The Uncertain Future of Turkish-American Relations

October 9, 2020

As the US braces for November 3 presidential election, countries remain divided in their expectations. Europe having enjoyed excellent relations with the Obama White House no doubt wishes to see Mr. Biden there. Because, although this would not be a replica of the Obama White House there would be parallels. The same goes for Iran, whereas Gulf states have been getting along extremely well with Mr. Trump. Israel would probably prefer a Trump victory but move on regardless of who is in the White House, happy with the balance sheet of the past four years.

President Trump’s first trip abroad featured stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. President Obama’s choice for his, in April 2009, was Turkey where he only had words of praise for the country’s secular democracy[i]. It was a different time, a different Turkey, and a different relationship which unfortunately turned sour. Towards the end of President Obama’s second term in office, Turkish leadership became his vocal critic. Even Mr. Obama’s support for the two-state vision, his saying that the US will never be at war with Islam, the JCPOA could not endear him to the Turkish government which invested heavily in the Trump White House and continues to do so even at this hour.

In an interview with Qatar’s The Peninsula newspaper[ii] yesterday President Erdogan said:

“We have deep-rooted, multi-dimensional and strategic cooperation with the United States. It is against the nature of international relations that the countries with different interests think the same on every issue and act in the same way… However, in recent years, we have had some difficulties with the American administration with regards to supporting the PKK-YPG terrorist organization in Syria and extradition of FETO ringleader, the perpetrator of the July 15 bloody coup attempt, to our country. It is evident that not only the United States, but also some NATO allies continue to cooperate with the PKK/PYD/YPG terrorist organization and protect the members of FETO, and it poisons the alliance solidarity. As an ally, our expectation was to see strong solidarity with our country on both issues; unfortunately, our expectation was not met. Even the PKK-YPG terrorist organization was seen as a partner in Syria, supported and protected by some circles under the American administration. Especially the remnants of the former administration displayed an uncompromising attitude in some military and security bureaucracy issues.

“On the other hand, we have acquired a positive atmosphere in our bilateral relations with Mr. Trump taking office. Our attitudes are increasingly overlapping, both on regional issues and on many other issues ranging from trade to investments. We focus on our common interests rather than disagreements…” (emphasis added)

As a matter of fact, as President Erdogan implied, disagreement over “who is a terrorist and who is not” is more than a difference of opinion. For Washington PYD/YPG is not a terrorist organization but Hamas is. This what State Department said six weeks ago: 

“The United States strongly objects to Turkish President Erdogan hosting two Hamas leaders in Istanbul on August 22.  Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and EU and both officials hosted by President Erdogan are Specially Designated Global Terrorists…” [iii]

Unfortunately, the list of problems is much longer: S-400 air defense systems, Ankara’s rejection of the “deal of the century” and the Abraham accords, downturn in relations with Israel, the war in Libya, Ankara’s relationship with Muslim Brotherhood, Cyprus, eastern Mediterranean and now the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia are some other items of an overloaded bilateral agenda.

Moreover, there is Turkey’s democratic decline. In remarks to the American-Turkish Conference[iv] on September 23, 2020 Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, after mentioning some of the foregoing issues, said:

“Finally, we remain gravely concerned by democratic backsliding in Turkey, including indictments of leaders from civil society, media, political opposition, and business, along with their prolonged pretrial detentions.  The rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association are fundamental values for any democracy…”

So much for Ankara’s relationship with the Trump White House.

In mid-August, Democratic presidential candidate Biden’s comments about President Erdogan surfaced. During a meeting with the New York Times editorial board in January, Mr. Biden suggested that the US should “embolden” President Erdogan’s opponents to defeat him in elections. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.” he said.

Recently, Mr. Biden issued a statement on tensions between Greece and Turkey. After saying that the agreement to establish a military deconfliction mechanism and the resumption of diplomatic talks between Greece and Turkey are steps in the right direction he added:

“… I also applaud Congressional action to finally end the counterproductive embargo on nonlethal security assistance for Cyprus, which is a strategic partner for the United States.

“The Trump administration must press Turkey to refrain from any further provocative actions in the region against Greece, including threats of force, to create the space for diplomacy to succeed. I also call on Turkish President Erdogan to reverse his recent decision to convert the Hagia Sophia to a mosque and to return this treasure to its former status as a museum, ensuring equal access for all, including the Orthodox faithful.”[v]

Moreover, Turkey has few friends, if any, in the Congress.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon’s October 10, 2017 Financial Times article summarized the trajectory of the past decade of US-Turkey relations[vi]. He said:

“At the start of the Obama administration, when I took over the Europe portfolio at the state department, one of the brightest spots on the foreign policy horizon was Turkey. Here was a majority Muslim country with a dynamic and popular leader that was reforming its growing economy, expanding press freedoms and easing the once-repressive military establishment out of politics.

“It was eagerly pursuing EU membership and co-operating closely with the US and EU on Afghanistan, Iraq and Middle East peace. So hopeful was Barack Obama that success in Turkey could help demonstrate that it was possible for a Middle Eastern country to be Muslim, democratic and pro-western that he insisted on adding stops in Istanbul and Ankara to his first foreign trip. He told the Turkish parliament that the US and Turkey could build a “model partnership.”

Then, Mr. Gordon added: “Today, less than a decade later, that vision is a shambles — and the relationship is probably beyond repair”.

What needs to be done to save the relationship before and after the US presidential election? Before? There is hardly anything, but Ankara must avoid identifying itself with either candidate. It may be too late for this, but this is the dictate of international relations. It is the dictate of professional/institutional diplomatic advice for those willing to listen. After? I am not going to repeat what I said in my last two posts.[vii] What needs to be repaired is not only Turkish-American relationship but Ankara’s overall foreign policy.









About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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