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The Unique Importance of the Turkish-American Relationship

John Podesta's Keynote Address at TUSKON

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SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Good morning. It’s a great privilege to have the opportunity to be with you. Before I begin, I’d like to thank Rizanur Meral, President of TUSKON, Mrs. Meral for her hospitality, Secretary General Mustafa Gunay, and also Hakan Tasci, TUSKON’s successful Washington representative. I’m pleased to speak with all of you today. I’d also like to thank and acknowledge my colleague Michael Werz, who has focused much of his work at the Center for American Progress on understanding Turkey and strengthening the U.S.-Turkey relationship. He has helped us develop a valuable dialogue with TUSKON which builds on the work of Spencer Boyer, who left CAP to join the Obama administration as deputy assistant secretary for European affairs.

This is my first visit to Istanbul and to Turkey. It’s one that’s very much overdue, especially given the richness of your country’s history, culture, and politics. So I’m truly delighted to be here to explore my many years of interest in this fascinating part of the world.

Over a decade ago, when I was serving as chief of staff in the White House, President Clinton spent five days here in Turkey visiting Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmet shortly after the tragic earthquake there in 1999. It was the longest visit any U.S. president had paid to Turkey in history. I was scheduled to travel with the president on that trip, but unfortunately at the last minute I had to remain in Washington to struggle with Congressional Republicans over the federal budget, and while I don’t wish it on them, I think that’s an experience my friends and colleagues in the Obama administration are likely to relive in the months ahead.

But I remember the official photos taken during that trip—the handshakes between heads of state, the visits to the Hagia Sophia, and the ruins at Ephesus. But of all these photos, the one that epitomizes, to me, the nature of friendship between America and Turkey was snapped inside one of the thousands of tents donated by the U.S. government after the Izmet earthquake. The president is smiling warmly at dozens of excited children clustered around him, who are climbing over each other to get a closer look.

At that time, less than a year from the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, America’s relationship with Turkey was respectful, comprehensive, and constructive. It recognized not only a long-standing security relationship with the United States, but also Turkey’s unique strengths and unique challenges. It pushed Turkey to accelerate improvements in human rights while also strongly making the case for its accession into the European Union. It was, as President Clinton called it, a partnership, and, given Turkey’s strategic importance and unique cultural and political characteristics, it was an extraordinarily valuable one.

Nearly ten years after that visit, a new progressive president returned to Istanbul and Ankara to signal the reemergence of a respectful, comprehensive, and constructive partnership between Turkey and America. As a sign of the unique importance of the Turkish-American relationship, President Obama has expressed his intent to build what he calls a “model partnership”—one in which, in the president’s words, “a Western nation and a nation that straddles two continents can create a modern international community that is respectful, that is secure, and that is prosperous”—and proves that lasting tensions between countries of different cultures can be overcome.

The Obama administration laid the groundwork for a fresh start even before President Obama’s trip to Turkey, a trip and a strategy that my organization, the Center for American Progress, had strongly recommended during the 2008 Presidential campaign. We called the U.S.-Turkish relationship the neglected alliance, and so were pleased when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Turkey after only a few weeks in office, where she spoke both with high-ranking officials and appeared on what I understand to be a very popular Turkish television show, to reintroduce herself to your public as America’s top diplomat. President Obama reached out to the Turkish people during his visit when he met with students during a round table meeting in the Tophane Cultural Center here in Istanbul.

This approach marks a departure from the transactional relationship between Turkey and the United States during the previous administration. President Bush’s foreign policy approach focused narrowly on pursuing war in Iraq, and viewed Turkey almost exclusively in terms of its contributions to that military campaign. Much of those eight years represented a lost opportunity for building upon President Clinton’s pursuit of a more comprehensive strategic partnership. Key opportunities to make progress on Iran, Syria, Cyprus, NATO, EU membership, and particularly economic cooperation were lost, while the Turkish public grew increasingly critical towards the United States as the war in Iraq played out on its doorstep.

We can’t make up for that lost time, but we can try to regain a solid footing in the relationship, work together to solve global challenges, and deepen our relationship. President Obama’s election heralded a dramatic change for America’s priorities across many different fronts, but perhaps nowhere is that change more visible than in its approach to international relations and diplomacy. That reality is reflected by the dramatic shift in the way the Turkish people see President Obama compared to his predecessor—only 2 percent had a positive view of President Bush in 2008, but half of Turks had a favorable view of President Obama in 2009. That number has slipped to below 30 percent this year. Yet how America is perceived in Turkey is important to Americans, and the credibility of U.S. leadership within your country is vital to achieving our shared goals.

