REVIEW: Article

The State and Future of US-Turkish Relations

Late last year, there was an important change in government in Turkey, traditionally a close ally and partner of the United States (US). In March, US-Turkish ties were strained by Turkey’s failure to allow US forces to invade Iraq from Turkish soil. What have these changes done to relations between the two countries?  Where is this relationship headed?

Strategic Partnership

During the late 1990s, the United States and Turkey worked together with unprecedented closeness and effectiveness to deal with a wide range of emerging challenges and opportunities.

Among their common achievements were making the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline a reality; protecting Muslim minorities in the Balkans; rolling up the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) inside Turkey and supporting the cause of Middle East peace. Even on issues where perspectives were quite different—like Iraq—solutions were found that accommodated each side’s interests.

In November 1999, President Bill Clinton gave this phenomenon a name, “strategic partnership.” Regardless of terminology, the impact on mutual perceptions in both countries was striking. Polls at the time consistently showed that Turks viewed Americans as their best friends abroad. And in America, Turkey’s image as a reliable ally was finally gaining ground on its reputation as the setting for the film, “Midnight Express.”

Lost Ground

It is safe to say that the relationship has lost ground since, particularly since Turkey’s Parliament on March 1, 2001, failed to authorize the transit of US forces through Turkish territory to invade Iraq.

Polls released earlier this year suggest well over 50 percent of Turks today view American policies as the single greatest threat to Turkey’s security. Similarly, the typical reaction of average Americans when the subject of Turkey arises is to ask how such “good friends” could have let America down last spring.

The proximate cause of this dramatic shift was the US decision to depose Saddam Hussein.

Turks typically view that decision as legally questionable, as a dangerous precedent, and as ill-advised from a geo-strategic perspective. Their doubts have been reinforced by the US’s inability promptly to restore order and essential public services in Iraq. There is a widespread suspicion that Turkish firms are being excluded from programs to rebuild Iraq in order to punish Turkey for the March 1 vote, and that future US economic aid has been conditioned on Turkey’s agreeing to dispatch troops to Iraq.  Suspicions remain that ultimately the US will accept an outcome in Iraq that leads to the establishment of a de jure or de facto independent Kurdish state.

On the US side, it is clear that, despite disclaimers, official confidence has been shaken that Turkey can be relied upon in the future to play the kind of role that it has in the past in places like Somalia, Kosovo or Afghanistan. There is a lingering sense that Turkey overplayed its hand in negotiations preceding the March 1 vote. And one can hear persistent speculation that Ankara is using the Turkomen population in northern Iraq to pursue a hidden agenda.

It would be easy to conclude, based on things that have been said or whispered in Ankara and Washington since March, that this is a relationship on the rocks—or dangerously close to them.

Reality Check

The reality is nowhere near as dire.

First, with respect to Iraq:

  • Ankara has as much at stake in Iraq’s coming out right as does Washington. That gives it a strong incentive to work with us there. And Turkish officials have repeatedly made clear their readiness to do just that.
  • At both the official and unofficial level, Turkey has made important contributions during and since the war to helping meet Iraq’s humanitarian and practical needs.
  • Turkish firms are, in fact, competing successfully for tenders by US prime contractors in Iraq.
  • On the US side, meanwhile, it appears simply not to be true that Washington has conditioned new loans to Turkey on any specific quid pro quo regarding Iraq.
  • And US actions, by and large, are consistent with its public commitments before and since the war to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity.

Moreover, as policymakers in Washington and Ankara wrestle with the long-term implications of the dynamics unleashed on September 11, 2001, two in particular will concentrate their minds.

  • Turkey will have to come to terms with the fact that America has moved in next door, is likely to remain in the neighborhood a long time, and has brought with it an agenda that will have an important impact on Turkish interests;
  • America will inevitably find, as the focal point of its strategic thinking is inexorably drawn to the region surrounding Turkey and to the Muslim world more generally, that we will have to work either with Turkey or around Turkey.

Both sides are likely to conclude, in most cases, that “with” is a better solution than “around.”

Which gets us to the Turkish Parliament’s October 7 decision to authorize Prime Minister Erdogan to accede to the Bush administration’s earlier request that Turkey deploy troops to Iraq.

Turkish Troops to Iraq?

There are those in both America and Turkey who see a Turkish decision to send troops to Iraq as a panacea for US-Turkish relations. There are grounds, in fact, to question that judgment.

In Washington, Turkey’s positive decision has no doubt restored some of the luster scuffed off the relationship last spring.  At a minimum, it demonstrates that Erdogan is able to deliver on tough issues in a way his immediate predecessor was not last March. That is an important fact.

But it is already clear that the October 7 decision will prove less than the boon for bilateral relations that some had predicted. Even as Turkey’s Parliament was voting, reports out of Baghdad suggested strong opposition within Iraq’s US-appointed Governing Council to the deployment of Turkish units to Iraq. American efforts since to gloss over such protests highlight a dilemma Washington will find hard to resolve: how to take Turkey’s “yes” for an answer without alienating new friends in Baghdad. Even if the Iraqis can be brought around, one can anticipate that on a whole host of issues that will arise in the months ahead (e.g., on Iraq’s new constitution), Ankara’s views may well be different from those of the Iraqis on whom American administrators will be devolving increasing authority and responsibility. With (lots of) boots on the ground, Turks will expect their views to carry more weight than many Iraqis, or American administrators in Baghdad, may find desirable.

