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The Future of U.S. - Turkey Relations

Updated: Dec 4, 2019

Neither Friend nor Foe

The Future of U.S. - Turkey Relations

By Steven Cook


The strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey is over. While Turkey remains formally a NATO ally, it is not a partner of the United States. The United States should not be reluctant to oppose Turkey directly when Ankara undermines U.S. policy.

Since the 1950s, U.S. presidents have recognized Turkey as a critical ally. Throughout the Cold War, close U.S.-Turkish security coopera- tion 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 consider- ably 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 politi- cians have been supportive of the Bashar al-Assad regime, are hostile to expressions of Kurdish nationalism, joined the AKP in demand- ing 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 suspi- cious 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 cir- cumstances. Policymakers should regard Turkey as neither a friend of the United States nor as an enemy. In many areas, Turkey is a competi- tor 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 alterna- tives 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.


The partnership between the United States and Turkey was never as warm as it is often remembered. The John F. Kennedy administration’s withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey beginning in April 1963, the 1964 letter from President Lyndon B. Johnson to Prime Minister Ismet Inonu warning Turkey not to “intervene and occupy” Cyprus, Turkey’s occupation of that country in 1974, the U.S. arms embargo in response, U.S. military aid to Greece that helped to check Ankara’s ambitions in the Aegean Sea, and regular diplomatic skirmishes over recognition of the 1915 Armenian genocide buffeted the relationship. However, the overarching threat of the Soviet Union ensured that these crises, prob- lems, and irritants never disrupted the bilateral relationship. In recent years, tensions have increased as both countries have pursued poli- cies that are perceived to be harmful to the other. The grievances that Americans and Turks harbor are not causes of the troubled U.S.-Turkey relationship, but rather symptoms of this problem.


The list of differences between the United States and Turkey is long and highlights their diverging interests, policies, and perspectives. First, and most important, is Ankara’s intention to purchase an advanced air defense system, the S-400, from Russia. Because Turkey will both operate the F-35, the newest high-tech jet in the American military inventory, and depend on Russia for maintenance and spare parts for the S-400, Moscow will be in a position to glean valuable intelligence on how to detect the plane. In July 2018, Congress prohibited delivery of the F-35 until the Department of Defense provides “an assessment of the impacts of a significant change in participation by the Republic of Turkey in the F-35 program and the steps that would be required to mit- igate negative impacts of such a change on the United States and other international program partners.”2 In a press release, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Thom Tillis (R-NC) made clear that “significant change” meant possible Turkish elimination from the project.

Second in terms of importance is the Turkish effort to complicate the fight against the self-declared Islamic State, notably through Anka- ra’s incursion into northern Syria, where it has targeted Washington’s Syrian Kurdish allies. This includes Turkey’s invasion and occupa- tion of Afrin and the surrounding area in Syria’s Aleppo Governor- ate, drawing U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters away from the fight against the Islamic State. At the same time, the Turkish government and the government-friendly press intensified their anti-American messag- ing, including by making threats to U.S. soldiers and officers in Syria.

Third, throughout his tenure Erdogan has demonstrated a willingness to undermine U.S. policy on Iran, by attempting (with Brazil) to negoti- ate a separate nuclear agreement with Tehran, opposing UN sanctions on that country, and then helping Iran evade those sanctions.

Another point of conflict was the arrest and trial of Andrew Brunson—a pastor who led a small evangelical church in Izmir for twenty-four years—on terrorism charges. In response to Brunson’s detention and after failed efforts to win his release, the Senate For- eign Relations Committee in July 2018 unanimously approved a bill to “restrict loans from international financial institutions to Turkey until the Turkish government stops the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens and embassy employees.” The Senate’s legislation was also aimed at pressuring Ankara to release between fifteen and twenty Turkish U.S. citizens—including a NASA scientist—as well as three Turkish employ- ees of the U.S. Embassy who were arrested on terrorism charges.

A few days after the committee’s vote, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Turkish ministers of justice and the interior over their roles in the Brunson affair. The Turkish government responded in kind, with sanctions on the U.S. attorney general and secretary of the inte- rior. By President Erdogan’s own admission, Brunson was, at least ini- tially, being held as a bargaining chip to secure the extradition of the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the Turkish govern- ment blames for the failed July 2016 coup.

A series of lesser-known but still serious irritants complicate U.S. interests. Turkey is establishing a military presence in the Red Sea, heightening tensions between Egypt and Turkey as well as Egypt and Sudan. Ankara has also contributed to confrontations between

Palestinians and Israeli police in Jerusalem. Turkey has routinely vio- lated Greek airspace, threatening the stability of the Aegean Sea. An attack on U.S. citizens by Erdogan’s security team outside the Turkish ambassador’s Washington, DC, residence on May 17, 2017, continues to outrage members of Congress.

Finally, even if the Donald J. Trump and Barack Obama administra- tions overlooked Erdogan’s consolidation of power and correspond- ing suppression of journalists, academics, civil society organizations, and minorities, this crackdown contradicts the values, principles, and norms of American society and is inconsistent with the underlying principles of Turkey’s NATO membership.


Turkish officials have their own list of grievances against the United States. Turks across the political spectrum are angry that the United States imposed sanctions on two government ministers over the deten- tion of Pastor Brunson. The Trump administration imposed additional tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum in August 2018 after the Turkish government reneged on a deal to release Brunson. The tariffs hastened an already falling lira, leading President Erdogan to declare that the United States was engaged in “economic warfare” against Turkey.

Turkish anger at U.S. policy goes back much further than the summer of 2018, however. Turks charge that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 undermined Turkey’s security because the subsequent occupation coincided with the expiration of the cease-fire declared by the Kurdi- stan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been waging war against Turkey since the mid-1980s. More important, Turkey faults the Obama admin- istration’s refusal to undertake regime change in Syria, where civil con- flict since 2011 has not only produced a massive refugee flow into Turkey but also raised Turkish fears about the emergence of a terrorist state on the country’s southern border.

Since late 2014 the United States has been coordinating militarily with the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish fighting force, and later began supply- ing it with weapons. The Turkish government argues credibly that the YPG is part of the PKK, which the United States has long designated a terrorist group. The YPG controls territory in and around major Kurdish population centers in northern Syria, and the YPG-affiliated Democratic Union Party (PYD) has a declared goal of establishing a Kurdish state. Turkey fears that terrorists would use such an autono- mous entity to launch attacks on Turkey, presaging the partition of Turkish territory—a nightmare scenario for which, from the perspec- tive of the Turkish government and millions of Turks, the United States is responsible.

Also of great importance to Ankara is the fate of Fethullah Gulen. Ankara blames him and his followers for the failed July 2016 coup d’état that killed 249 people. The attempted coup and its aftermath shook Turkish society to the core. Many Turks believe Gulen’s followers are a fanatical cult that infiltrated the Turkish state in order to overthrow it. In response to the failed coup, Turkish authorities requested Gulen’s extradition from the United States. Thus far, U.S. officials have deter- mined that the evidence presented for Gulen’s culpability is inconclu- sive and so have not ordered his return to Turkey. For many Turks, Gulen’s presence in the United States is an affront, the way it would be to Americans if Osama bin Laden lived in Turkey’s countryside and Turkish officials did not hand him over to U.S. authorities. It is for these reasons that 72 percent of Turks polled in 2017 believe that the exercise of U.S. power and influence in Turkey’s neighborhood places the secu- rity of their country in jeopardy.

Another significant source of tension is the sentencing of Mehmet Hakan Atilla to thirty-two months in federal prison after a 2017 trial in New York. Atilla was the deputy general manager of Halkbank, a Turk- ish bank of which the government owns the majority shares. The trial revealed Ankara’s extensive efforts to help Tehran evade sanctions and thus uncovered corruption at the highest levels of the Turkish govern- ment. For Turkey’s leaders, Atilla’s arrest and conviction were politi- cally motivated.

