May 17, 2012

Summary: Turkey may have the greatest potential as a regional player in its neighborhood, but it needs the United States and the EU now more than ever. Simultaneously, the inverse is also true for its transatlantic partners. A formalized strategic dialogue focused on the postOttoman space as opposed to the European order might be able to overcome or bypass some of the obstacles that have prevented progress on Turkey-EU accession talks. The time for a permanent trilateral transatlantic framework for Turkey’s neighborhood has come.

The Missing Transatlantic Link: Trilateral Cooperation in the Post-Ottoman Space
by Joshua W. Walker and Emiliano Alessandri

The time for a permanent trilateral transatlantic framework for Turkey’s neighborhood has come. Ad-hoc groupings such as the Friends of Libya have already showcased the synergies of the trilateral core of the United States, Europe, and Turkey, working with local partners toward a regional agenda supporting change. While the Friends of Syria group has failed, that has been due as much to the complexity of the crisis as to the transatlantic community’s reluctance to make trilateral consensus the basis for common action instead of yielding to the vetoes of Russia and China in the UN Security Council. A broader agenda — and a stronger mandate through greater self-reliance — for this group is the logical next step to take in light of spreading instability across the region. A formalized trilateral consultation mechanism focused on the post-Ottoman space at large — a standing “Friends of the Neighborhood” group representing at the ministerial level the United States, Turkey, and relevant EU countries — would offer a strong anchor to the local forces engaged in reform while overcoming three critical weaknesses of present dynamics:

1. Turkish regional leadership that for now has been largely confined to words rather than deeds; 2. Turkey-U.S. strategic dialogue that risks being undermined by the ups and downs of the bilateral relationship and does not create incentives for the EU to step up together with Turkey as the United States gradually disengages from the region; and 3. EU that lets its biases against Turkey’s EU membership prevent a much-needed foreign policy dialogue with Ankara on issues of common concern in their shared neighborhood. Neo-Ottoman Turkey is Unrealistic As the EU remains focused on its internal crisis, and as the United States reorients its attention to the challenges in the Pacific after a “decade of war” in the Arab world, the risk is high that the wider Middle East and North Africa region remains deprived of strong Western engagement exactly at a time when unprecedented change is taking place there. The Arab Spring has brought renewed attention to the

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

unsettled character of the post-Ottoman space — a vast area that stretches from the Balkans to North Africa, which recent developments have only further fragmented and diversified. Turkey’s increasingly strong performance in recent years has led many to think that a resurgent Ankara could take on an ever-larger share of the responsibility for the variegated expanse of lands it once ruled. This so-called “neoOttoman” dream, serving Turkey’s rising regional ambitions while relieving Western countries at a time of economic weakness and shifting U.S. attention to the East, has been a re-occurring theme in Washington and other Western capitals. Yet, the still largely unstable and unsettled postOttoman space is too wide and complicated for any one single actor to deal with, even the imperial heirs in Istanbul. The limits of a Turkey-centered approach to the neighborhood have already become apparent. Unlike regional powers like Iran, Russia, or Saudi Arabia, which actively supported counter-protest movements to deflect attention away from their own domestic shortcomings, Turkey’s vibrant civil society, and the skillful judgment of its leaders, nudged Ankara onto the side of the Arab street when the Arab Spring broke out, even at the expense of investments made with previous regimes. Given Turkey’s economic success and democratic character in a Muslim context, Ankara’s courtship of the newly emerging democracies in its neighborhood has shown great promise. But its potential has not been fully realized. While talk about the “Turkish model” has spread, Ankara has found itself surrounded, if not overwhelmed, with more and more political and security challenges, casting a long shadow on the fulfillment of its regional ambitions moving forward.1 Ankara initially inspired great admiration in both the Arab world and the West for its early embrace of the Tunisian and Egyptian peoples. Later, however, it was criticized for its slower pace on Libya and Syria. Meanwhile, Ankara’s famous mantra recited over the past ten years of “zero problems with neighbors” has proven untenable.2 Unable to produce any major breakthrough on long-standing issues such as its relationship with Armenia and the Republic of
See Joshua W. Walker Staying Above the Middle Eastern Fray: Turkey’s Sectarian Temptations
1 2

