Getting Turkish-American relations right July 27, 2010Posted by Yilan in Turkey, US.
Tags: America, Turkey
In both Turkey and the United States, there are many people who argue that Turkish-American relations have never been worse and that we are witnessing an all-time low. I tend to disagree. Yes, we have problems, but problems always existed in Turkish-American relations.
Those who think there was a “golden age” during the Cold War and remember with nostalgia the decades when Ankara and Washington shared a common enemy should think twice. It was during these golden years in 1963 when President Lyndon Johnson wrote his infamous letter to Prime Minister İsmet İnönü, indicating that the US would not defend Turkey against the Soviet Union if Turkey decided to send troops to Cyprus. When Turkey finally sent troops to Cyprus in 1974, the United States was so furious that Congress declared a military embargo against Turkey, which remained in effect until nearly the end of the decade. Can you imagine this situation? All this was happening while the Soviet Union had millions of troops and Turkey was the only frontline state of NATO sharing borders with the “Evil Empire.” Some golden age.In any case, we should learn to put things in perspective. What we are witnessing today is surely not as bad as the 1970s. No one in Washington is getting ready to declare a military embargo against Turkey. Yet, it is also important to be realistic and to see things as they are. Compared to the Cold War, the geostrategic context has radically changed. We are no longer in a bipolar world. Lately there is much talk of multipolarity, but I would argue that the United States is still the only country with a military power that can do force projection at a global scale. With all due respect to China, Russia, India, Brazil, ect., no other regional power has what it takes to be a truly “global” military superpower. In that sense we are in a unipolar world where the US remains on top. Yes, America is in relative economic decline but certainly not ready to take second place militarily anywhere in the world.
This is certainly the case in the Middle East, where Ankara’s policies came to differ from Washington with uncharacteristic frequency in the last 10 years. Iraq, in 2003 under the Bush administration, and Iran, now, under Obama, is causing major heartburn in relations between the two allies. Turkey has become collateral damage in both the Bush and Obama administrations’ Middle East policies. Perhaps most troubling is the state of Turkish public opinion vis-a-vis the United States. Today’s Turkey is much more democratic than during the Cold War. The Turkish news media is much more effective, both in its ability to reach every corner of Turkey, its diversity and its ability to shape opinions. In this more democratic domestic context, public opinion truly matters for the Turkish government. I have not seen the numbers during the Cold War, but I suspect Turkish public opinion is today much more negative towards the United States than it was 30 or 40 years ago. During the Cold War, resentment against the United States was mainly a leftwing phenomenon. Today, however, anti-Americanism has become the common denominator of the vast majority of Turks. Bashing the United States and blaming Washington for every domestic issue — from the Kurdish conflict to the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) — has become a national hobby. This is the main difference between the Turkey of the Cold War and Turkey today.
When you have a domestic public opinion that is so resentful of American foreign policy and a mercurial prime minister who really cares about what the “Turkish street” thinks, there emerges a combustible mix. In that sense, what we are witnessing in Turkey is not the emergence of an Islamist foreign policy but rather the rise of a populist government that caters to and exploits Turkish frustration with America and Europe. In sum, a more democratic and more populist Turkey, where a free-market oriented and moderately pro-Islamic government managed the economy rather well, feels confident enough to challenge the superpower in areas where Turkish national interests differ from Washington. Is this a crisis for America? Not yet. This is not time for “crisis-management.” But it is time for damage control.