Turkey and America's complicated relationship
Historically, the two allies have had a rollercoaster-like relationship, which now appears to be on an upswing due to common concerns in Arab Spring countries, Iraq and co-operation against the PKK.
By Aaron Stein for SES Türkiye in Istanbul -- 27/12/11
Standing before a war weary congress skittish about Soviet intentions, then US President Harry S. Truman requested $400m of development aid for Turkey and Greece in 1947, telling his audience that these two countries "had to choose between alternative ways of life".
US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta paid his respects at the Ataturk Mausoleum in Ankara earlier this month, where he stated the US is fully behind Turkey in combating the PKK. [Reuters]
Prime Minister Erdogan, Foreign Minister Davutoglu, and Libya's National Transitional Council Chairman Abdel Jalil pray together in Tripoli's Martyr's Square in September. As a secular Muslim democracy that is integrated into Euro-Atlantic institutions, Turkey has been touted as a model for the Middle East. [Reuters]
With the last US troops leaving Iraq in December, the United States will continue to provide Turkey with actionable intelligence on the PKK in northern Iraq from Turkey-based drones. [Reuters]
The United States bolstered Turkish defences as a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the Middle East and the warm waters of the Mediterranean. Though committed to cementing Turkey's place in the anti-communist bloc, the US initially sought to do so without making a guarantee to defend Turkish sovereignty, but was soon faced with the prospect of making a binding pledge.
Faced with mounting Turkish frustration about the lack of a security guarantee, the US formally invited Turkey to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in 1952, thus entrenching Turkey in the trans-Atlantic security framework and further solidifying the Turkish-American alliance.
Although Turkish-American relations encountered a number of low points during the Cold War -- most notably over Cyprus -- the common Soviet threat perception and security-based alliance worked to the advantage of both parties, fostering deep ties between the two governments.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations absent the anti-communist anchor have ebbed and flowed according to the geo-political realities of the time. While Turkey initially struggled with the challenging geopolitical realities of the 1990s, it has since developed a more independent and active policy.
Turkey and the United States continue to share many common strategic goals and interests that bind them together: where they often differ is over the means to reach those goals.
Since the end of the Cold War, Washington has often championed the export of the "Turkish model", first in the newly independent Turkic states of Central Asia, then later in the Middle East.
However, the championing of the Turkish model has sometimes rubbed some in Ankara the wrong way, because "it does not want to be labelled as an Islamic system because it has a secular constitution and does not want to be seen as exclusively bound to the poor and dysfunctional countries to its east," Hugh Pope, director of the International Crisis Group's Turkey/Cyprus Project, explained to SES Türkiye.
In 2003, relations took a turn for the worse after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to secure enough votes in parliament to allow the US-led coalition to open a northern front to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The war in Iraq, especially the period between 2003 and 2007, represented one of the lowest points in Turkish-American relations as Iraq threatened to spiral out of control and the PKK, using northern Iraq as a base, resumed violence against Turkish security forces.
This low point was only reversed in late 2007 with the establishment of the "triple mechanism" among the US, Turkey and Iraq to combat escalating PKK violence, coupled with a commitment by the US to provide "actionable intelligence" on the PKK.
To many, this represented a "U-turn" in US-Turkish relations.
Still, throughout the early 2000s Turkey adopted a much more pro-active foreign policy. Although the two allies often had the same strategic goals, their tactics sometimes differed, creating frustration in Ankara and Washington.
One of the most prominent issues has been Turkey's failure to support the United States and its European allies in isolating Iran with sanctions over its failure to address outstanding issues related to its nuclear programme.
"I would point to a few different turning points in the relationship," Joshua Walker, a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, told SES Türkiye.
"One is the day that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and former Brazilian President Lula were photographed in Tehran with their arms stretched up in victory that was seen all around the world," after the parties signed the Tehran Declaration.
The "fuel swap" agreement was brokered by Turkey based on a proposal first suggested by the Americans in October 2009. The original plan envisaged Iran would ship enriched uranium to Turkey in exchange for French fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran.
However, the agreement's vague language failed to account for many of the proposal's original demands and came on the eve of a new vote in the UN Security Council for more sanctions. It was widely seen as an Iranian ploy to pry Russia and China from supporting the US sanctions. Turkey and Brazil were the only two countries to vote "no" for UNSC Resolution 1929.
"There was a negative mood in Washington," Suat Kiniklioglu, director of the Ankara-based Centre for Strategic Communication (STRATIM), explained to SES Türkiye.
However, the two countries have been able to overcome some of these difficulties after "the two sides got used to the fact that Turkey is no longer the country of the 1970s and that it may have issues and interests where it does not see eye to eye with the US," he adds.
More recently, relations received a boost after Turkey agreed to host a radar system for NATO's ballistic missile shield.
Importantly for Turkey, the United States has also agreed to base drones on Turkish territory and continue to share with Ankara "actionable intelligence" to aid in the fight against the PKK.
"Security still plays a very important role in bilateral relations between Turkey and the US," Emre Hatipoglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University, told SES Türkiye.
One new area of full co-operation is their response to the Arab revolutions, where the immediate interests of both countries are almost directly aligned.
"Turkey is now much more valuable for Washington than before the Arab Spring," Ilhan Tanir, Washington correspondent for the daily Vatan, told SES Türkiye.
Professor Henri Barkey, a Turkey expert at Lehigh University, agrees. "The real change in relations occurred with the Arab Spring, because it allowed for Turkey to play a much bigger role in the region. The Turks and the White House started to co-ordinate quite well on a number of countries, especially Egypt at the beginning."
Amidst the upheaval and the political evolution taking place in the Middle East, the United States and Turkey have found themselves supporting similar actors for pragmatic reasons.
"The Arab spring brought an end to some degree of Turkish romanticism about the Middle East. We now have come to realise much more concretely that the Middle East is a considerably complex place and it is not possible to remain neutral," according to Kiniklioglu.
At the outset of the Arab revolutions, Turkey was able to blunt some of the fallout and actively worked to establish closer relations with the new governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
However, the outbreak of violence in Syria hit closer to home and, after initially calling for Assad to implement reforms, Turkey aligned its policies with the West's call for regime change.
With the prospect of civil war, a refugee crisis and regional instability, Washington realises that Turkey has a major interest and role to play in the future of Syria, says Barkey.
Moving forward, the two sides have a strong incentive to co-operate in the region.
"The realities of the Middle East have certainly affected Turkish foreign policy from the idealistic principles that had not been tested in the crucible of major conflicts and breakdowns as we have seen in the Arab Spring," notes Walker.
The convergence of issues has deflected other areas of disagreement that remain unresolved. For now, the two sides see eye-to-eye and their interests are largely aligned.
However, "these things are situational and it depends a bit on current circumstance. What is happening today may not happen tomorrow," Barkey cautions.