Talking Turkey

President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe this week has been a crucial step in resetting U.S. foreign policy and reviving America’s image and power around the world. But the last leg of his trip to Turkey offers an important chance for the new U.S. administration to restore the neglected U.S.-Turkish alliance, the title of a report we released in December.

The Group of 20 summit in London, the NATO summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, and the EU-U.S. summit in Prague dominate the headlines today, but the fact that President Obama is including stops in Ankara and Istanbul during his first overseas trip is an important sign, and making such a visit as part of a European—rather than Middle Eastern—trip is a key recommendation we made in our report. By doing so, Obama is signaling that the new administration views Turkey first and foremost as part of Europe, and that Turkish accession to the European Union is a key strategic objective.

In contrast to the summitry of his three other stops, the president’s Turkey visit will focus more on reaching out to a key ally and its people, which is greatly needed. According to recent public opinion polls, Turks in recent years have had a less favorable opinion of the United States than Russians, Chinese, and Pakistanis. A Pew poll last year found that only 12 percent of Turks had a positive opinion of the United States. That’s why it’s good news that while Obama is in Ankara he will be reaching out to people by holding a roundtable meeting with students in Istanbul, among other things.

Repairing an alliance damaged by the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq and rhetorical excess will be the most important priority of Obama’s visit, but the United States should use the trip to push forward on several issues involving Turkey and the critical regions. In particular, the Obama administration should:

  • Encourage Turkey’s constructive engagement in Iraq. In the past two years, the Turkish and Iraqi governments have made great strides in advancing bilateral cooperation, signing a security cooperation agreement in 2007 on the divisive question about how to handle the Kurdish terrorist organization known as the PKK, which operates on both sides of the Turkey-Iraq border. Just last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul made the first trip by a Turkish head of state to Iraq in 30 years. In a sign of improved relations after repeated military incursions since the end of 2007, Gul met with the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, Nechirvan Barzani, in Baghdad—an indication of growing acceptance of the KRG in Ankara. President Obama needs to encourage Turkey to continue on this constructive path as U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq before the end of 2011.
  • Obtain Turkish support for a broader international effort to address Iran’s nuclear program. Turkey and Iran have strong economic and energy ties. Having Turkey on board in whatever effort the Obama administration is mustering to address Iran’s nuclear program will be vital.
  • Assist Turkey in developing itself as an energy crossroads. As the United States works with Turkey in these key Middle Eastern arenas, the two countries must keep a close eye on opportunities to advance bilateral cooperation in the energy crossroads of the Caucasus region. The Obama administration should 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.
  • Support recent signs of Turkish-Armenia rapprochement. During the past year, a thaw in Turkish-Armenian relations has emerged, with diplomats from both countries holding meetings aimed at normalizing relations. In talks with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Gul, President Obama should—as we recommended in our report—emphasize U.S. diplomatic and political support for the effort to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia. Doing so would be especially important now, as Turkey and Armenia are reportedly on the verge of announcing a deal to restore ties.
  • Champion EU accession. While the Obama administration’s early visit to Turkey is an excellent way to demonstrate our support for Turkish accession to the European Union, the United States should continue to be a strong advocate over the coming months and years. The administration should use 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 European Union. In addition, the United States should work with United Nations, the European Union, and Turkish and Cypriot leaders to make sure that discussions to resolve the long-standing dispute over Cyprus, which has been a major obstacle to Turkish accession, stay on track.
  • Increase bilateral ties. The Obama administration should put a high priority on increasing U.S. bilateral investment, business, educational, and cultural ties to the country regardless of Turkey’s status in the EU accession process.

The Obama administration has a keen opportunity in 2009 to reawaken the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership and update it to reflect new challenges in the Middle East, Europe, Russia, and the Caucasus. It will require much effort and a new acceptance of Turkey as an independent actor who will occasionally disagree with American policy and philosophy. But bringing Turkey closer to the West is worth the effort and will pay major dividends in the years to come.

Spencer P. Boyer is Director of International Law and Diplomacy at the Center for American Progress. Brian Katulis is a Senior Fellow at the Center. Their report, “The Neglected Alliance: Restoring U.S.-Turkey Relations to Meet 21st Century Challenges,” is available on our website.