat, the Syrian civil war exacerbated tensions between Turkey and the United States, who maintained core interests, but whose relations were fractured by Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG).

For Eissenstat, Turkish foreign policy has become more personalized, resulting in highly incautious decision making.

‘‘Personalization and pushing aside of bureaucratic wisdom have fundamentally changed the tenor of how Turkey engages with its allies’’, Eissenstat said.

The Arab Spring offered an opportunity for Turkey to introduce its assertive foreign policy in the Middle East, according to Eissenstat.

The protests across spread across much of the Arab world accelerated the process of change in Turkey’s dealing with its foreign policy in the Middle East, which led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to believe that the Arab Spring represented Turkey’s moment.

Commenting on Turkey’s relations with the EU, Eissenstat said that one needs to separate relations between Turkey and the U.S. from relations between Ankara and the bloc.

Despite serious tensions, Turkey and the United States will decouple to a small degree, he said, with neither of them suffering a huge harm.

‘‘When it comes to Turkey-EU relations, Turkey is more intimately tied to the EU in terms of economic relations which make political repercussions significant’’, Eissenstat said.

Turkey has somehow achieved relative success in contrast to the criticism of a total failure in its combative foreign relations, the analyst said, noting that Ankara appears to be a relatively independent actor with significant structural relations with the West and engagement with other parties such as Russia and China.

The purchase of RussianS-400 systems gives Turkey this sense of relative independence, he added, noting that Ankara is not looking to join Russia or China in standing against the West.

Ankara’s aim, he said, was to achieve greater independence to pursue a more non-allied policy, which it has been relatively successful in doing so.

‘‘Turkey has quite rightly said that it is a sovereign state that makes decisions on its own,’’ Eissenstat said, but Ankara does not ponder over what these choices would mean to other parties and how these parties would respond to its decisions.

‘‘Turkey has assumed that transactionalism would simply mean Turkey was going to take steps that were in Turkey’s best interests and its partners would accept that. That’s not how transactionalism works,’’ Eissenstat added.