by Ian O. Lesser*, Rethinking Turkish-Western Relations: A Journey Without Maps
GMF June 30, 2010
Summary: The striking changes in Turkish society and policy make for an uneasy relationship between Ankara and its transatlantic partners. In reality, relations with Turkey have always been difficult to manage, regional cooperation has never been straightforward, and there is a strong likelihood of more turmoil to come. The emerging Turkish- Western relationship will be a la carte, and driven by national interests rather than geopolitics and identity. But the stakes surrounding future policy choices will be higher without the fly-wheel of comfortable strategic assumptions.
June 30, 2010
Rethinking Turkish-Western Relations: A Journey Without Maps
by Ian O. Lesser*
Expert and media commentary suggests that Turkey is becoming an exotic place, a country out of the transatlantic mainstream, pursuing an increasingly assertive and independent policy on the marches of Europe. In this sense, the fashionable controversy over “neo-Ottomanism” is actually a two-way street, reinforced by a revival of very old ideas about Turkey’s geopolitics. It is too easy by far to see the Gaza flotilla crisis and Turkey’s “no” vote on Iran sanctions as straightforward confirmation of a Turkish drive to the Muslim East. Recent events underscore some striking changes in Turkish society and policy, and these will not make for an easy relationship between Turkey and its European and North American partners. The roots of this friction are diverse, with a strong nationalist component. Yet, important avenues for cooperation remain open and may expand even as traditional patterns wane. The new Turkish- Western relationship will be a la carte, and driven by convergent national interests rather than amorphous notions of geopolitics and identity. It could still be a rough ride.
The Fire Next Time
Turkey faces the prospect of renewed internal security challenges, and these will be consequential for Ankara’s relations with the West. The upsurge in attacks by the PKK and related groups and the renewal of Turkish military operations against Kurdish guerillas in northern Iraq raise the specter of a return to the turmoil and conflict of the 1990s. This time around, the PKK will not have a sanctuary in Syria, and will have very insecure bases, at best, in Iran and Iraq. But recent attacks in Istanbul and elsewhere suggest that Turkey could face a new challenge of larger-scale urban terrorism. Unlike the rural insurgency and counter-insurgency of past decades, an extension of Kurdish violence to urban areas could have more serious implications for a Turkish society and an economy increasingly dependent on foreign investment. Experience in many settings tells us that terrorism can have an
* Ian O. Lesser is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
isolating effect. In the worst case, urban violence could lead to something Turkey has so far been spared — inter-communal conflict between Turks and Kurds. To be clear, this is an unlikely prospect, but no longer an inconceivable one.
Under these conditions, the quality of cooperation with the United States, Europe, and regional neighbors in containing the PKK threat will become the key test of partnership for Turkey’s political and military leadership, and for public opinion. Amid all the pessimistic commentary, it is worth recalling that this is one area where U.S.-Turkish cooperation has been close and effective in recent years. The challenge will be to convince Congress, where there is now widespread criticism of Turkish policy in the Middle East, that enhanced intelligence sharing and new defense equipment transfers are in American interests. The outlook for Turkish cooperation with Europe is even less clear, with many Europeans unconvinced of the soundness of Turkish strategy in this area, the very real risk of human rights abuses flowing from counter-PKK operations, and the ongoing problem of PKK financing in Europe.
A Far Less Predictable Partnership
Strategic relationships are not immutable. Turkey lives in a multi-polar world, and comprehensive notions of strategic partnership (“model partnership” is even less comprehensible) risk sounding hollow in the current environment. The reality has always been complex. Even during the height of the Cold War, strategic cooperation between Turkey and the West was a blend of commitment to the containment of Soviet power — rarely tested in practice — and sometimes sharp disagreement in other areas, notably over Cyprus, Aegean stability, and non-NATO uses of Turkish bases. It was always a tough relationship to manage, and anti-Americanism in Turkey hardly started with the invasion of Iraq. The Obama Administration seems much more comfortable than its predecessors with the mixed and often unpredictable quality of strategic cooperation with Ankara — and with others. The muted official reaction to Turkey’s “no” vote on Iran sanctions offers some evidence of this more tolerant approach. At the same time, recognition of Turkey’s geopolitical role is likely to be less automatic, and the perception of Ankara’s importance in American policy will be less uniform. Seen from Washington, Turkey will not always be as pivotal as Turks have come to expect, and this reality may be difficult to reconcile with Ankara’s growing international confidence.
