Neither Friend nor Foe The Future of U.S.-Turkey Relations
Steven A. Cook
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Since the 1950s, U.S. presidents have recognized Turkey as a critical ally. Throughout the Cold War, close U.S.-Turkish security cooperation played an important role in containing the Soviet Union. Despite difficulties throughout the decades of partnership, the overarching threat that the Soviets posed to both countries ensured that these crises, problems, and irritants never broke the bilateral relationship or Turkey’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership. The legacy of this Cold War partnership continues to frame U.S. policy discussions about Turkey in which the country is routinely referred to as a strategic ally. Yet the United States and Turkey’s past alliance does not mean they will be partners in the future. The world has changed considerably since the Cold War ended. The transformations in global, U.S., and Turkish politics over the last three decades require a reevaluation of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. As difficult as bilateral relations have become under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), many of the problems in U.S.-Turkey ties are structural. Had Erdogan never come to power, there would still be a strain between Washington and Ankara. Turkish opposition politicians have been supportive of the Bashar al-Assad regime, are hostile to expressions of Kurdish nationalism, joined the AKP in demanding Fethullah Gulen’s extradition from the United States, and stoke anti-Americanism. Although some present and former U.S. policymakers continue to make the case that Turkey is a strategic partner and an anchor for stability, the evidence for these declarations is thin.1 The two countries do not share interests or values. Officials in Ankara have made it clear through their rhetoric and actions that the goals of American foreign policy conflict with Turkey’s interests. Turkish leaders are also suspicious of the United States, casting blame for the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the failed July 15, 2016, coup d’état in part on the United States. As a result, Ankara has sought to diversify its foreign policy, forging stronger ties with Moscow and Tehran as well as attempting to repair its relations with the EU. Analysts and officials looking for a new and positive framework for bilateral ties are unlikely to find one. Instead, the basic assumption that should guide Washington in its approach to Ankara is that while Turkey remains formally a NATO ally, it is not a partner of the United States. The two countries are linked to each other by the Cold War, but with few common interests three decades after that conflict came to an end, the bilateral relationship is marked by ambivalence and mistrust. The strategic relationship is over, and going forward, cooperation between the countries will be limited and contingent on specific circumstances. Policymakers should regard Turkey as neither a friend of the United States nor as an enemy. In many areas, Turkey is a competitor and antagonist of the United States. As a result, American officials should abandon the intensive and often fruitless diplomatic efforts to convince Turkish policymakers to support the United States. Instead, the United States should not be reluctant—as it has been in the past— to oppose Turkey directly when Ankara undermines U.S. policy. In practical terms this means the United States should develop alternatives to Incirlik Air Base, suspend Turkey’s participation in the F-35 jet program, and continue to work with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) to achieve its goals in Syria.
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