January 15, 2013

Summary: Turkish-U.S. relations are treated with care in Washington and Ankara, and both consider this relationship complementary on a wide range of issues. The administrations in Turkey and the United States employ a new geopolitical thinking and project new roles in a changing international order. Their ability to create a solid cooperation agenda will also validate their foreign policy visions. To a large extent, the way forward will depend on whether the two administrations will manage to offer something new in this direction.

Turkish-U.S. Relations: The Way Forward
by Bülent Aras

Introduction Obama’s reelection has been a welcome development in Turkey. The Turkish government, which faces a serious challenge with political transformation in nearby countries and pursues a multidimensional and proactive foreign policy, did not wish for a new U.S. administration. Turkey’s new foreign policy must now reconcile this proactive policy in the immediate neighborhood with openings to new regions and its traditional alliances in the Euro-Atlantic area. Turkey assumed an order-instituting role in the neighboring regions for itself and presented the principle of zero problems with neighbors as a practical and rhetorical norm. The old dynamics are changing following the Arab Spring, and Turkish foreign policy is in a process of redefining itself to adjust to difficulties on the ground. The post-Arab Spring era also includes problems in TurkishU.S. relations. Although these relations faced ups and downs in the first half of the previous decade, in the remaining years, the relationship was on a positive trajectory. There was mutual understanding of respective policies, which increased the prospects

for cooperation. Following the Arab Spring, the relationship entered into a new period, exerting pressure on both sides, though in varying degrees, to adapt to new conditions. The new scope of the relations is also likely to generate a certain degree of tolerance of divergences due to the overriding converging interests in other areas ranging from the Balkans to Afghanistan. However, the extent to which this convergence will lead to policy implementation and solid cooperation is subject to discussion. This discussion will give us some clues to gauge the way forward in the Turkish-U.S. relations. Search for a New International Identity The U.S. hegemonic decline, the emergence of a multilateral world, and the rise of Asia have been popular subjects in academic and policy circles. There is at least one point of agreement in these discussions: international relations occur in a more challenging environment now with protracted crises at the regional and global levels. In an era of political and economic turmoil, there is a visible search for international identity around the world. The United

OffiCes Washington, DC • Berlin • Paris Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara Bucharest • Warsaw • Tunis

States and Turkey are no exception. The changing U.S. role in international relations is associated with the Obama administration’s policy of cautious withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, shifting attention to Asia and the burdensharing perspective of multilateralism and indirect and/ or cooperative engagement (leading from behind) in crisis zones. Turkey’s search for a new foreign policy identity is occurring at a more fundamental level. The new dynamics of Turkish foreign policy are products of a redefinition process that has been underway since the end of Cold War. The debate on whether Turkey’s orientation is changing or if it is drifting away from the West is a misguided one, because it is based on a partial observation of Turkey’s still incomplete transformation process. Turkish policymakers want to open up to new areas, extend influence in neighboring regions, and play a lead role in selective global issues. Turkey’s cultural and historical background and its longtime Western alignment have been considered necessary assets for this new assertive foreign policy philosophy. However, the relative impact of these various strengths changes depending on the country’s regional and international dealings. Turkey’s place in the transatlantic community remains one of the constants of its foreign policy identity. It would be an exaggeration to argue that the new Turkish policy had an impact on the U.S. perspective on international affairs and geopolitical imagination. However, the U.S. factor is having an obvious impact on Turkey’s new foreign policy. Turkey’s relationship with and perception of the United States have always been determining factors of its foreign policy identity. The Syria crisis has been a test case for Turkey to seek a role within the international system. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made it clear that Turkey cannot turn a blind eye to the crisis in Syria, Gaza, or elsewhere. However, his call for justice and equality is likely to make more sense in the West than in the rest of the world. Turkey’s approach and rhetoric differed from the other newly rising states, with China, Russia, India, and Brazil, among others, expressing a certain level of distance from Turkish policy, if not outright opposition. Their non-interventionist and Western-skeptic attitudes depart from the perspective

Turkey’s place in the transatlantic community remains one of the constants of its foreign policy identity.
Turkish policymakers assume as a basis for a new international order. Turkish policymakers recognize the limits of distance from the United States as they face probably the most serious foreign policy challenge of the new era. The range and depth of U.S.-Turkish cooperation will be determined in the coming years. Making Sense of Turkish-U.S. Relations From the U.S. administration’s perspective, Turkey is an ideal ally in a critical region, with substantial assets to facilitate U.S. policies on a wide range of issues. U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposal for a model partnership is aimed at not only developing relations with Turkey but also creating an exemplary framework for U.S. policy in different parts of the globe. In its new term, the Obama administration’s reform at home and restoration abroad policy requires a cost-minimizing and burden-sharing approach. The ideal solution will be to develop strong ties with like-minded and capable regional powers. President Obama’s leadership style helps to strengthen special relations with Erdoğan, and this level of connection serves to overcome tensions in bilateral relations. The new U.S. geopolitical thinking gives precedence to countries with pivotal roles. The difficulty is securing such countries’ ties to the United States, which is used to dealing with its allies under asymmetrical premises. In addition, countries in the global South are not comfortable working with the United States in this way. There is also no sign that there will be a change from short-to-middle term in this regard. The success of the new policy will depend to a large extent on the U.S. ability to pursue special relations with willing countries and break bad old habits in dealing


