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Into the Abyss: Turkish Impressions of a U.S.-Turkish Break

The past week saw a dramatic escalation in U.S.-Turkish tensions, coupled with an equally dramatic collapse in the value of the Turkish lira. Through it all, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remained defiant, refusing to give in to Washington’s demand that he release imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson. However this dispute ends, Erdogan’s willingness to court economic disaster through confrontation with the United States has raised two crucial questions: first, why did Ankara appear to believe that Washington would eventually back down, and second, if Washington does not, what might a Turkish initiated rupture in the bilateral relationship actually look like.

Exploring the logic behind Turkey’s emerging foreign policy thinking can help answer these questions. In taking on a more assertive approach towards Washington, most pro-government Turkish foreign policy commentators have assumed that there would be no breaking point. Rather, they believed that brinkmanship was necessary to compel Washington to be more respectful of Turkey’s interests. As a result, there was little sustained discussion of what specific U.S. actions might force Turkey to break with the West, and what Turkey’s subsequent foreign policy might be. Now, with Trump threatening more sanctions and Erdogan threatening to find other allies, Turkey may be forced to figure out what the alternatives are on short notice. Washington, for its part, should probably have a plan as well.

Whither the Breaking Point

Even before the most recent crisis, it had become commonplace to talk of Turkish-American relations as if they were poised on a dramatic precipice. Indeed, headlines declaring that the partnership had reached “a breaking point” reflected the tenor of official statements from both Ankara and Washington. Ahead of a critical meeting in March with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu sounded a stark warning, cautioning that their partnership had arrived at a “critical stage” wherein ties would either improve or “totally breakdown.” Though the March meeting produced a much heralded “road map” meant to resolve disagreements over Syria and other issues, relations remained volatile even before the White House’s August 1st sanctions on two Turkish ministers.

In spite of the sanctions, Turkey’s president has gone out of his way to underscore his country’s obligations within the alliance.

But despite this ongoing sense of alarm, no leader in either country has explicitly outlined what is at stake. Though occasional op-eds on both sides speculate about the future of Incirlik air base or, more provocatively, imagine Turkey leaving NATO, no official in Ankara or Washington has ever proposed the breakup of the alliance. Neither the AKP government nor the Trump administration has openly discussed an outright abrogation of any treaty rights, or suggested formally severing diplomatic ties. To the contrary, in spite of the sanctions, Turkey’s president has gone out of his way to underscore his country’s obligations within the alliance. “It is possible,” Erdogan proposed, “for us to solve these issues that are between us and the American side while foregrounding the alliance and strategic partnership that forms the framework of our common interests.” Or, as the U.S. embassy recently declared on its Twitter feed, “despite the current tensions, America continues to be Turkey’s fast friend and ally.”

Ankara’s Theory of the Case

To understand how Ankara has reconciled its constant warnings about the U.S.-Turkish alliance with its belief that this relationship will endure, one need only read the explanations of Turkish foreign policy analysts. While writers differ on their exact interpretation of U.S. policy, a consistent theme emerges: Washington, when pushed, will abandon its anti-Turkish policies in order to maintain good relations with a new, more proud and powerful Turkey. Though almost all of these writers insist the ball is now in Washington’s court, they tend to display a consistent confidence that U.S. policymakers will recognize their errors and change policies accordingly.

At one end of the spectrum, some writers take a pragmatic approach to the origins of the current crisis, focusing on more immediate and tactical explanations for current US policy. As explained in a recent piece by the pro-government think tank SETA, Erdogan does not “subscribe to a new ideological approach that seeks to sideline the US or leave NATO.” Instead, the problem instead lies with a series of poor choices made by both the Obama and Trump administrations. Whether arming Syrian Kurdish fighters or currying favor with evangelicals over Pastor Brunson, American leaders have repeatedly made ill-informed or misguided decisions that have poisoned ties with Turkey. In response, Turkey is considering new strategic and economic partnerships to achieve its interest. But these will not come at the expense of relations with the United States, as Turkey is increasingly “capable of playing several strategic roles simultaneous.”

