How to Fix U.S.-Turkey Relations

The United States Consulate General in Istanbul. The United States has suspended the processing of nonimmigrant visas for Turks, and Turkey is doing the same to Americans. Credit Erdem Sahin/European Pressphoto Agency
The United States Consulate General in Istanbul. The United States has suspended the processing of nonimmigrant visas for Turks, and Turkey is doing the same to Americans. Credit Erdem Sahin/European Pressphoto Agency

The detention of a Turkish employee at the United States consulate in Istanbul, the subsequent United States decision to suspend the processing of nonimmigrant visas for Turks, followed by Turkey doing the same to Americans, has sunk United States-Turkish relations to a low point.

It is important for the Turks and the Americans to question who stands to benefit from further deterioration of their strategic partnership. To ensure that the current crisis isn’t exploited by geopolitical rivals and strategic interests of the United States and Turkey don’t suffer, it is necessary to use diplomacy and pull the United States-Turkish relations out of their present impasse.

The first step should be to insulate the American and Turkish people from the crisis. By denying visas to Turks, the United States has for the first time taken measures that affect ordinary Turks. The decision is aggravating existing resentments toward Turkey in the United States and fueling anti-Americanism in Turkey.

Both nations should demonstrate greater sensitivity to each other’s concerns: Turkey needs the United States to show a more nuanced appreciation of its security concerns; the United States needs Turkey to show a strict commitment to governance by the rule of law.

The alliance between Turkey and the United States goes back seven decades. Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, was a staunch ally of the West during the Cold War. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey contributed to peacekeeping efforts to stabilize the former Yugoslavia and later help repair churches, mosques, bridges and build schools in Bosnia. Turkey also helped build roads and schools for girls in Afghanistan after the United States intervention.
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In the 2000s Turkey took crucial steps to improve its democracy and economy that brought it close to European Union membership. The “Turkish Model” was widely praised as the way forward for Muslim countries aspiring for reform. The United States was constructively engaged in this process and saw Turkey as a critical pillar of the international liberal order. This policy ran through the Clinton, George W. Bush and a good part of the Obama administrations.

However, the United States-Turkey relationship has a history of ups and downs. After the Turkish intervention in Cyprus in 1974, the United States imposed an arms embargo on Turkey. It took five years to repair the relationship. In 2003, Turkey did not allow American troops to pass through Turkey to Iraq to open a northern front against Saddam Hussein — Turkey did not “approve” of a United States invasion of Iraq. That disagreement brought relations to another low.

The current crisis follows several intense spats pushing both sides deeper into a spiral of mutual distrust. These ranged from President Barack Obama’s deep disappointment with Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown on the Gezi Park protests in June 2013 to Turkish resentment of the Obama administration’s failure to support its “red lines” against the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war.

Disagreements over Syria widened when Turkey was accused of failure to stop the flow of foreign extremist fighters and the United States deepened military cooperation with the Syrian-Kurdish Democratic Union Party against the Islamic State. Turkey considers the Democratic Union Party an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been conducting an insurgency against Turkey since the 1980s.

Turkish hope that bilateral relations would improve with the arrival of the Trump administration dissipated after violent clashes outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington in May between President Erdogan’s bodyguards and protesters.

The July 2016 coup attempt against the Turkish government and its traumatic aftermath compound the current crisis. In Turkey, there is a strong consensus that Fethullah Gulen, the Islamic preacher based in Pennsylvania, and his movement planned and perpetrated the coup after their alliance with the government collapsed.

The continuous imposition of a state of emergency since the coup attempt and the widespread purge and detentions are difficult to reconcile with the rule of law. The growing practice of detaining foreigners and holding them as “bargaining chips” to pressure foreign governments into handing over Turkish citizens accused of involvement in the coup plot only confirms Turkey’s repressive and authoritarian image.

The United States also shares blame in the crisis. American failure to empathize with what Turkey went through during the coup attempt has damaged the relationship, even fed accusations of United States complicity. Turkey saw the United States decision to arm military units affiliated with the Democratic Union Party as disregarding its concern for its national security.

Turks are worried that weapons provided to Kurdish military units by the Americans would eventually be turned against them. Reassurances about monitoring these weapons through their serial numbers were unconvincing and helped whip up anti-American sentiment in Turkey.

The persistent absence of a United States foreign policy vision and strategy on the situation in Iraq and Syria is raising concerns in Turkey about the wisdom of relying on Washington. Turkey has immense economic and political stakes in greater stability in the Middle East and expects more effective engagement from the United States. Both sides still need each other.

Turkey could help the United States manage Russian and Iranian resurgence, fix the unresolved conflicts in the southern Caucasus, assist in the fight against Islamic State and contribute to find a modicum of stability in Iraq and Syria. But the absence of a clear United States strategy is pushing Turkey into a closer relationship with both Russia and Iran to defend its interests.

Despite its tensions with the United States and Europe, Turkey remains deeply integrated with the West and it is where the Turkish interests lie. More than half of its trade and two-thirds of its sorely needed foreign direct investment come from the European Union and the United States. Unlike Iran and Russia, Turkey is not an oil and natural gas exporter; its economic health is tied to a functioning market economy. Such an economy depends on stability, rule of law and stable markets in both the West and the Middle East.

American and Turkish diplomats need to resolve this crisis so that ordinary people can travel. A new diplomatic engagement can provide the space for the United States to reiterate the unacceptability of the erosion of the rule of law and any suggestions of detaining foreigners in Turkey as bargaining chips.

The United States could be more open to efforts — through the so-called track two diplomacy by influential figures outside government — to understand better the damage the Gulenists inflicted on Turkish institutions and politics.

Further, the United States needs to assure Turkey that the weapons delivered to the Kurds of the Democratic Union Party are not turned against Turkish targets. For their part, Turkish leaders need to avoid populist politics, lift the emergency state rule and focus on rebuilding democracy in Turkey.

Kemal Kirisci, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is the author of Turkey and the West: Fault Lines in a Troubled Alliance.

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