Cyprus, Ankara is now learning the hard way, even in the Arab world, about the gap between its stated principles, its actual will and capabilities, and the realities on the ground of its highly complex neighborhood. In the current context, getting irksome neighbors like Iraq and Syria “right” is critical for Turkey; yet its leadership claims that this is almost entirely beyond its own control. Given the stakes involved, Ankara’s bluff may be called as President Bashar al Assad’s onslaught on his own people is ongoing and Nouri al Maliki’s sectarian purges in Iraq directly affect Turkey’s national interests and play out in Turkish society. While they have deployed forceful rhetoric, its leaders have continually stopped short of implementing concrete action. Turkey’s leaders know that they cannot stand by as their neighbors disintegrate into civil war, but they are equally concerned about the costs and implications of acting unilaterally. Strong transatlantic backing seems to be a critical condition for Turkey to take a more proactive stance. Turkey has sought to be a regional leader for a decade. But it is now discovering that leadership is as much about standing up as it is working with its transatlantic partners on common solutions to local dynamics that affect them all. A Turkey that keeps its options open by refusing to take strong diplomatic or military initiatives when needed will hardly be seen as a leader by local actors and Arab public opinions. A Turkey that builds on its transatlantic ties to project its influence is one that will command respect among the local populations, who are growing skeptical about Ankara and all transatlantic actors’ actual abilities to lead beyond rhetoric. Transatlantic engagement will not be enough in all or any of the difficult issues currently facing the Arab world, but it remains a necessary condition in almost all of them despite changing balances. As talks with Iran show, it is at the very least a strong mechanism for Turkey to activate itself as a mediator or to prove its leadership in a way that serves larger interests. Turkey-United States Alone is not Sufficient The current honeymoon between Washington and Ankara should not lead to complacency. The present convergence of interests should not obscure the fact that just two years ago, the relationship seemed on a route of collision, and talk


of “Turkey’s drift” was almost commonplace. U.S.-Turkey relations do not yet rest on solid or structural foundations, but the Turkey-U.S. dialogue is the only international initiative of note in the post-Ottoman space beyond the Western Balkans. While the White House has become Turkey’s greatest champion in Washington, the majority of the members in the U.S. Congress remains far more skeptical of Turkish leadership and its stated goals. Washington is not as uniformly enamored with Ankara since many of the traditional bureaucratic bedrocks of the relationship privately resist President Obama’s efforts, and a different administration after November may need time to familiarize with the evolving realities of Turkey. Moreover, diplomatic incidents cannot be ruled out. The fact that the Armenia issue has not yet derailed relations, does not mean that increased pressure in the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the events of 1915 is not beyond the realm of possibility. While Washington is focused on some key strategic issues for Ankara, such as events in Baghdad, Damascus, and Tehran, others that are equally important for regional stability, such as the Kurdish issue, seem to be perennially low on U.S. policymakers’ priorities and risks never being seriously addressed. Washington has also already decoupled bilateral relations with Turkey and Israel after the breach in relations as a result of the Mavi-Marmara incident and it has been unable to repair the previous trilateral consensus with Israel since. New energy discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean and populist views in Ankara and Jerusalem, coupled with the possibility of a future strike on Iran, could create tensions that would prove untenable. Again, what is needed is a more solid transatlantic framework in which these bilateral relationships are recast with a view of a common Western interest. Washington has an incentive to institutionalize its close working relationship with Ankara and has more to gain from a trilateral structure that includes the EU than a simple bilateral arrangement. As the United States “rebalances” to Asia, the EU — not just Turkey — will have to step up its engagement in the post-Ottoman space of the Mediterranean and Arab worlds if common objectives are to be met. As is true of the United States, Europe has an interest in avoiding a new bloc-building process in the Middle East with Turkey on one hand and a new Israel-Cyprus-Greece and possibly Russian alignment on the other. For both, Turkey and Israel remain critical regional actors that should work together to promote Western interests in the area. Moreover, involving Europe in otherwise bilateral TurkeyU.S. efforts would add resources and valuable connections to the mix, while reinforcing the nature of the grouping as a community of values that pursues a normative foreign policy going beyond narrowly defined strategic interests. While supporting democratic transitions in the Arab world and calling for the respect of human rights in Muslim societies, trilateral partners will have to live up to high democratic standards in order to be credible. They will be forced to apply some conditionality to their support to local actors. This credibility nexus is particularly important for Turkey, which still needs to fully prove its democratic credentials by approving a new constitution and reinforcing the separation of powers within its political system. A trilateral dialogue would help promote the Turkish model in a dynamic way by drawing links between what Turkey will be able accomplish domestically in terms of further democratic consolidation, respect of minorities, etc. to the image, credibility, and influence that it can earn and will be able to exert regionally and internationally. Arguments or frameworks that reinforce the view that the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership alone can deliver all the necessary results neglect the important aspects that only a strong trilateral relationship with the EU can provide. Transatlantic Breakthrough for Turkey-EU Relations Re-affirming Turkey’s transatlantic value through creatively thinking about new trilateral structures in the face of a European Union accession process that is on life-support has never been more necessary. Despite the resurgence in U.S.-Turkish cooperation, the absence of Europe in this strategic dialogue is a missed opportunity. Given that Turkey and the EU share a common neighborhood, not just compatible strategic interests, a structured framework for trilateral cooperation is critical. It must go beyond the security confines of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or business realms of the customs union yet not be as cumbersome as the longer-term project of EU membership. Turkey’s accession process, which started in 2004, has reached a stalemate due to European vetoes and gradual loss


