An Obituary: The Turkish-American Partnership

It is time to recognise that Turkey and United States have reached the end of the road as trusted partners. There is not much left from what was once a strategic alliance. Some may say the partnership has now turned into a marriage of convenience. But even then, the question is whether we are heading towards a consensual or an ugly divorce. It is becoming harder and harder to find something convenient in this marriage.  The sooner we accept this reality the better in terms of expectation management. And I am not just talking about transitioning from a “strategic” to a more “transactional” partnership. All relations, after all, are transactional. There is no unconditional love in international relations.

Even the most strategic of relations are based on mutual expectations.   And lately, there has not been much transaction – or even constructive dialogue – between the two parties.  What we are now witnessing between Ankara and Washington is mutually assured disappointment.  Just consider the frustrating developments in the last year or so. It is quite a list:  America’s weaponised love affair with Syrian Kurds, the saga called “waiting for Gülen”, the thriller titled “Zarrab’s revelations”, the martial arts performance of Erdoğan’s bodyguards (coming to a theatre near you in Washington DC), Erdoğan’s romance with Putin in S-400 shades of grey, and Turkey’s domestic abuse habit leading to a mutual restraining order for ordinary citizens with the “visa crisis”. This marriage of convenience needs more than counselling. No wonder 72 percent of Turks see America as their enemy number one.

All jokes aside, partnerships, especially those aspiring to be strategic, require certain basics.  The fundamentals that once made the Turkish-American partnership somewhat special are largely absent. I say “somewhat” deliberately, because even during the good old days of the Cold War there never was a “golden age” in this partnership.  Remember the removal of Jupiter Missiles from Turkey after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the U.S. arms embargo in the wake of Turkey’s military intervention to Cyprus in 1974. All this happened when the two countries shared an existential threat called Soviet Russia.  This partnership had always issues.  

In life, as in politics and international relations, it is a terrible thing to lose your common enemy. Supposedly, terrorism replaced the Soviet Union as a common threat. But terrorism is a very poor substitute as an existential threat because it is vague and generic compared to a nuclear super power at your borders. Not surprisingly, Ankara and Washington have different definitions of who the terrorists really are. Extreme jihadist violence does not create much alarm in the eyes of Turkish officials compared to the existential threat posed by Kurdish separatists.

The PKK, and lately, the Fethullah Gülen network, are the main terrorist groups for Ankara. Well, Washington is in bed with the Syrian leg of the PKK and will not extradite Gülen, who resides in plain sight in the Poconos.  Turn the table and you will see that Washington is not that happy with Turkey either. Until recently, Turkey was constantly blamed for supporting jihadist groups in Syria.   There is indeed grounds for divorce here. It is hard to find room for diplomatic niceties when interests diverge at that level.  

What about shared values? We need to get real on that front too. It is becoming increasingly difficult to pretend that Turkey is a democracy. And given Turkey’s growing frustration with both NATO and the EU, it is also becoming equally hard to pretend Turkey feels like a proud member of the transatlantic alliance. Just listen to Erdoğan wax poetic about the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with his Eurasianist buddies in the background.

But wait, don’t the two countries have something precious in common? The answer is yes: populist nationalist leadership. Trump and Erdoğan share similar autocratic temperaments and an alarming level of intellectual depth. Yet, to be fair, these two leaders operate under radically different systems. The U.S is a country where there are checks and balances provided by the rule of law, an independent media and separation of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary.

Turkey, on the other hand, never had much experience with liberal democracy. It has always been an illiberal and ideological country, first under Kemalism and now under the personalised rule of Erdoğan.  With Kemalism the country had the tyranny of a minority: the top brass used to call the shots behind the scenes. Now, under Erdoğan, this tyranny of a minority has been replaced with the tyranny of the majority. And we all know where the tyranny of the majority under populist nationalism takes countries as a final destination.  Under Trump, the U.S. will hopefully wake up from this nightmare in a few years.  With Erdoğan, Turkey is on a slippery slope towards some form of fascism. That’s the main difference between the misfortunes of the two countries.

Yes, this is an extremely pessimistic picture.  But I think it’s better to face the reality and have low expectations rather than nurturing pollyannaish hopes.  It is time for a realistic post-mortem after a consensual divorce.