Clearly, the Turkish-Israeli strategic relationship is anything but immutable. The disastrous Mavi Marmara incident reflects a degree of improvident risk-taking on all sides; a slow-moving crisis with a tragic ending and little thought to the long-term consequences. But the trouble started years earlier, and a good case can be made that the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations was inevitable. The “strategic relationship” was a product of special conditions prevailing in the late 1990s, including a shared interest in the containment of Syria and Iran. These conditions have changed completely. At the same time, cooperation with Israel has come under growing pressure from Turkish public opinion and the evident discomfort of the AKP leadership. In the 1990s, public opinion hardly counted in Turkish foreign policy, and Turkey’s security elites drove the foreign policy agenda. In short, conditions have changed completely across the board.
In all likelihood, there is no going back to the old pattern of relations, and the only question is how far Turkish-Israeli relations can slide. The trajectory might be improved if the parties are willing to explore alternative approaches to an investigation of the flotilla incident. Why not take up the idea of including some prominent Turks in the official enquiry, as suggested by at least one respected observer in Washington? This would yield something closer to a bilateral investigation, which is really the heart of the matter. Without question, there is also a role for the United States in restoring Turkish-Israeli confidence and pressing for an objective approach to future relations, whatever the level.
An Agonizing Reappraisal
There is a growing need to rethink the course of Turkey-EU relations in a deliberate manner, before disenchanted publics and short-term politics capture the process entirely. At the current rate of one negotiating chapter opened per European presidency — or perhaps something short of this — Turkey’s candidacy will be a very long-term proposition, with no clear end state. In the meantime, there is a risk that Turkish and European policies in key areas, including foreign policy, will begin to diverge. Critics of Turkish membership are already pointing to Turkey’s policy on Iran as evidence of sharply different international perspectives. The Iran nuclear issue offers a rare example of visible European consensus and an explicitly concerted policy, and Ankara is simply not on the same page. As Europe and Turkey develop their respective neighborhood policies — the current term of art to describe Turkey’s new activism in the Middle East and Eurasia — it is less and less clear that these policies will be compatible.
Ultimately, there may be more tolerance for an assertive and independent Turkish regional strategy in Washington than in Brussels, where foreign policy cohesion will be a leading test of Turkey’s European commitment. Looking ahead, it is worth asking whether the concept of privileged partnership, by this or another name, will be more in tune with Turkish and European preferences. The mood among leading Turkish politicians, bolstered by continued high growth rates (on the order of 6 percent per year, while much of Europe faces economic stringency) certainly points in this direction. From the perspective of the American national interest, it is the outlook for continued Turkish convergence with European norms, rather than the issue of membership per se, that really matters. The psychological barriers to a more wide ranging discussion of Turkey’s European options are falling rapidly.
Events of the past few weeks do not necessarily mean an irreversible decline in Turkish-Western relations — far from it. But the flotilla crisis, differences over Iran policy, and emotional rhetoric on all sides make clear that the quality of Turkish relations with transatlantic partners cannot be taken for granted. A wider range of potential futures has been exposed. Short of a direct threat to Turkish security, Ankara is unlikely to participate in a new strategy of containment vis-à-vis Iran. On Turkish-Israeli relations, a reasonable commercial relationship and some quiet defense cooperation is an optimistic scenario. Under current conditions, anything approaching a “strategic” relationship between Turkey and Israel is probably a thing of the past. The priority for Ankara’s transatlantic partners will be to focus on areas where cooperation is already well established, and more can be done. The short list of critical areas includes containing the PKK challenge, managing the end game in Iraq and Afghanistan, promoting stability in the Black Sea and the Balkans, and consolidating détente in the Aegean. For a truly ambitious thought experiment, consider the consequences of a Cyprus settlement, or as a stark alternative, permanent division, against the backdrop of recent events and the accelerating debate over Turkey’s orientation. The future of Turkish-Western relations may well be ala carte, but the stakes associated with individual policy choices will be higher without the fly-wheel of comfortable strategic assumptions.