Interests not personalities matter for Turkish-US relations

Much has been written regarding the dire state of U.S.-Turkish relations. It has ranged from those calling on robust diplomatic engagement to save the relationship being wrecked by the two countries respective presidents, to those declaring the relationship is obviously over, a fact hidden from some eyes by the fig leaf of their membership in NATO.  

Often this dismal view of U.S.-Turkish relations looks at the personal relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as the root cause or sustaining driver of the poor relations. Many hope, or fear, the two presidents will meet at this week's UN General Assembly in New York.  

Yet, we would be foolish to think that either Trump or Erdoğan decides questions of national interest based solely on personal feelings about the other. Both seek to protect and enhance their national interests, at least as they define them. Likewise, we would be doubly foolish to forget that each has garnered about a half the votes of his country's electorate, meaning that a rupture in bilateral relations might punish Turks and Americans who disapprove of their leaders. While the relationship between the two men matters, senior political leaders in both countries must look at long-term national interests in deciding whether to end the relationship or take steps to restore the harmony to be expected from two countries within the Atlantic alliance and whose leaders and currently ascendant constituents share many traits and attitudes.

Soon after the end of World War One, shared security concerns about Soviet expansionism bonded the two nations together in close cooperation for about four decades. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkish security concerns began to diverge from those of the United States.  Recently Russian foreign policy has sought aggressively to induce or coerce neighbouring states (Armenia, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia) into compliance with Russian interests. But, unlike the Cold War period, Turkey has little reason to fear an attack on its territory from the Russian Federation, in part because the incorporation via conquest of a large and hostile population into the Russian state would not serve Russian interests. For Turkey, the existential threat comes from the continuing terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgency, a reality not given enough credence by many U.S. policy-makers.  

Upon this foundation of a Cold War-era shared security concern the two countries built positive relations in trade and industrial development. This too was often driven by a defence component, such as the production of Ford vehicles and Lockheed-Martin F-16s in Turkey with many accompanying educational and technical benefits. One spinoff was increased interaction between Turks and Americans, in particular the politically engaged and highly educated urban elites. (Interestingly, these urban elites are concentrated in both countries' coastal cities.)  

Both Trump and Erdoğan, with political roots in bastions of the urban elites, New York and Istanbul, were rejected by the highly educated urban elites, proving themselves deft politicians more in tune with the feelings of the electorate than their opponents could imagine. They garner support from citizens with traditional religious values or with roots in non-urban areas (even if they now live in large urban ones).

The rejection of social and cultural modernism for traditional social and cultural (read religiously based) values by the supporters of Trump and Erdoğan may hold the key to "fixing" the relationship. If Trump and Erdoğan perceive the other as supported by voters not unlike his own supporters, then re-establishing U.S.-Turkish relations of mutual respect and non-interference in the internal affairs of the other becomes possible, though not certain.

Trump and Erdoğan are skilled populist politicians, deftly managing their political support even in the face of serious questions about their commitment to democracy and the rule of law.  Both men have enjoyed electoral success by tapping into the feeling of traditional voters that their hopes for their children and their country’s future were being dismissed by the political elites. Both presidents' supporters expect their leaders to be forceful and assertive on matters of national interest and national pride. They expect their leaders to focus on the needs of the people of the nation, not others’ needs. Their common focus on “my country first” and similar rhetoric in support of traditional values means that their supporters share a world view (nationalistic tendencies, non-modernist and anti-globalist values, distrust of elites, etc.) though many would be surprised to learn this.

If the two leaders came to recognise not only their own similarities in style of governance and politicking, but the similarities in their political bases, they might be induced to see each other, and the other nation, as a valuable ally instead of an almost adversary. The natural reluctance of their bases to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations does not bode well for human rights advocates and journalists, but acceptance by the leaders of that principal in bilateral relations might allow each to push to the background several contentious issues, such as Turkey’s detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson, the extradition of U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, and disagreements over Syria and sanctions against Iran.

A shift in the rhetoric on the Brunson issue seems to be underway. Recently Secretary of State Pompeo said at the annual Values Voter Summit (Christian Conservatives) that, “we are sparing no effort to return Paton Brunson home to the United States". This statement's softer tone and the focus on U.S. action, rather than Turkish action may signal a reduction in volume on this issue and hopes that professional diplomats from both countries can make without reciprocal denunciations and sanctions.  

On Gülen’s extradition, it remains uncertain that Erdoğan really wants Gülen sent back to Turkey for a trial rather than leaving him in isolation in Pennsylvania to be used as a cudgel against the United States when it suits him. That said, at least one U.S. academic believes the Trump administration can send signals to Turkey of its dissatisfaction with Gülen’s presence even if the law might not allow extradition on the evidence presented thus far. With the Turkish intelligence service's effective round-up of Gülen movement members, the extradition of Gülen might now be an investment of resources with little measurable return.

On Syria, the U.S. presence in Syria enjoys support among Trump's base thus far because it is directly linked to defeating terrorists who might threaten the homeland - but as Islamic State fades as a threat, Americans will want to bring U.S. personnel home. Extricating itself from Syria, and its de facto alliance with the Syrian Kurdish YPG, would remove an irritant in U.S.-Turkish relations and certainly satisfy the two presidents' respective political bases; doing so without leaving Iran in a strengthened position will be the challenge.  

Iran sanctions will be more difficult, for the Trump administration has made it clear it has no interest in relieving pressure on those trading with Iran - it means to tighten the screws on Iran and on Iran's trading partners. Erdoğan must make the political calculation of how important, useful, and valuable is Turkey's relationship with Iran versus with the United States. And though the bonds of religious solidarity draw Turkey closer to Iran than the United States, Erdoğan and his supporters' desire for pre-eminence in the region can go a long way to induce him to see Iran weakened and Turkey relatively strengthened. Crucial in all cases is a resort to quiet diplomacy instead of public rhetoric and recriminations - a loud public tussle harms both U.S. and Turkish interests.   

In sum, Erdoğan and Trump enjoy and wish to keep popular support. At the UN General Assembly, the two may have a chance to talk, if their staffs can figure out how to make it happen without either one having to look weaker than the other by seeking the meeting.  Trump really does expect and respect national leaders who are strong defenders and advocates of their national interests, believing he will always negotiate successfully for U.S. interests with other leaders. Regardless of whether or not they hold a meeting at the UN that yields positive results, the similarity in fundamental perspectives of their most ardent and determined supporters is a solid basis for the two presidents to lead their nations to resolve contentious issues for the mutual benefit of both.  

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
This block is broken or missing. You may be missing content or you might need to enable the original module.

Related Articles

مقالات ذات صلة

İlgili yazılar