A Dual Framework for the Turkey-U.S. Security Relationship

March 19, 2021
5 min read


This paper identifies key elements of a potential new strategic framework for the security relation­ship between Turkey and the United States. Despite both being NATO members, their relationship is increasingly transactional, with shared interests on some issues, potential for convergence on others, and substantial disagreement on quite a few. Four prob­lems breed their widening strategic divergence: an obsolete framework for governing the relationship, a trust deficit, weakened institutional ownership, and weakened popular support.

Some have suggested a reset based on a grand bargain to resolve the different disputes between Turkey and the United States. However, this is unreal­istic because disagreement over issues is the symptom rather than the cause of their strategic divergence. Moreover, the purely transactional approach that has emerged and been recommended recently cannot provide a sustainable framework either. Others argue for a decoupling. However, this would have sustained consequences for both countries as it would be highly difficult for either to find a substitute for their current security relationship.

The main challenge facing Turkey and the United States is to find a new modus operandi between the old strategic partnership framework and pure transaction­alism. Doing so will avoid mutually hurting collisions, minimize costs, and prevent negative spillovers of issue-based divergence to the treaty-based NATO alli­ance that should remain the core of their relationship.

This paper proposes a dual framework that intro­duces “structured transactionalism”—a flexible yet institutionalized form of bilateral engagement—to supplement the NATO core of the U.S.-Turkish security relationship by offering fresh perspective to manage specific policy issues. This may provide a better foundation for the United States to elicit Turkey’s cooperation while accommodating its quest for strategic autonomy. Likewise, the continuation of some form of multilateral, long-term commitment on a more flexible platform would serve Turkey’s secu­rity interests better as it needs coalitions to realize its interests.

Under the proposed dual framework, the core of the Turkey-U.S. security relationship will continue to function through the existing strategic partner­ship within NATO. At the nucleus of the core is the Article 5 collective-defense commitment. Moreover, there are also core issues such as defense planning that are directly tied to NATO’s main competences as well as other issues the allies agree collectively to govern within NATO framework. The Article 5 nucleus needs to be kept free from policy contestation. Beyond it, Turkey and the United States may experience conver­gence, divergence, or negotiation on issues belonging to the core, which will be managed within NATO framework.

The issues in the Turkey-U.S. security relationship can be examined in two distinct dimensions to map out where each falls in current practice. Different issues may produce unique challenges based on their specific position in this classification, and the frame­work is useful for seeking ways to approach them.

Governance Framework: Issues can be classi­fied based on whether they fall within the core or secondary area of the relationship. Those deemed to fall into the NATO core can still be managed through the strategic partnership, while those in the secondary area can be managed by structured transactionalism. There are also “issues in-between” on which the two countries disagree about whether they fall within the core or outside it.

Policy contestation: Depending on where the two countries stand on a specific issue, there arise different degrees of policy contestation. This leads to the pres­ence of areas of convergence—where they largely agree on, areas of negotiation—where they have some differences despite overall agreement, and areas of divergence—where they deeply disagree.

A large part of the agenda between Turkey and the United States will continue to involve issues outside of NATO’s remit. These “secondary issues” could be governed through structured transactionalism with the following objectives in mind. With regard to secondary issues falling into the areas of convergence, Turkey and the United States should continue to cooperate, and use this to demonstrate how a cooper­ative approach provides benefits to both. With regard to the secondary issues falling into areas of negoti­ation, they should cooperate as much as they can and continue to negotiate to bridge their remaining differences so that some can be moved to the areas of convergence. Finally, with regard to issues falling into the areas of divergence, the two countries should focus on crisis-prevention mechanisms to avoid colli­sions that could make cooperation on other issues more difficult.

Policy Recommendations

Introduce regular strategic reviews: Turkey and the United States should craft mechanisms of consulta­tion and policy coordination before the outbreak of crises. This would provide more resilient, effective, and prompt crisis-response capability as well as the flexibility needed for ad hoc security cooperation on various issues.

Revisit the institutional ownership: Turkey and the United States should review the relevant policymaking mechanisms, starting from the presidential offices and foreign policy apparatus and expanding toward defense and security agencies, and eventually other stakeholders to develop a robust institutional mech­anism. The legislative bodies should also be involved.

Invest in confidence-building measures: Turkey and the United States should invest in confidence-building measures and revisit the overreliance on coercive diplomacy against each other. They should focus on defense industry cooperation.

Cooperate where possible, fix what is fixable, and manage divergence: Turkey and the United States should adopt a more realistic approach to manage issues based on different modalities applied to different ones instead of a “one size fits all” formula.

Coordinate engagement with third parties: Turkey and the United States should rethink ways to manage their engagements with third parties, in view of how the use of proxies has become a new normal in Turkey’s security environment.

Watch overlapping contentions: Turkey and the United States should beware the issues where they disagree substantively and also contest over whether issues belong to the core of their relationship or are secondary, lest these turn into make-or-break issues.

While the United States and Turkey need to manage their divergences on secondary issues, the current S-400 crisis is a make-or-break test and it would be hard to manage it within any framework. Until both countries make a genuine commitment to the alliance and help address it within such a spirit, it will remain as a toxic issue.

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