Let me be clear: the strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States has been of tremendous value. Our two countries should continue to deepen our efforts to work together going forward. The United States welcomes Turkey’s greater role in international affairs that its strong economic growth and strategic significance confers. Although our partnership is currently facing a number of tangled challenges, which I’ll say a few words about in a moment, the Obama administration is committed to a strategic partnership with Turkey on a much broader array of issues than was possible in the past.

Last month’s constitutional referendum represents an important opportunity to strengthen your democratic checks and balances. An impressive number of voters decided to deepen democratic institutions and social rights, along with individual freedoms. It is my hope that Turkey takes advantage of the referendum to further empower voters, heal internal divides in support of a pluralistic society, strengthen the rule of law, and strengthen Turkey’s diplomatic efforts to advance stability and prosperity in your neighborhood and beyond.

As you all know, looking back towards the United States, it is experiencing a period of significant economic and political turmoil and uncertainty. Although the Obama administration prevented 2008’s financial crisis from spiraling into a full-blown depression, growth has been weak and employment has yet to fully recover. And, like many of the states in the eurozone, the U.S. faces a long-term deficit challenge that poses a serious risk to our economic well-being if left uncorrected.

The American public is still, in many ways, deeply unsettled from the severity of the recession and the slow pace of recovery. During the height of the crisis, families watched helplessly as a full quarter of their household wealth—money they’d saved for retirement, education, and family emergencies—simply vaporized over a few short months. The values of their homes crashed while severe job losses permeated almost every sector of the economy. When President Obama took office, almost 800,000 people lost their jobs every month. And while the private sector is slowly adding jobs, today, 15 million Americans are still out of work. And the U.S. unemployment rate remained stubbornly at 9.6 percent last month.

As the party in power, these persistently high unemployment rates have hurt the Democratic Party substantially. In the American midterm Congressional elections this November, Republicans will likely see substantial gain —but how much remains to be seen. Republicans have blocked the administration’s agenda at every turn in an effort to deny the president any victory and increase their own power. As a result, opportunities to help create jobs and grow the economy have been lost amid partisan politics. But I believe President Obama’s tough decisions laid the foundation for future success for the American economy so that once the recovery takes firm hold and the pace of job creation picks up, I predict that so will the president’s political fortunes.

Even with the troubled economy and Republican obstructionism, the administration has managed to implement key elements of the progressive platform on which he campaigned. President Obama immediately shepherded the $787 billion Recovery Act through Congress after his inauguration, which reversed the economy’s downward spiral and saved 3 million jobs. This past spring, he won passage of landmark health care reform to give 32 million uninsured Americans coverage, which represents an historic achievement that a century of his progressive predecessors failed to accomplish. The administration has taken strong executive action to curb climate change and jumpstart the transition to clean energy, even in the face of congressional resistance. And he signed a financial reform package in July that will greatly reduce the likelihood of future financial crises like the one we experienced in 2008.

In addition to these domestic initiatives, President Obama and his team have also reengaged with the world to repair the relationships damaged by the previous administration’s unilateralist approach and revitalize our alliances. Chief among his top foreign policy priorities is bolstering global nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Although almost a decade had passed since the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 brought strong bipartisan recognition of the threat posed by nuclear terrorism and proliferation to the American leadership, no coordinated global effort existed to combat that danger. The administration is committed to changing that. In April, President Obama obtained firm commitments to lock down loose nuclear material from 47 countries within four years. Nearly 190 countries also agreed to a consensus resolution at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty review conference in May. And last month, a bipartisan group of senators on the Foreign Relations Committee approved the New START treaty to continue mutual reductions of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons. The treaty now goes to a vote in the Senate, and the president has said that its passage is a top priority over the coming months.

Iran’s nuclear program represents one of the most urgent nuclear nonproliferation tests the world faces today. Earlier this year, Turkey and Brazil attempted to facilitate a deal between Iran and the rest of the world aimed at advancing a diplomatic solution. But while Iran successfully engaged Turkey and Brazil, it also sidestepped the rest of the international community to avoid addressing important concerns about its nuclear program. Even if Iran were to send 1.2 tons of low-enriched uranium here to your country, enough will still be left in its possession to produce a nuclear warhead.

The international community must judge Iran on the basis of this reality. That is the straightforward reason why the United States and several other countries believed the deal did not provide sufficient confidence that it warranted abandonment of the effort to impose tough sanctions at the UN. It simply did not address the key concerns of the world community as expressed in multiple UN resolutions and by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Today Iran is the only member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty that cannot demonstrate the peaceful intentions of its nuclear program.

So where do things stand now on Iran’s nuclear program?

First, I want to emphasize that the United States welcomes real progress on the diplomatic front. The Obama administration views steady and consistent diplomacy as one of the most forceful tools of its national security policy, and it has employed an assertive diplomatic approach to lead global efforts on dealing with Iran’s nuclear program. It has consistently said that the door is open to talks if the Iranians agree to talk about the U.S. and the international communities’ core security concerns.

I also understand that Turkey and Iran have an important economic relationship that both countries seek to expand. But the consequences of a nuclear Iran on the region would be severely destabilizing and lead to a proliferation cascade that is a judgment that I believe that the United States and Turkey share. Although the ideal solution is a diplomatic one, Iran has not demonstrated that it is serious about negotiations and is not merely interested in stunts to delay. Maintaining a strict sanctions regime against Iran is necessary to accelerate this process.

As sanctions increase pressure on Iran, Turkey may be able to persuade Iran’s leadership to choose the path that the president has set forth, and engage in serious talks to help prevent its acquisition of a nuclear weapon and thus avoid the serious regional imbalance that would follow. Turkey has demonstrated that it has a unique ability to engage in the region to help make progress on long-standing conflicts, including in Iraq and Middle East peace. Turkey must continue to be an integral player as the world seeks to maintain nuclear stability in the Middle East.

That’s because both our countries share the same long-term strategic objective, despite our disagreement over the approach: ensuring that any nuclear program in Iran is verified for civilian purposes only agreed to by the P5+1 and regulated by international standards set by the International Atomic Energy Association, or IAEA. And that’s why for the stability of our countries’ long-term relationship, the Obama administration saw the differences in our approaches as a reason to increase, rather than decrease, our communication and engagement with Turkey—an opportunity to clear up any misunderstandings and demonstrate that Turkey remains a true ally and partner.

I know I have talked a long time about Iran, but it is a critical issue right now between our countries and particularly in the way Turkey is perceived by our Congress, so I’d like to make one more point about Iran before saying a few words about some of the additional security challenges and economic opportunities in the region. Aside from its nuclear ambitions, the other story that has played out across the world’s headlines has been Iran’s flawed elections last June and the repression that has followed. In his speech at the United Nations, President Obama said that “for human rights to reach those who suffer the boot of oppression, we need your voices to speak out.” In particular, the president went on to say, “I appeal to those nations who emerged from tyranny and inspired the world in the second half of the last century—don’t stand idly by, don’t be silent, when dissidents elsewhere are imprisoned and protesters are beaten … Part of the price of our own freedom is standing up for the freedom of others.” Although there is no simple response to the political discord and civilian abuses in Iran, countries who have triumphed over authoritarian rule should keep their own hard-fought rights and freedoms in mind when engaging with others who are suppressing their citizens’ full political potential.

In this vein, Turkey has made great contributions to the Iraqi people as they work to achieve their own potential after decades of oppression and isolation under Saddam Hussein’s regime. As the Obama administration has kept its pledge to withdraw combat forces from Iraq and continues its phased withdrawal of all troops, Turkey has played a key role in fostering greater stability in the region. Over the past three years, Turkish-Iraqi coordination has deepened on a wide range of issues, including addressing the instability caused by the PKK. Turkey’s efforts to significantly improve its relations with the leadership of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil are a forward-looking action that will help Turkey finally end the PKK threat and look toward greater cooperation and prosperity in the region. In addition, the Turkey-Iraq Strategic Cooperation Council has forged dozens of important, pragmatic bilateral agreements to enhance ties on security, energy, the economy, and water sharing, helping to facilitate Iraq’s reintegration with the rest of the world.

I also want to recognize Turkey’s commitment to a stable Afghanistan, the important role it’s playing, particularly in Kabul, and its pledge to increase the number of troops it has operating as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. But in addition to its military presence, Turkey has demonstrated a willingness to use diplomacy and development assistance to help achieve progress in South Asia as demonstrated by Prime Minister Erdogan’s current trip. Turkey has organized several valuable high-level trilateral summits between Turkey, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to promote cooperation on security issues, and Turkey has also made important investments in education reform in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Turkey has also undertaken courageous steps in its immediate neighborhood by moving towards normalizing relations with Armenia. This is a major priority for the Obama administration, and senior U.S. officials have spent considerable time in support of this initiative. Although diplomatic ties between Armenia and Turkey had been severed for almost 20 years, the Turkish government’s engagement on this issue and your public conversations about it are signs that change is possible.

Turkey and Armenia signed a historic roadmap in October 2009, with active U.S. involvement, that set a timetable for reopening the border and establishing diplomatic relations. It also created a binational commission tasked with examining the tragedy of 1915 in an open and cooperative manner. I think it is unfortunate that this process recently stalled, but it is my hope that we will see a revival of these initiatives soon, and that they will produce an agreement that can benefit Turkey, Armenia, and the region more broadly.

I’ve just mentioned some of the key areas of security cooperation between the United States and Turkey, but while we must certainly work together to solve common challenges, it is important that we also build a relationship that goes beyond jumping from flashpoint to flashpoint. To that end, President Obama has made expanding our economic relationship a priority. In my own view, deepening the economic relationship and the work you do as business leaders, and TUSKON does on behalf of the Turkish business community, are critical to strengthening the ties that bind the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Turkey has experienced an incredible transformation since President Clinton’s trip here in the aftermath of the Izmet earthquake eleven years ago. The Turkey President Clinton visited had a budget deficit of 16 percent of gross domestic product and inflation of 72 percent. Today, the budget deficit is shrinking and the economy is growing by 10 percent this quarter and by as much as 7 percent overall this year. In the second quarter of 2010, Turkey’s growth matched China’s in experiencing the fastest expansion among the G20 economies. Your country is closer to fulfilling the criteria for adopting the European currency than many countries already within the euro zone.

The U.S. supports and applauds Turkey’s economic rise. It follows that the economic relationship between our two countries should deepen as Turkey’s growth continues. Last December, Prime Minister Erdogan and President Obama unveiled a new policy structure, to be known formally as the "Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation," to strengthen economic ties between our two countries and supplement existing government exchanges. The new framework was established to ensure regular coordination and review of existing activities at a senior political level. Even though U.S. trade with Turkey has nearly doubled since the early 2000s, it still lags behind that of other regions so there is great opportunity for further growth in light of Turkey’s development as a market in its own right, and its role as an emerging center of business activity in the region.

Steady private sector involvement is a critical component of increasing U.S.-Turkish trade and investment. Francisco Sanchez, under secretary of commerce for international trade, and his Turkish counterpart, Under Secretary for Foreign Trade Ahmet Yakici, launched the U.S.-Turkey Business Council this summer to convene business leaders from both countries to cooperate on creating new policy mechanisms to enhance our bilateral trade ties. The Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation will meet next week, and the U.S.-Turkey Business Council later in the year, to move forward with institutionalizing our two countries’ economic relationship.

The framework will highlight increasing cooperation on energy efficiency projects, including a joint effort to develop a “Near Zero Energy Zone” in Turkey that will bring together Turkish and American companies and experts to create an industrial zone where businesses will implement the latest clean energy and energy efficient technologies and generate significant energy savings. The framework will also highlight an entrepreneurship summit that Turkey has agreed to host in the spring or summer of 2011 as a follow up on President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit that he hosted in Washington, D.C. in April. The Turkey summit is an important opportunity for the U.S. and Turkey to work together to expand partnerships in entrepreneurship in Muslim-majority countries, in less developed countries particularly in Africa, and around the world. Another important undertaking that will be discussed during the framework meeting is the September 27 opening of the New York State Istanbul Trade Office—the first U.S. state to have an office in Turkey. The office will allow New York to significantly expand commercial cooperation with Turkish companies, and demonstrates President Obama’s commitment to enhancing economic relations at both the federal and state levels.

These efforts reflect President Obama’s intention to revitalize U.S.-Turkish relations more broadly, strengthen economic and diplomatic ties, and seize upon the potential for reinforcing mutual prosperity. This is a tremendous opportunity for Turkey and the U.S. to work together to craft a new and lasting relationship that would benefit both sides.

But we have to do this in a world in which the old parameters of international affairs have changed dramatically since the end of the Cold War. The 20th century is over; we all approach an uncertain future together. This, to me, is a part of the fundamental lesson we must learn in the new century: that both our accomplishments and failures, and our challenges and opportunities, are entirely interdependent—even when countries are separated by time, distance, and culture.

Without collective action and shared effort, the international community has little hope of overcoming the growing number of challenges that are truly global in nature, whether they are rebuilding the economy, combating climate change, or promoting peace and stability regionally and around the world. Turkey, as a member of NATO and the OECD, as a democracy, and as a country at the crossroads between East and West, is a nation that’s influence and input will be necessary for progress on all of these fronts. It is my hope that both the United States and Turkey will work together to solve today’s problems while maintaining a commitment to a strong, stable, and productive partnership that extends far into the future. Based upon the common values that we share as democracies, both countries should and can strive to take advantage of renewed opportunities for cooperation going forward.

Thank you again very much for the opportunity to speak with you here today, and TUSKON for the invitation, and I’m happy to take any questions you might have.

John Podesta is the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.

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