with the outside world. It is not an overstatement to argue that Turkey is an ideal candidate, with an enduring alliance experience and necessary credentials for burden-sharing in critical regions. From the Turkish perspective, the United States is a vital ally for Turkey’s regional policy and projected international profile. Turkish policymakers’ geopolitical mindset places Turkey in the center of Africa and Eurasia and gives it a central role in international affairs. As world politics shifts toward a multilateral framework, a new division of labor and burden sharing is unavoidable. Turkey’s new foreign policy orientation pays attention to Western and/or Northern concerns, whereby relations with the United States forms the backbone. Conversely, Turkey’s active and multidimensional foreign policy also offers much promise for the United States in a number of regions. The presence of so many overlapping interests creates a confidence in Turkey that it may depart from U.S. positions on some issues because these would be balanced out by convergence in other areas. The Way Forward There is reason to be cautious about future relations, because, above all, there is a lack of proper channels to develop a solid cooperation agenda. It is not yet possible to talk about a high degree of institutionalization in bilateral relations. But the recent attempts to boost trade relations are an indication of the political will to develop bilateral relations and create cooperation mechanisms. On the positive side, Turkey and the United States have both reached a certain level of understanding in the management of expectations from each other. Nonetheless, while constant references to a wide range of overlapping interests in numerous regions sound good in policy statements, they are not enough to create policy outputs and to yield practical results. The prospects for cooperation are likely to remain vague unless the political will is reflected in concrete policies. The emergence of these concrete policies and solid cooperation strategies depends on the clarification of a number of issues in the previous alliance relationship. The security establishments’ role in the relationship has decreased and former channels of dialogue and communication should be adapted to this new situation. Domestic politics is an important influence in Turkish-U.S. relations, particularly in Turkey, so consolidation of democratic institutions there would help improve the relations. The United States should make clear that it values democratization in Turkey and that the model partnership would benefit from Turkey’s strengthened democratic credentials. Another area for clarification is the future of cooperation in NATO. Although NATO is considered a guaranteed venue for cooperation, new security challenges have blurred the U.S. role in the alliance and Turkey’s assumption of a central role in NATO may further complicate multilateral cooperation. The Turkish side needs to clarify both the meaning and value of NATO from the future course of foreign and security policy, and the role of cooperation with the United States in NATO in this broader perspective. On the other hand, the United States should soften its long-standing patronizing stance against Turkey’s search for an active role in NATO, since that is likely to result in transatlantic security burden-sharing. Neither Ankara nor Washington was able to predict the challenges of the Arab Spring. The emergence of new actors, the change of political systems, the struggle between forces of change and resistance, shifting alliances, and new leadership styles are all new opportunities and challenges. The search for stability in an environment of political and

The presence of so many overlapping interests creates a confidence in Turkey that it may depart from U.S. positions on some issues because these would be would be balanced out by convergence in other areas.

economic problems will be the rule of day for the foreseeable future. Both administrations should help local and regional actors understand their positions on all those new issues. The coordination of policies at this critical moment is likely to have a constructive and stabilizing impact in the region and serve the interests of both Turkey and the United States in the long run. Turkey should indicate the limits and areas of its cooperation with the United States in the aftermath of Arab Spring. And the United States needs to clarify the limits of its involvement and support in cases like the chaotic situation in Syria. This points to the requirement for institutionalization of relations in the foreign and security policy apparatus. The collegial ties at the leadership level should be structured and consolidated with the help of the consultation and coordination mechanisms of the mid-level bureaucrats within relevant institutions. The logical suggestion for both administrations is to look at the immediate challenges, clarify the positions for better planning and coordination of policies, and pave the way for a concrete cooperation agenda . There is reason for optimism for Turkish-U.S. relations at the outset of Obama’s second term. But the outcome will depend on both sides’ ability to institutionalize relations with a better understanding of each other’s positions vis-àvis the region’s revolutionary changes and challenges.

About the Author
Bülent Aras has been the chairman of the Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Center since November 2010. He is currently a visiting fellow with Wilson Center. He is also an academic advisor to the minister of foreign affairs. He became a full professor at Işık University in 2006. He has also taught at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences of Istanbul Technical University. Prof. Aras has had 13 books published abroad and at home. His articles have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers and have been translated into several languages.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) strengthens transatlantic cooperation on regional, national, and global challenges and opportunities in the spirit of the Marshall Plan. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working in the transatlantic sphere, by convening leaders and members of the policy and business communities, by contributing research and analysis on transatlantic topics, and by providing exchange opportunities to foster renewed commitment to the transatlantic relationship. In addition, GMF supports a number of initiatives to strengthen democracies. Founded in 1972 as a non-partisan, non-profit organization through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has offices in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, Warsaw, and Tunis. GMF also has smaller representations in Bratislava, Turin, and Stockholm.

About the On Turkey Series
GMF’s On Turkey is an ongoing series of analysis briefs about Turkey’s current political situation and its future. GMF provides regular analysis briefs by leading Turkish, European, and American writers and intellectuals, with a focus on dispatches from on-the-ground Turkish observers. To access the latest briefs, please visit our web site at www. or subscribe to our mailing list at http://database.


Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful