Turkey's strengths have long driven the U.S. to overlook transgressions. They may again get a pass as U.S. regional interests prevail.
The U.S. has maintained a close relationship with Turkey since the Truman Doctrine prompted U.S. deterrence of the Soviet Union’s move to gain access to the Turkish Straits. Turkey’s inherent geographic and military, and later economic, strength, made it an important U.S. security partner, manifested in its contributions in the Korean War and in NATO. The relationship, however, faced recurring challenges, beginning with the Turkish army’s 1960 coup against a democratically elected government, and the invasion of Cyprus in 1974. The sources of both these and subsequent frictions in the bilateral relationship can be found in the contradictory imperatives of the American-led postwar global order.
Post-Cold War, and particularly after 9/11, Washington courted Turkey as both a reliable ally and a “model” for a majority Muslim population democracy.
That order has a values or moral component associated with the rule of law, and specifically democracy and human rights, most recently manifested in President Biden’s repeated emphasis on international relations as a struggle between “autocracy and democracy.” But the order also has a crucial geostrategic component as a collective security mechanism against long-standing threats to the order, during the Cold War by the communist world, and since then by Russia, China, and regional actors (e.g., Iran, North Korea, and Islamic terrorist organizations). Turkey has been essential for the second component, but a headache for the first.
Since the Cold War, and particularly since 9/11, Washington has courted Turkey as both a reliable ally and a “model” for a majority Muslim population democracy. But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s more independent—or, from some points of view, more anti-Western—foreign policy, combined with a pattern of domestic human rights violations, has soured bilateral relations since 2010. Washington’s recent focus on near peer competition with China, and especially Russia, combined with the simultaneous shift of Turkish policy back toward the West, have improved relations in the past eighteen months, but underlying tensions are baked into the "values-versus-geopolitics" tension.
In January 2022, the Council on Europe's Committee of Ministers’ voted to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey.
NATO Ally par Excellence?
The value of Turkey’s assets for the NATO alliance and bilateral relations with Washington are indisputable. Its large well-educated population, the generally Western-orientation of its elites (and much of the population), its strong economy (especially since 2000, earning Turkey a seat at the G-20), its powerful military, and its critical geographic position, are part of its hard and soft power value to the Alliance. Turkey has been an important partner from South Korea to the Balkans and Afghanistan. Turks help stabilize the Caucasus, and house U.S. and NATO forces and resources—including a NATO anti-missile radar oriented toward Iran—at various sites, including the huge Incirlik Airbase used for U.S. and NATO missions.
Human Rights Concerns Cloud Relations
But this indisputable geostrategic importance has vied with concerns about Turkey’s commitment to the West, and to democratic values, in Washington and Europe. Turkey has long troubled its partners with its human rights behavior. Recent examples are seen in reporting by the Department of State’s Annual Human Rights Reports, Council of Europe (CoE) criticisms of member state Turkey, and analyses by international organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. These frictions grew worse during the Erdoğan era; first, post Cold War Americans saw the global order more in moral than geostrategic terms, limiting Turkey’s utility to that order; second, President Erdoğan’s repressive domestic policies increasingly portrayed his country as an outcast in terms of democratic and human rights violations.
Turkey’s constitutional system is democratic, but there are often abuses of democratic principles.
In January 2022, the CoE’s Committee of Ministers’ voted to begin infringement proceedings against Turkey, an important step to support human rights protection in Turkey and uphold the international human rights framework. The resolution concerns Turkey’s failure for the past two years to comply with the European Court of Human Rights’ judgment, in which the Court ruled that Turkey should free human rights defender Osman Kavala and fully restore his rights. In another widely criticized move, in 2021 Turkey pulled out of the CoE's “Istanbul Convention,” inaugurated in Turkey a decade prior to protect women from domestic violence. Turkish officials gave no reason for the pullout, citing only that the Turkish constitution protects women’s rights.
The 2020 Department of State Annual Human Rights Review of Turkey noted:
Turkey’s constitutional system is democratic, but there are often abuses of democratic principles. These include, in 2019, government and ruling party demands for a re-run of the Istanbul municipal elections where the ruling party lost by a small margin. (In the re-run the party lost by a much larger margin and the opposition candidate took office.) The government has asked the court system to ban the People’s Democratic Party (HDP) for alleged links to the PKK Kurdish terrorist organization, with the process still underway. The court system is constitutionally independent but there are credible reports of government influence and interference. Court rulings however, at times, do contradict or roll back government assertions.
Turkey as Independent Policy Player
The second source of bilateral friction has been Turkey’s 19th century great powers view of international relations. This has limited its moral commitment to the American-led global order, as it seeks a traditional realpolitik freedom to maneuver between allies and opponents. This has three major elements.
As Ambassador to Turkey, I negotiated the NATO anti-missile radar agreement directly with the then Prime Minister Erdoğan with both of us prioritizing immediate military and diplomatic advantages.
First is a long-term Turkish focus on “near abroad” challenges. These include: the PKK insurgency’s international aspects (including bases in Iraq and Syria, a presence in Iran, and a history of exploitation of the insurgency by the Turkish foes Iran, Syria, and Russia); the presence of Islamic State and other terrorists in Iraq and Syria; a host of disputes with Greece and Cyprus, mainly relating to the chain of islands from Limnos off of the Dardanelles to Cyprus, cutting off much of Turkey’s Mediterranean coastline; the Caucasus and Black Sea, perceived as a particular threat from a Moscow-backed Armenia, and a close diplomatic, energy, and security relationship with Azerbaijan. In some cases Turkey’s positions on these issues clash with those of the U.S. and Europe.
Second are relations with Russia. Turkey and Russia have been opponents for most of the past four hundred years in the Caucasus, Black Sea, and Balkans regions. But Turkey has repeatedly sought a limited rapprochement, including after World War I, and over the past twenty years. This has included Russia’s supplying close to half of Turkey’s primary energy fuel, natural gas, nuclear energy plant construction, and much additional trade. In the past decade this relationship took another step with Turkey’s purchase of the advanced S-400 air defense system, leading Washington to pull Turkey out of the F-35 fighter program and impose sanctions.
The third element has been the aggressive regional policies of President Erdoğan over the past decade. In the first decade of the 21st century Turkey had reasonably good relations with the EU, U.S., Israel, and Arab states, and was seen as a pillar of stability for the region and NATO. But gradually, then prime minister, and later president, Erdoğan alienated many regional states, as well as the U.S. and Europe, by supporting elements of the Muslim Brotherhood regional political-religious organization, notably in Gaza (Hamas), Egypt (the Morsi government), Syria (part of the armed opposition to Assad), and Libya. That support, and other frictions, led to major diplomatic splits with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Israel, and much cooler relations with Saudi Arabia. Diplomatic conflict with the U.S. over Northeast Syria, specifically U.S. support for the PKK-linked Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting the Islamic State, and a Turkish military incursion there in 2019, overshadowed U.S.-Turkish relations.
The result of these specific disputes with the U.S. and Europe--particularly the S-400 purchase--differences over the SDF in Syria, and human rights violations, led to a deep chill in Turkey’s relations with its NATO partners, which was exacerbated by the 2016 coup, when the West reacted slowly and ambiguously to a serious and bloody assault on the Turkish state, while Turkish repression of the coup plotters in the Gülen movement violated, in some cases, judicial norms. Nevertheless, geostrategic realities and shifts in Erdoğan’s policies over the past eighteen months have calmed the tension somewhat and opened the door to better relations between Ankara and its allies in Europe and the U.S.
Even when bilateral relations with Turkey were at their nadir, however, doing deals with President Erdoğan has been possible, if the focus stayed on mutual advantage for both sides. As U.S. Ambassador to Turkey, I negotiated the NATO anti-missile radar agreement directly with the then prime minister Erdoğan with both of us prioritizing immediate military and diplomatic advantages, not ethereal alliance ideals. Likewise, President Erdoğan negotiated the October 2019 ceasefire, after his incursion into northeast Syria that same month, with a team sent by President Donald Trump, which included Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, again based on mutual compromise of interests. Those included the U.S. lifting sanctions on Turkey and accepting its limited ground gains, in return for a cessation of military advances and continuation of its overall status in that region. It also implicitly allowed U.S. troops to remain and continue to combat the Islamic State and cooperate with the SDF, which had been targeted by Ankara’s incursion.
Transactional Relations Triumph
Beginning in 2020, Erdoğan reversed course on many of his objectionable regional problems, reaching out to Israel and the Arab states, dialing back verbal and other support for Muslim Brotherhood groups, and adhering to the above-cited 2019 ceasefire agreement with Washington in northeast Syria. While maintaining the problematic S-400 purchase and continuing major energy purchases from Russia, from 2020 onward Turkey challenged Russia militarily on various fronts, from Idlib in northwest Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan to Libya. And since 2021, Turkish military and diplomatic support to Ukraine has been a significant factor in Ukraine’s resistance, first to Russian pressure and more recently to its aggression. Turkey meanwhile has sought to balance Iran’s expansion in both Syria and Iraq.
These shifts in position, and Washington’s de facto prioritizing of its partners’ positions on major threats such as Russia and Iran over their human rights performance, have led to a warming of relations, especially with Washington. President Biden has consulted repeatedly with Erdoğan on Ukraine, in the coming weeks Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will have his first Washington meeting with a U.S. secretary of state in three years, and Washington has initiated a new strategic dialogue with Turkey. Washington and Ankara are even eyeing F-16 sales as a way to move beyond the S-400/F-35 dispute.
The result, assuming these trends continue, is a victory for Washington’s (and to a lesser degree) Europe’s realpolitik reason over commitment to Western values. Strains in the relations however will not fully dissipate. Turkey’s “near abroad” concerns listed above, as noted, predate Erdoğan and, whether with the PKK conflict or Cyprus, are damnably difficult to resolve. But they bring Turkey into conflict with other Washington partners, including Greece, the SDF, and to some degree Iraq--and will continue to trouble relations.
Likewise, human rights problems are likely to continue under the Erdoğan government, and given the history of Turkish democracy, possibly to some degree under any successor government, will set limits to any rapprochement with the U.S. and EU, beyond the important but transactional geopolitical and trade accounts. This situation is certainly not ideal, but given the serious threats the West faces around the world, it almost certainly will be accepted by the parties involved, even if not publicly voiced in Washington and Europe by those who prioritize human rights. This push / pull between competing Western and especially American foreign policy priorities thus will mark bilateral relations well into the future absent fundamental changes in Washington or Ankara.
James Jeffrey is chair of the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and as Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
Cover photo: U.S. President Joe Biden, center right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, center left, visit during a bilateral meeting while attending the NATO summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Monday, June 14, 2021. AP Photo/Patrick Semansky.