of interest in Turkey. That said, the newly-elected French president seems to be interested in reversing France’s defensive position on the issue. This may lead to a more positive atmosphere but will hardly remove other obstacles on the way to accession, such as the Republic of Cyprus’ own vetoes and skepticism in other European countries. The European crisis may continue to feed enlargement fatigue for some time to come, while it remains unclear whether a more welcoming Europe would be enough for Turkey to complete a demanding process of alignment to EU law that comes with a high domestic political price. But these difficulties should not lead to disengagement either. The accession process — which for now neither parties have an interest in suspending — should continue but be detached from strategic cooperation, without the wires being crossed. The European Commission-sponsored “positive agenda,” proposed last year, already has sought to develop a Turkey-EU discussion in the areas in which progress is possible. But the mix of membership and nonmembership goals means that even this modest strategic dialogue has never really taken off, let alone led to an agenda of action, as it was kept hostage by the vetoes of the accession process. In a new trilateral framework built completely outside EU settings and with strong backing by the United States, strategic cooperation between Turkey and the EU could finally develop, shifting attention from bilateral difficulties to common goals. Conclusion Recent developments further reinforce the view that the post-Ottoman space is too complicated for any one single actor to deal with alone. Turkey may have the greatest future potential as a regional player, but it needs the United States and the EU now more than ever. Simultaneously, the reverse is also true for its transatlantic partners. A trilateral dialogue focused on the post-Ottoman space as opposed to the European order might be able to overcome or bypass some of the obstacles that have prevented progress on Turkey-EU accession talks. With the United States in, Washington would be able to broaden the agenda beyond what it can achieve bilaterally with Turkey, and would create a system that could withstand both the interference of its domestic politics and the reorientation of its strategy to the East. Provided with a strong transatlantic link beyond NATO, Turkey could prove rather than simply stating its leadership, channeling its national ambitions toward larger regional goals. By restructuring existing mechanisms and ad-hoc groupings, a permanent trilateral transatlantic framework could be created to deal in a flexible manner with an evolving region that is critical to U.S., European, and Turkish collective interests. Working together, the sum of the transatlantic partners should be greater than the individual parts.

About the Authors
Emiliano Alessandri and Joshua W. Walker are Transatlantic Fellows at the German Marshall Fund of the United States based in Washington, DC.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting better understanding and cooperation between North America and Europe on transatlantic and global issues. 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 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 seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, Bucharest, and Warsaw. 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.