Turkey and the West: Keep the Flame Burning

June 08, 2020
Ian Lesser Kadri Tastan
Galip Dalay
Valeria Talbot
4 min read

With relations between Europe and the United States going through an unprecedented crisis, Turkey’s long-standing place in the transatlantic alliance is increasingly being questioned and problematized. Turkish-Western relations have never been crisis-free but always prickly. As Ian Lesser puts it in this paper, there has never been a golden era for Turkey’s relations with the United States or the West in general. Nonetheless, a majority view now holds that the current crisis between them is different.

Yet, however prevalent the use of the term “crisis” in this context, there is not a shared and straightforward answer to the question of how to define it. And further questions have to be answered as to what is at the root of the crisis. Is it Turkey’s democratic regression? Is it the West’s lack of concern or sympathy for Turkey’s political and security challenges? Is it the decoupling of both sides’ threat perceptions and geopolitical aspirations? Is it a function of current leaders?

What makes the crisis in relations deeper and different than the ones, say, over the “Johnson letter” incident in 1964 or over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. What is different this time is also that these questions cannot be easily and satisfactorily answered.

As well as the plethora of unknowns in Turkish-Western relations, there are also new certainties. First, the deepening crisis is occurring at a time when the post-1945 international order, which was largely seen as the only game in town particularly in the aftermath of the Cold War, is either collapsing or increasingly on a shaky ground. There appears to be a close link between two phenomena. Second, though one should not downplay the role of the individual leaders, the crisis predates and will outlast the current ones, in particular President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Third, despite the periodic exasperated calls on both sides for breaking off ties, this is not a rational option. 

Both sides have too much to lose from a complete breakdown of relations. Having said this, the current framework for their relationship is outdated and not helpful. The status quo no longer works. Turkey’s place in the Western camp is questioned more than ever by all parties involved. However, pointing out what is not working is easier than saying what would work in its place. This is the challenge that any discussion on the future course of Turkish-Western relations faces. But, despite the difficulties involved, a debate on an alternative framework is sorely needed. 

However prevalent the use of the term “crisis” in this context, there is not a shared and straightforward answer to the question of how to define it.

Finally, Turkey’s ties with Europe and the United States alike are strained, but not always for the same reasons. Since late Ottoman period, Europe served as a reference point, if not a model, for Turkey’s modernization and the political and economic reorganization of the state. In more recent times, the European Union served as reference point for its domestic political transformation. In contrast, the United States has been a strong reference point for Turkey’s foreign and security policy since the country joined NATO. Unlike its multifaceted ties with Europe, Turkey’s relationship with the United States has largely remained unidimensional—essentially a security partnership.

This difference has largely informed the nature of the crises that Turkey has experienced with Europe and the United States. Whereas geopolitical divergence— be it on Syria, the Syrian Kurds, or Iraq—have mostly strained relations with the United States, domestic political factors and the Turkish diaspora have become the main contentious topics with Europe. However, that does not mean that domestic politics do not play much of a role in Turkish-U.S. relations. The United States’ tepid response to the coup attempt of 2016 and the arrest of the American pastor Andrew Brunson on tenuous and dubious charges caused a major storm in their relations. Likewise, as is becoming increasingly clear within the context of Eastern Mediterranean, geopolitical issues are set to put their imprint on Turkish-EU ties. Thus, separating foreign and domestic policy issues in Turkish-Western relations is increasingly futile. 

 This paper addresses these questions from the starting perspective that all sides need to keep the flame burning in relations between Turkey, the United States, and Europe. In the first section, Galip Dalay explains why both sides need a new framework for their relations. Next, Kadri Tastan explains the limits of Turkish-EU relations. In the third section, Ian Lesser address Turkish-U.S. relations. And finally, Valeria Talbot looks at how the Eastern Mediterranean is becoming an area of contention between the two sides.

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