Finally, the Turkish government counters criticism of its plan to purchase the S-400 with the charge that the United States has been dragging its feet in response to Ankara’s request to purchase a U.S.-manufactured system.

U.S. and Turkish complaints mirror one another in important areas and undermine the idea that the United States and Turkey share inter- ests and goals. U.S. and Turkish officials believe their counterparts support terrorists, abet the exercise of Russian power, and pursue poli- cies that destabilize the Middle East. These problems can no longer be glossed over or explained away easily because, unlike in previous eras, Washington and Ankara no longer share overarching threats or inter- ests that bind them together.


After the Cold War, the common threat to Washington and Ankara diminished, but the importance U.S. policymakers attributed to Turkey did not. In the 1990s, U.S. officials and analysts believed that Turkey was uniquely placed to guide the economic development and democratiza- tion of the newly independent states of Central Asia. Also during that time, rapidly developing security ties with Israel gave rise to the idea that Americans, Israelis, and Turks would be partners in the security and stability of the eastern Mediterranean and the Levant. During the early part of the AKP era, Turkey’s good offices with Arabs and Israelis led American officials to believe that it could be a facilitator of regional peace.

Not long after Condoleezza Rice became secretary of state in early 2005, she visited Turkey, where she declared that Washington and Ankara enjoyed a “very important strategic relationship” based on shared interests, a “common view of the future,” and “common values.”13 During this time, the height of President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda, the notion that Turkey could be a “model” of a liber- alizing and developing Muslim society began to appear more often in policy discussions and analyses.14 The Obama White House picked up on this idea, especially after the uprisings in the Arab world.

Despite the U.S. policy community’s enthusiasm, Turkey proved unable to influence Central Asian countries, could not provide leader- ship in the Middle East, would not facilitate peace, and was not a model for the Middle East. Policymakers in Washington and beyond over- estimated Turkey’s capacities; underestimated the historical legacies of Ottoman domination of Arab societies, where Ankara’s favorability ratings among publics plummeted after 2012; and misread Turkish domestic politics and the worldview of the country’s leadership. In Central Asia, the legacies of Soviet colonization and Moscow’s endur- ing political influence proved an obstacle to the revivification of an alleged shared Turkic identity.

From one perspective, the fact that Turkey sits at the geographic center of many of the United States’ most pressing foreign policy con- cerns still makes Turkey a valuable partner. Advocates of this view rec- ognize that Ankara is a fractious ally, but nevertheless maintain that Ankara is crucial to Washington’s strategic goals in the Middle East.

These analysts discount Turkey’s growing commercial ties with Iran and periodic high-level visits of Iranian and Turkish officials to one another’s capitals, arguing that historical, cultural, and geostrate- gic factors will always render Turkey an important counterweight to Tehran. Turkey has partially proved this by continuing to host a U.S. radar installation in southeastern Turkey, which is part of a broad West- ern effort to counter Iran’s missile and nuclear threats. Gaining Turkish agreement required an extraordinary intervention by President Obama, however, and the radar installation should not obscure Ankara’s consis- tent willingness to weaken international pressure on Iran. While Turkey has decreased the amount of Iranian oil it imports, Ankara has signaled that it will continue to purchase gas from Iran after November 4, 2018, defying U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran after the Trump administration withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

Some members of the policy community believe that Turkey’s large military structures and NATO membership are assets in the great power competition, as they were during the Cold War. The argu- ment does not hold up under scrutiny. Turkey has been a longstanding NATO partner in the Afghanistan mission, but elsewhere Ankara’s commitment to NATO is ambiguous. Turkey is purchasing a Russian- manufactured S-400 air defense system, which, as noted, could expose the Russian government to important intelligence about the F-35 jet. The Turkish government apparently does not believe it needs to heed NATO’s concerns about its purchase of Russian-manufactured mili- tary equipment or its developing relations with Moscow. For Turkish leaders, establishing closer ties with Moscow is entirely reasonable given the way they perceive their ties with the West: Turks have long questioned whether NATO would come to its defense, U.S. coordina- tion with the YPG is viewed as an existential threat, and the widely held perception that Ankara’s allies were slow to denounce the attempted coup in July 2016 has reinforced the idea in Turkey that the United States seeks regime change there. In addition, although the United States and

Turkey harbor grave concerns about a potential Syrian-regime and Russian assault on Syria’s Idlib Governorate, the demilitarization agreement that Ankara and Moscow struck in September 2018 reflects Turkey’s dependence on Russia to help secure Ankara’s interests. It is also part of a broader Russian strategy to pull the Turks away from the West and thereby weaken the transatlantic alliance.

Thus, from the U.S. perspective, the agreement avoided an attack and possible humanitar- ian disaster for the three million civilians in Idlib—at least temporarily. At the same time, Turkish-Russian cooperation also demonstrates that Ankara is far outside the NATO consensus concerning the threat that Moscow poses to the alliance and its interests. This is quite obviously a problem for American officials. Under these circumstances, it does not make sense for U.S. policymakers to declare Turkey a strategic partner in the competition between the United States and Russia.

Rather than a strategic alliance, Turkish leaders seek a regional status that allows Ankara to shape the immediate geopolitical envi- ronment and maximize Turkish economic, political, diplomatic, and military influence. Toward that end, it has over time resisted an inter- national order that has facilitated the exercise of American power. This is Turkey’s right, but it places the country on the opposite end of the United States on a variety of important issues.

Before the war of words began between the two countries in the summer of 2018, policymakers and analysts in Washington had never considered the possibility that the Turkish government and the Turkish people might no longer want to be strategic partners with the United States. Turks resent what they believe to be Washington’s unfair treat- ment of their country and its relegation as an asset in the service of U.S. goals rather than a peer with its own interests and views. Western observers want to place Turkey in either the West or the East, but Turks do not see the world that way. They regard Turkey as a strong, indepen- dent power in its own right whose own interests, not the wishes of the United States, dictate its foreign policy.


U.S. policymakers have generally worked to try to preserve the stra- tegic relationship, but it is reasonable to infer from the actions and rhetoric of the Turkish leadership that Ankara has determined that partnership with the United States is no longer in Turkey’s interests. These circumstances raise questions about the best U.S. approach to Turkey in the future.

Ankara is not Washington’s strategic competitor, since it has little positive influence in the Middle East, Europe, the Caucasus, or Central Asia. Neither is Turkey an enemy, though at times it is hard to distinguish its actions from those of one. It is rather an antagonist whose leaders resent U.S. hegemony, especially in the Middle East, and want to alter the regional political order that helps make U.S. predominance possible.

Turkey remains formally tied to the United States and the West through NATO, from which it cannot be expelled; Ankara’s contin- ued European Union membership candidacy, even though accession negotiations are frozen; the country’s economic ties to Europe; and its often overstated security and intelligence cooperation with the United States. This encourages analysts and officials to think a change in the U.S.-Turkey relationship would be disastrous for Washington.

In response to deteriorating ties, advocates who want to save the strategic partnership propose intensive diplomacy with Ankara and advise U.S. policymakers to look the other way when it comes to Tur- key’s bad behavior because of the country’s importance.19 Yet this importance is increasingly difficult to define in positive terms. Those officials and observers believe that the U.S.-Turkey relationship could be “saved” and returned to “normal” if policymakers found just the right combination of incentives. But normal is an idealized version of what was sometimes a difficult and frustrating relationship even during

the Cold War. Saving the relationship also presupposes that Turkey and the United States share a broad range of common interests. It is not clear that even with enough diplomatic tenacity, Washington can rebuild trust and strategic ties with Ankara.