Then there is the question of casualties. Within hours of Parliament’s decision to authorize deployment of forces to Iraq, a car bomb exploded outside Turkey’s Baghdad Embassy. If Turkish forces deploy to Iraq, they will be targets. Turks are hard to intimidate. But rising casualty figures will do little to refurbish Washington’s sagging image among Turkey’s general public.

As of this writing, it is not clear that Turkish troops will go to Iraq. Reflecting some of the considerations noted above, Washington has not leapt to accelerate the planning process necessary to get them there. Turkish leaders, for their part, have suggested they have no burning interest in going where they are not wanted.* This is, clearly, still work in progress.

Looking Ahead

What does all this mean for the future of the relationship? Obviously, a lot depends on how Iraq comes out.  Both countries have important interests there. As the example of potential Turkish deployments suggests, there is plenty of scope for misunderstanding, or worse, that could affect the tone and substance of the relationship for years to come.

But even without knowing how Iraq will turn out, one can confidently predict that US-Turkish relations will be qualitatively different in the future from what they were during the era of classic “strategic partnership,” or indeed during the past 50 years.

The reason for that has to do with two fundamental shifts in the underlying dynamics of the bilateral relationship that have not been fully digested in either Ankara or Washington.

The first, on the US side, is a function of the fall of Saddam Hussein.

When Saddam disappeared last April, so did the relevance of the concept of “containment” as it applied to Turkey. Containment of the Soviet Union, of course, was the core of US foreign policy for four decades. Containment of Saddam Hussein was a top priority for US foreign policy for a decade more. Turkey was essential to both objectives.  And that enabled Turkey from 1949 until this spring consistently to box above its weight here in Washington, in terms of the quality and level of the official attention it commanded.

The post-Iraq War phase of US-Turkish relations will be unique in their recent history in that—with the possible exception of a nuclear-armed Iran—there is no overarching threat for the US to contain from Turkey. Circumstances will arise where Turkish cooperation is useful. Circumstances will arise where Turkish cooperation is important. But it is difficult to envision circumstances today in which Turkey’s contribution will be essential in the same sense that it was in containing the USSR and Saddam. That can’t help but make a difference in the way Washington looks at Turkey in the future.

On the Turkish side, the big change is a function of Turkey’s evolving relationship with Europe.

After some mixed signals in the late nineties, Europe, at last December’s Copenhagen European Union (EU) summit, promised Ankara an up-or-down decision by the end of 2004 on opening negotiations for EU membership. That is the single biggest fact in Turkish political life today. A commitment to grasp that opportunity was at the core of the successful election campaign last fall of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (or “AK”) Party. It is AK’s highest priority today. Overwhelming popular support for that goal has given AK the parliamentary majority and self-confidence necessary to pass reforms that have the potential radically to transform Turkish politics and society, including in such previously taboo realms as the status of Turkey’s military.

Will the EU give Turkey a green light?  It is too early to tell. But as this drama plays out, Ankara seems likely to be more closely attuned to European views than has been the case in the recent past. For some Americans, especially those who have held up a special relationship with the US as a viable alternative to EU membership, that may take some getting used to.

The Bottom Line

Do the end of “containment” on the American side, and a growing preoccupation with Europe on the Turkish, mean “worse” US-Turkish relations?  No.  Just different ones.

For reasons described above, America’s relationship with Turkey will remain a “strategic” one. More often than not, the two countries will find themselves working as “partners,” whether or not they formally use that terminology.

One can even envision circumstances under which Turkey could regain the pride of place in American strategic thinking that it enjoyed for the past 50 years.

The key to such an achievement, I have argued elsewhere, is for Turkey to close the gap between the potential that analysts have identified there for years and a reality that never quite measures up. In an epoch that America’s enemies would like to make a clash of civilizations, a Turkey that is democratic, prosperous, internally harmonious—in a word, “successful”—will be a compelling fact.  In Washington. Or Europe. Or for that matter in Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran.

The economic, political and other reforms that have been undertaken by Turkey’s previous and current government, if carried to fruition, could produce such a Turkey in the years ahead. That would create a solid foundation for a bilateral relationship that would serve US and Turkish interests as well in the future as “strategic partnership” did in the late nineties.*

* Editor’s Note: On November 4, Turkey announced that its proposal to send troops to Iraq was still on the table; however, it also said that it would not send soldiers without a clear invitation from Iraq’s Governing Council. The Washington Post reported on November 6 that Jalal Talabani, Iraq’s Governing Council President, “gave a final rejection [on November 5] to a proposed deployment…[stating,] “‘The question of sending Turkish troops is closed.’”

* Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from testimony by Ambassador Parris before the US House of Representatives International Relations Committee’s hearings on “Turkey’s Future Direction and US-Turkey Relations,” on October 1, 2003.

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United States Ambassador to Turkey, 1997-2000