A more extreme version of this argument posits that America has long sought to dominate Turkey and is only now coming to terms with the fact that it can no longer do so. According to a number of Turkish columnists, Washington treated Turkey as a de facto colony, whose foreign policy it controlled through its relationship with the Turkish army and traditional elite. When Erdogan sought to chart a more independent course, Washington redoubled its efforts to bring Erdogan down using every means at its disposal, including the Gulen movement, Kurdish separatists, the Gezi Park protests and economic warfare. Yet even authors with such a cynical and conspiracy laden view of the United States have been surprisingly confident that, particularly after Erdogan’s most recent electoral victory, Washington would belatedly adjust its expectations in light of Turkey’s newfound independence. Many of these writers have emphasized America’s growing isolation in the world and the ongoing transformation of the global order in arguing that an increasingly weak United States will have no choice but to come to terms with an increasingly powerful Turkey. As one wrote in relation to the most recent crisis “especially at a time when America’s influence and power are lying in the dust, to use a priest as an excuse to threaten Turkey with sanctions is pure suicide.”

Finally, a handful of Turkish commentators have gone further in presenting recent events as the culmination of an even deeper and possibly insurmountable American hostility. Yet strikingly even these writers do not seem to have fully thought through the foreign policy implications of their assumptions.  For some time now, the most consistently dire assessments of U.S.-Turkish relations have come from Ibrahim Karagul, general editor of the Islamist daily Yeni Safak. In assessing the damage done by the sanctions imposed against Turkey’s Justice and Interior Ministers, Karagul has reasserted his oft-stated belief that Washington is in fact Turkey’s mortal enemy as opposed to some wayward or arrogant ally. For Karagul, America’s malevolence typifies the West’s grander quest for global imperial control and Christian domination. In light of Washington’s threat of sanctions, he has reiterated his position that Turkey should stand ready to fight. What he means by this, however, remains unexplored.

The Erdogan Factor

Tellingly, Erdogan’s own reaction to the current crisis has contained elements of all of these arguments. While simultaneously affirming his desire to remain aligned with the United States, Erdogan has also prefaced his remarks with his belief that the United States had been behind each and every incident that had shaken his rule. Erdogan has further stated that such acts of subterfuge were in harmony with the West’s desire to subjugate Turkey and the rest of the Islamic World, but also suggested that the West would come to recognize the futility of these efforts.

More broadly, Erdogan’s deeply-felt ambition to be a leader within the Islamic and developing world also contains both a pragmatic side that is compatible with overlapping strategic roles and deeply anti-Western one which is not. On the pragmatic side, Erdogan’s desire to serve as champion of the world’s downtrodden is certainly driven by the natural appeal of low hanging fruit. There are very few world leaders who have so eagerly courted such states as Venezuela, Somalia, Sudan and Pakistan, and this outreach has secured real, if limited rewards. Erdogan’s displays of political solidarity have gone hand in hand with efforts to create investment and trade opportunities for native industries. In some cases, Turkey’s developing defense industry has also played a key role in Turkey’s independent outreach abroad. For example, recent deals to sell helicopters and warships to Pakistan underscore ongoing Turkish efforts to expand the influence of its arms industry to the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

And yet beyond any pragmatic motives, Erdogan himself has cast these efforts as a preemptive defense against the Western threat to Turkey. “I am speaking openly,” he declared before christening a newly constructed ship in July 2017. “If we did not follow this path today, we could not manage our fight against terrorism and the expatriate operations because of the covert embargoes applied to our country today. That’s why we need to keep an eye on our strategies to support companies operating in the defense industry.”

Towards the Unknown: Imagining a “post-America” Turkish Foreign Policy

What do these sometimes conflicting impulses and understandings reveal regarding a possible “breaking point” in U.S.-Turkish relations? Perhaps the most critical lesson to be learned is that despite the heated rhetoric in the run to up to this crisis, Ankara had no clear expectation that the United States would soon become an irreconcilable adversary. To the contrary, even the most intractable critics of the United States expected that Washington would yet be persuaded, by hook or by crook, to see the world through Turkish eyes. Ankara’s faith in the ability of Americans to come around stemmed from bravado and optimism, but also a sense of Turkey’s role in the world at large. Whether as the proverbial “crossroads between East and West” or as an emerging regional power, Turkish policymakers have assumed that Turks will remain critical players in the century ahead.

In the run up to this crisis, Ankara had no clear expectation that the United States would soon become an irreconcilable adversary. 

The result of this view is a lack of serious debate over what a Turkish “grand strategy” looks like without the United States. Policy papers and academic articles published up to the eve of the current crisis still assume that Turkey and the United States would preserve some sort of strategic relationship. In taking on Turkey’s future within NATO, for example, SETA’s Hasan Basri Yalcin argues that the alliance has failed to protect Turkey from threats posed by the Islamic State and Kurdish terrorism. But his resulting recommendation is that Turkey must be “not only be a loyal partner but at same time an actor that procures benefits away from NATO”. Other SETA commentators have taken a similarly consistent line with respect to Russia, the Persian Gulf and China. “Managing with a rational mind,” Burhanettin Duran has argued, allows for Ankara to retain the United States as an ally while exploiting more advantageous arrangements with Moscow, Tehran or Beijing. Even writers like Yeni Safak’s Ibrahim Karagul have yet to lay out a plan for how Ankara should counter the American threat he believes it faces. Save his demand that Turkey should force Washington to remove all American forces from Turkish soil and act aggressively against the PKK, he has offered no concrete vision for what a future without the United States would look like.

Of course, none of this guarantees that the current crisis will not provoke a fundamental reassessment within Turkish foreign policy circles. Were Ankara to abandon its optimistic assumptions about Washington, planning for a break could quickly take more concrete form.  If this point is reached, however, it will very much be a case of both sides stumbling into the unknown with little sense of what is to come. In berating his Western counterparts for their ignorance, one pro-government Turkish commentator recently wrote that “ever bad Turkey expert” ends their appraisals with the same refrain: “anything can happen, we’ll find out soon.” Given the balance of commentaries available in the Turkish press as well, it is hard to see what other expectation one should have.

Crafting an American Response

Ironically, Turkey’s faith in the endurance of the relationship has, until recently at least, been mirrored by the belief of many in Washington that Erdogan will eventually realize he needs the United States and abandon his own provocative behavior. Certainly supporters of the current sanctions against Ankara have argued that these can serve as the first step toward bringing Erdogan back in line.  It is entirely possible that, facing a deepening economic crisis and a dangerous situation in northern Syria, Erdogan may be compelled to back down and release Pastor Brunson. But in the long run, it is also entirely possible, even likley, that he would rather impoverish and destabilize his country than repeatedly give in to U.S. pressure. The risk is that out of some combination of delusion or ideological commitment, Ankara may truly be willing to break with the United States, even without a compelling strategy for what comes next.

So long as Erdogan has the ability and willingness to sacrifice Turkey’s interests to maintain his hold on power, Washington is left with few good options for dealing with him. 

Unfortunately, so long as Erdogan has the ability and willingness to sacrifice Turkey’s interests to maintain his hold on power, Washington is left with few good options for dealing with him. Still, two broad precepts would serve U.S. policy well in confronting the current crisis:

Washington should not retract the measures it has already taken until imprisoned American citizens and State Department employees have been released. But it also has little to gain by escalating the situation further with additional sanctions or public ultimatums. With Turkey already on the verge of an economic collapse, such measures will only make it harder for Erdogan to back down and increase the chances of a destabilizing crash that would ultimately harm U.S. interests.

Rather than wait “to find out soon” whether Ankara will break with its Western allies,  Washington should begin taking appropriate precautions against this possibility. Beyond tactical steps involving U.S. bases and facilities in Turkey, this should also include rethinking regional policies, from Iraq to the Balkans, on the assumption that Turkish cooperation can no longer be taken for granted.

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