Once a close strategic ally, over the last four years or so Turkey has not only been pulling away from the United States in terms of policy coordination, but also increasingly infusing relations with antagonism. Washington modulated its diplomacy accordingly, but made few substantive efforts to reverse Ankara’s course. Until now. On Oct. 9, as Turkey added to the list of U.S. citizens and diplomatic employees in its jails, the United States finally stood up to Turkish truculence. The manner in which it did so, however, is counterproductive, and reflects a misreading of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s motivations. By suspending nonimmigrant visa services for ordinary citizens in Turkey, Washington plays into Erdoğan’s hands rather than punishes him.
The visa suspension stems from a recent but faulty way of thinking about U.S.-Turkish relations. To be sure, the relationship currently struggles with a strategic contradiction: The United States still sees Turkey as a vital player in securing its interests in the Middle East, particularly in a post-ISIL Syria and Iraq, but Ankara has become increasingly difficult to work with. Concluding, along with many Turkey scholars, that its fellow NATO member is proving itself a questionable ally at best, Washington appears to have shifted to a “transactional” approach. Based on mutual interests and trade-offs rather than shared values, this strategy of pragmatism aims at producing cooperative deals in which each side gets some of what it wants.