The US and Turkey

Tewfick Aclimandos
Wednesday 3 Oct 2018

How far should the US go in trying to preserve good relations with Turkey

With the present deterioration in relations between Washington and Ankara a lot of US and European think-tanks are publishing materials on this issue.

They sum up the background, discuss the current clashes and make recommendations: either accept the fact that Turkey is no longer a US ally, or try to save US-Turkish relations. Both options have supporters.

The materials being published seem to be simultaneously informative and misleading. I confess that I am unable to be objective on this issue, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been causing a lot of harm to my country. Moreover, I am neither an expert on these countries nor an insider in them.

That said, in this article I want to discuss the arguments in these materials that advocate a “new start” for relations between the US and Turkey.

I will focus on those that acknowledge the problems and do not try to minimise what Erdogan is doing. In other words, I will not bother to discuss those that whether out of an understandable dislike for US President Donald Trump or for other reasons try to find excuses for Ankara’s behaviour.

The main argument for trying to rescue the relations is Turkey’s strategic location. Turkey is near Central Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, Russia and Central Asia.

In almost all these key areas wars have erupted over the past 30 years. Moreover, Ankara can control two crucial flows: emigration to Europe and jihadist movements in many directions.

Therefore, in all these areas the US, Europe and even Russia need or may need Turkey. This is obviously a very strong argument for trying to patch up relations.

he main problem is whether the interests of Turkey and those of the other actors are the same. The answer is clearly no. Is it possible to strike deals with Ankara? The answer is clearly yes, but only a qualified one.

Ankara can always use the threat of a better deal with another power to maximise its gains. Recent history has shown that Erdogan constantly changes his mind (as one Western official once told me, he is the “U-turn world champion”). Moreover, Turkey’s strategic location is a compelling case for working with Ankara, but not for accepting it into an alliance. An alliance, or good relations, needs two willing partners sharing common interests.

There is a need to come to terms with the obvious reality that Turkey’s foreign policy was and is a major factor of destabilisation in many areas, and unless it dramatically changes its ways this will continue to be the case.

Placating Turkey implies accepting that other actors will be damaged, including some close US allies or clients. Placating Erdogan will also give him an incentive to persist in what has become a constant pattern of blackmailing. A grand bargain implying a clear “no” to such bullying is desirable, but it may not be possible.

Collaboration with Turkey on some issues is probably possible and desirable for Russia, Europe and the US, but they should assess the damage done to other allies first. It is also time to start reconsidering alliances and to stop the talk about friendship.

Another argument deserves serious discussion. Many people say that US behaviour has been and often is appalling, and that it has never taken Turkey’s interests into serious account.

As a result, the US, such people say, has a kind of obligation to be “tolerant” and to stop lecturing Ankara.

While it is true that Washington even under former president Barack Obama was prone to unilateralism and to lecturing people, this does not lead to the conclusion that the US now has a special responsibility because its behaviour in the past caused so much havoc.

This argument should never mean being tolerant of others’ bad behaviour. Of course, it might be said that no one truly wants “justice for the Kurds” and that no one can accept “losing” Turkey to satisfy them. In other words, it might well be said that foreign policy has nothing to do with justice and that it is about the defence of national interests.

This is fair enough. However, then the argument that our own past behaviour was sometimes bad, which is a moral and not a political one, also loses strength. Realism and the defence of interests regardless of justice force us to ask whether Ankara’s current behaviour is damaging.

The answer is a clear “yes”. Unless it is reined in either through engagement or through pressure, it will not change.

A third argument is that the regime in Ankara is only mildly Islamist and that it is moderate when compared to others. “For instance, it never tried to impose Sharia” law. This quotation comes from a brilliant article by US commentator Jeffrey Reynolds, who wants to say that while the regime in Ankara may be foolish it is far from being the worst we know.

However, there are different kinds of moderation. Erdogan is not really a moderate: he knows, or it would be more accurate to say he knew, when to stop in order to avoid overreaching himself.

Second, this “more moderate than” argument could, if taken seriously, have peculiar consequences: someone might argue for negotiating with Al-Qaeda on the grounds that it is “more moderate” than the Islamic State (IS) group, for example.

Let us admit for the sake of argument that the Erdogan regime is democratic, secular, moderate and intelligent at home. The fact remains that it is the main supporter of many extremist militias in the Middle East and that it can be argued that it played an important role in the creation of IS.

In foreign policy, what is relevant is what the regime does in the regional and international system.

A fourth argument is that Erdogan’s behaviour should be accepted as part of a broader pattern of countries in the Third World and the Muslim World being more assertive in stating their interests.

This is a welcome development, and I am happy to see my own country being able to raise its voice, defend its interests and contribute to the shaping of international norms.

But my country respects international law and badly wants stability and peace. I am not sure this is true of Erdogan’s Turkey. A similar argument would be that Erdogan’s foreign policy is typical of those dictated by identity politics. But a global trend is not necessarily a good one.

Defining policies, either for my country or for others, is not my job. I understand that Turkey’s location and its regional weight make a strong case for working with Erdogan. However, I am also quite sure that ethics do not play a role in this choice – quite the contrary.

Dealing with him and trying to save relations with Turkey is the right thing to do for realist reasons. But this means making an accurate calculation of costs and benefits and being aware of the difference between negotiating a compromise and placating a dangerous leader who is addicted to blackmail.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The US and Turkey 

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