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The strategic relationship between the United States and Turkey—a decades-long partnership that has advanced both countries’ common interests—remains a key pillar in overall U.S. national security policy. Yet this vital alliance has suffered through serious strains in recent years, mostly due to ill will generated by the 2003 Iraq War. Today, this neglected alliance is in critical need of repair.
The incoming Obama administration has a unique opportunity to rebuild bilateral relations, but doing so will require significant steps by both Turkey and the United States. Repairing the relationship will necessitate closer coordination between the two governments on key policy questions directly related to Turkey’s geopolitical position astride Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
Demonstrable U.S. actions are necessary to address the Turkish people’s deeply unfavorable views about the United States. According to recent public opinion polls, Turks today have a less favorable opinion of the United States than do Russians, Chinese, and Pakistanis. As Turkey becomes increasingly democratic, these views of the United States at the popular level will affect the Turkish leadership’s strategic calculations.
Indeed, any effort to strengthen U.S.-Turkish relations will come at a time when Turkey is undergoing significant domestic transformations and facing major foreign policy challenges. The lack of progress in Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union has contributed to the country’s sense of alienation from the West, and made real the possibility of Turkey forging an independent path that is less aligned with Western interests.
Turkey’s role in the Middle East and Central Asia has evolved substantially as the altered strategic landscape in those regions has changed. What’s more, Turkey is undergoing its own political evolution as it tries to reconcile its longtime secular traditions with the increasing influence of a new, conservative religious elite. Turkey also is experiencing the rise of a pro-capitalist, conservative business class that represents a new center of political power in Turkey.
The incoming Obama administration has a unique opportunity to forge a new partnership with Turkey’s leaders, and should do so on three key fronts: the Middle East; the energy crossroads that Turkey occupies astride the Caucasus nations of Central Asia; and Europe.
All three of these fronts present their own separate challenges for U.S.-Turkish relations, but also offer opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation and progress. In the Middle East, Turkey’s leadership role has evolved on multiple fronts—Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Key policy actions for the United States regarding Turkey’s leadership role in the Middle East include:
- Establishing a strategic bilateral dialogue to formulate and advance a common set of interests and objectives for the Middle East, including those involving Iraq, Iran, and the Arab-Israeli conflict
- Continuing security cooperation with Turkey to address the threat posed by the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which both the United States and Turkey consider a terrorist group. This should be done while also encouraging Turkey, Iraq, and officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq to develop strong security, economic, and political ties that reaffirm the territorial integrity of Iraq and Turkey, and advance regional security
- Working more closely with Turkey in advancing multilateral and regional diplomatic and security initiatives aimed at stabilizing Iraq as the United States continues the redeployment of U.S. troops
- Encouraging Turkey and Israel to maintain their strong economic and military ties and offering support for Turkish efforts to facilitate dialogue between Israel and Syria
- Working closely with Turkey in an international effort to address Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s evolving regional role, taking advantage of Turkey’s unique position as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and its ties to both Israel and Iran
- Supporting Turkey’s continued contributions to stabilization and peacekeeping efforts in countries such as Lebanon and Afghanistan
As the United States works with Turkey in these key Middle Eastern arenas, the two countries also must keep a close eye on opportunities to advance bilateral cooperation in the energy crossroads of the Caucasus region. The war between Russia and Georgia in August 2008 underscored this area’s strategic importance, and the incoming Obama administration should encourage Turkey to continue developing itself as an energy conduit. Turkey’s location makes it a prime candidate for moving energy from the Caucasus and Central Asia while bypassing both Iran and Russia, both of whom may manipulate their control of supply routes. As it builds stronger cooperation on these fronts, the new administration should:
- Monitor historic tensions between Turkey and Armenia, calibrating its actions to acknowledge that Turkish and Armenian leadership have recently made moves to reconcile their differences
- Remain engaged with the oil- and natural gas-producing nations of Central Asia on the other side of the Caspian and Aral seas, which are seeking U.S. and Turkish help to export to Europe
Turkey’s future role within Europe is also a critical issue that will affect U.S. security and economic interests. EU member states will ultimately decide whether Turkey becomes a member of the European Union, but the Obama administration should play an intermediary role and continue to push for Turkey’s accession as past administrations have done. Key policy actions for the United States regarding Turkey’s evolving position in Europe include:
- Making Turkey one of the first stops on President Obama’s first European trip for face-to-face meetings with the Turkish prime minister and president. Our new president should make such a visit to Turkey within the context of a European as opposed to Middle Eastern trip to demonstrate that the United States considers Turkish membership in the EU and stronger ties to the West to be an important strategic objective
- Using diplomacy to persuade our European allies such as France and Germany to keep Turkey’s EU accession process moving forward and to abandon rhetoric that gives the impression that Turkey is not a proper cultural or religious fit for the EU
- Encouraging Turkey to drop its objections to the 2002 Berlin Plus Agreement, which authorizes the EU to use NATO assets and capabilities to support the creation of an EU rapid reaction force as part of a European Security and Defense Policy
- Working with U.N., EU, and Turkish and Cypriot leaders to make sure that discussions to resolve the long-standing dispute over Cyprus stay on track
- Encouraging Turkey to hasten its development of democratic institutions, freedoms, and reforms, which may help lessen the antagonism between the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP (its Turkish acronym), and its adversaries in parliament, the military, and the courts. Such democratic progress also may help prevent further legal action against the AKP, which could damage Turkey’s EU aspirations
- Increasing U.S. bilateral investment, business, educational, and cultural ties to the country regardless of Turkey’s status in the EU accession process
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Former Senior Fellow