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Transatlantic Take

Turkey and the West: A Relationship Unmoored?

5 min read
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BRUSSELS – The outcome of Turkey’s referendum on a presidential system underscores the extent to which Turkish society, politics, and external policy have changed in recent years.

BRUSSELS – The outcome of Turkey’s referendum on a presidential system underscores the extent to which Turkish society, politics, and external policy have changed in recent years. Not for the first time, Turkey risks coming adrift from its transatlantic moorings.  In some respects, Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism and strident nationalism mirrors developments elsewhere. Turkey and its transatlantic partners have entered an unstable and unpredictable period, driven by changes on all sides. Traditional measures of partnership may no longer apply, but partnership of a kind is still possible.

First, big projects are off the table. Leading European figures (not, notably, in Germany) have called for the formal suspension of EU accession negotiations with Ankara. The EU–Turkey relationship has been at an impasse for years. But after the presidential referendum, there is a sense that relations have reached a tipping point on both sides. Privileged partnership of some sort, rather than membership, is almost certainly the future for this once promising relationship. This is not to say that cooperation with Turkey is now less important. It is difficult to imagine Europe or the United States dealing with the durable chaos in Syria or Iraq without engaging Ankara. The refugee agreement with Turkey is certainly part of this equation. So is access to Incirlik airbase for coalition operations. But Turkey and its Western partners are moving into a far more transactional period, without the flywheel of a longer-term trajectory for cooperation. Under these conditions, EU–Turkish relations may come to look more like relations between Washington and Ankara — security-heavy and unpredictable.

Second, the measures of partnership have become harder edged. Shared values have always been part of the Western discourse with Turkey. This discourse has never been easy. Cold War realities obscured abuses when Turkey’s military ran the show, more or less overtly. Today, with some 150 journalists in prison and a sweeping purge of opponents and perceived opponents underway across Turkey, the state of Turkish democracy and human rights should be a pressing concern. It will be a hard issue for Western partners to press. Having just won new presidential powers, however narrowly, President Erdogan and the AK Party leadership are in no mood for criticism. All sides have much to lose from the breakdown of cooperation on practical matters. Yet, Turkey’s slide away from transatlantic norms is likely to be corrosive of predictable relations over the longer term. Many of Turkey’s most active strategic advocates in the West are openly dismayed by recent developments in Turkey.

Third, the potential for fundamental, strategic estrangement from the West cannot be dismissed. Ankara has flirted with such alternatives for years. Some, like Ahmet Davutoglu, the former foreign minister and prime minister, have been more comfortable with Turkey’s Ottoman and Muslim identity. Nationalists have emphasized Turkey’s ability to go it alone, echoing the unilateralist strain in U.S. policy. A “Eurasianist” cohort, including some in senior military circles, looks to align with Russia and the Central Asian republics. They all reject the view that the West is a natural font of strategic wisdom. These inclinations have practical consequences, visible in Ankara’s cooperation with Russia and Iran over safe havens in Syria, and negotiations for the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system — an odd political and operational choice for a NATO ally.

President Erdogan’s upcoming meeting with President Trump in Washington, scheduled for May 16, will be a key test. Movement on the central bilateral disputes is possible, but will be difficult. Whatever the administration’s inclinations regarding Fethullah Gulen, the U.S.-based cleric alleged to have fomented the failed Turkish military coup in July 2016, the request for his extradition remains a legal rather than a political question. President Trump will face the same constraints as his predecessor here. Turkey’s insistence that the United States abandon its support for the YPG (Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units), a militia that has been a principal partner for U.S. forces in the struggle against ISIS, is an even tougher demand to make of an administration that has put this effort at the top of the security agenda. As the battle for Raqqa looms, the Trump administration has announced that it will begin arms transfers to the YPG. Compromise formulas addressing Turkey’s longer-term concerns about Kurdish intentions are conceivable in the service of a shared interest in counterterrorism, even if Ankara and Washington differ over policy on the ground. Steps can be taken to reduce the growing risk of accidental clashes where Turkish, U.S., and Russian forces, and their proxies, operate in close proximity.

President Trump may not give priority to questions of democracy and media freedom in Turkey, preferring to focus on the regional security agenda. But the domestic situation in Turkey is unavoidable, and will infuse the broader debate around the visit. The two leaders would do well to focus on Cyprus, where a potential settlement is possible and could bring some good news to a region mired in conflict. Resolution is impossible without Ankara’s support, and unlikely without Washington’s. Erdogan could also be convinced to buy American rather than Russian when it comes to air defense. Above all, the meeting will be a test of chemistry between two outspoken leaders notable for their sovereignty conscious outlook and their inclination to personalize foreign policy. The outcome could shape the trajectory of Turkish–Western relations for some time to come.