Weeks later, Washington is still abuzz from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit for the Nuclear Security Summit. It was an opportunity to showcase his once storied personal relationship with President Obama and Turkey’s relations with the United States. For Erdogan, the high-stakes visit was highly anticipated given instability in Turkey and its region.
Spending almost a full-week in Washington, Erdogan’s plan included the Nuclear Security summit, a formal sit-down with Vice President Biden, a public speech at the Brookings Institution, and the opening of the largest Ottoman-style mosque in North America. But other events obscured these highlights. Erdogan’s security detail got rough with press and protestors gathered outside the Brookings event; and Obama’s comments about Erdogan’s leadership dominated the story, at least in Washington. Erdogan certainly left his mark, but given how polarizing his own leadership has become and the nature of the U.S.-Turkish relationship today, perceptions of the trip were widely different in each country.
On the American side, media coverage of Erdogan’s visit focused almost exclusively on points of controversy and disagreement. Starting with an announcement that American personnel were leaving southern Turkey given security concerns, the tone was set and only increased with the size and intensity of the protests against Erdogan in Washington. Outside of the Brookings Institution speech, opposition and pro-Kurdish protestors decried the increasingly nationalist and controlling nature of the AK Party government clashing with Erdogan’s security guards and supporters.
The protests at Brooking captured headlines in the U.S. media along with Obama’s pointed criticism of Erdogan’s administration, with possible implications for Turkish-American relations. Obama surprised many in Washington at his end of summit press conference when asked about Erdogan beginning to look like an authoritarian in recent years by saying:
It’s no secret that there are some trends within Turkey that I have been troubled with … I think the approach they have been taking toward the press is one that could lead Turkey down a path that would be very troubling.
It is now Washington’s worst kept secret that the once promising “bromance” of Obama and Erdogan has lost its spark. The damage done is now more than personal and any friend of Turkey must explore how we got here, and more importantly how the U.S.-Turkey relationship might move on.
Domestic politics in democracies are notoriously messy and when the level of polarization reaches the level it has in Turkey, the question is what could have gone right? Turkey is currently on a war footing with weekly regular attacks and feeling more unstable than ever. Therefore, understanding the root causes of US-Turkish disagreements have never been more important rather than having Washington act on its own perceptions of Turkish domestic policy or having Ankara ignore its ally’s warnings because of perceived slights. As Richard Outzen correctly pointed out recently on this very site, American critics of Turkey tend to be guilty of “gross oversimplification,” and often misjudge the scale of problems facing Ankara as well as how differently Turkish leaders view key issues when compared to their allies in Washington.
Different views on the long-term Syrian solution: Turkey blames Assad for the long, drawn-out civil war in Syria and has been championing his removal as being the only way towards a solution there while hosting the largest number of refugees in the world that has garnered far less attention than Europe’s “crisis.” The United States, on the other hand, sees Syria through the prism of defeating ISIL. It can live with Assad even as the region continues to experience a leadership vacuum that Iran and Russia have been successfully exploiting, much to Turkey’s chagrin. These differing priorities lead to contradictory military strategies and frustration on both sides with the United States expecting greater Turkish partnership in defeating ISIL, while Turkey expects more American leadership against Assad.
Divergent approaches towards Kurdish militants: Divergent fears drive U.S.-Turkish disagreement on regional security: Turkey fears ethnic separatism, while America fears Islamic extremism. During his visit, Erdogan focused on a simpler understanding of terrorist groups. Repeatedly, he was at pains to make clear that the YPG (a U.S.-supported Syrian militant group fighting ISIL) and the PKK (a YPG affiliate designated a terrorist group by the United States and others) are equally threatening to Turkish national security. The Western world — driven by fear of ISIL — has taken a more nuanced understanding. The YPG is an important ally against other Islamic extremists, Turkey’s objections notwithstanding. In this context, former cleavages within the Turkish state’s battle with the PKK, and the U.S. government’s War on Terror, have led to conflicting security priorities.
Freedom of speech: American officials have expressed concern at every turn regarding the state of press freedom in Turkey. This criticism has shaped the Turkey-U.S. relationship by adding an element of American paternalism to what had previously been a fairly symbiotic part of the partnership. U.S. criticism of Turkey’s media crackdown illustrates how Turkish domestic politics has started influencing Turkish-American relations and darker conspiratorial elements have bubbled to the surface. Erdogan’s distinction between a free and insulting press along with provocateurs posing as journalists were not well received in Washington, just as the Obama administration’s “advice” for Turkey has been poorly understood in Ankara.
Each issue is complicated, but the geopolitical realities of Turkey’s neighborhood necessitate moving forward despite these differences with a new focus on what the two countries have in common. In fact, challenges in the Middle East present opportunities for trilateral partnership between the United States, Turkey, and European allies. Crises relating to mass refugee flows and violent extremis demand more and not less engagement. This will require all sides to swallow some pride and set aside bitterness that has built up over the last several years as a result of diverging approaches to the Syrian civil war and other Middle Eastern security issues. Washington must be seen as proactively leading its allies or face abdicating its traditional role in the region as bridge-builder and convener.
On the bureaucratic and technical side, in some ways the relationship has never been closer since the Cold War ended, but political tone-deafness reigns on both sides. Instead of trying to come to agreement on Syrian Kurdish militants, higher level political engagement between Washington and Ankara should focus on inter-state issues where the two sides can agree, such as checking Russian influence in the Middle East. Combined with focusing on areas of positive engagement such as Cyprus, transatlantic trade, and energy cooperation officials on both sides might drain some of the poison that has weakened relations as of late. Finally, an ironclad security assurance of Turkish sovereignty through NATO at its upcoming Warsaw Summit would have a high impact, particularly if coupled with re-stationing U.S. defensive missile systems on Turkish soil as well as, possibly, some creative cooperation on drones as proposed by Aaron Stein at War on the Rocks.
Moreover, there is an urgent need for international burden-sharing to solve the refugee crisis – which has burdened Turkey more than any other country – rather than engage in recriminations. This summer Turkey is hosting a U.N. World Humanitarian Summit that could be a great starting point to move beyond the horse-trading in E.U.-Turkish relations concerning refugees and for America to get more actively engaged. Washington’s almost exclusive focus on militarily defeating ISIL needs to be balanced with regional economic support and political compromise for any hope of a long term solution. Incorporating a broader vision that includes NGO-level and private-public partnerships is necessary for overcoming current official tensions born of the region’s interwoven challenges. Through a more panoramic lens, Turkey-U.S. cooperation has never been more important for maintaining global security and peace.
While Obama and Erdogan have split in their discourse, they both know how important it is to work together, even if they do not enjoy it. Even Erdogan, in his speech at Brookings, emphasized that despite differences of opinion, Turkish-American relations are “strong enough to resolve disagreements through dialogue.” Ideally, relations between two democracies should weather political transitions and personal rifts. During President Obama’s remaining time in office, it is important to be wary of the paternalistic relationship that has come to characterize the nature of U.S.-Turkey relations in both the American and Turkish media. At the same time Erdogan who is not scheduled to face any elections for three more years must seek unity at home before he can win allies abroad.
There has never been a more important time to de-personalize and de-polarize the U.S.-Turkish relationship currently held hostage to domestic politics. There is too much at stake in this historic alliance. The problems on both sides of the Atlantic should drive Ankara and Washington together. The importance of the U.S.-Turkey relationship has never been more critical and in need of transcending its current personalized and polarized state.
Selma Bardakci and Joshua Walker