REVIEW: Article

United States and Turkey: Common Purposes in a Critical Region

In 1947, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan initiated the transformation of US-Turkish relations into an alliance. Turkey’s importance for us in the Cold War derived from its location on Europe’s southeast flank, between the USSR and an increasingly significant Middle East. Sixty years later, Turkey flanks a new arc of instability that runs from Syria and the Middle East through Iraq and Iran to the Caucasus. It is also unique as a stable, prosperous, free and democratic ally with a predominantly Muslim population. The United States has a profound stake in the success of Turkey and in partnership with it on our many common goals.

Friendship to Alliance

US-Turkish relations date to 1800. Only 24 years after the signing of our Declaration of Independence, the USS George Washington sailed into Istanbul on a mission to end raids against American shipping by Barbary pirates living at the Ottoman Empire’s edge. In 1830, our countries signed a treaty of commerce and navigation. American missionaries and teachers followed our traders. Robert College and other American schools and hospitals that exist to this day in Izmir, Tarsus and elsewhere reflect that history. Our ties with the new Turkish Republic were consolidated in part by Ambassador Joseph Grew, a former Under Secretary of State who helped establish the US Foreign Service and later played a key role in US East Asia policy before and after World War II.

1947 transformed our relations. Soviet threats against Turkey and Communist-led unrest in Greece 60 years ago led President Truman to declare that:

“[I]t must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

He made clear our strong political support for Turkey and Greece, and he called for unprecedented assistance on a large scale for them and later for Europe as a whole. US economic and security assistance to Turkey under the Marshall Plan and since has totaled the equivalent of $57 billion in 2005 dollars. We supported Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952. These and other Turkish, US and allied efforts built the infrastructure of freedom and security that won the Cold War.

Turkey’s immense strategic importance was and is dictated by geography and politics. President Truman understood Turkey’s value where southeast Europe and the Middle East adjoined the USSR. Its neighborhood today is arguably even more critical to US interests. Turkey was obviously important, too, for the democratic, Western-oriented path it was put on by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and those who came after him. Today, its successful, prosperous, multi-party, secular democratic society is an inspiration for the region and beyond.

US-Turkish Relations Today

A modern template for US-Turkish relations is the “Shared Vision and Structured Dialogue” paper released by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and then-Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul in July 2006. A roadmap for collaboration, it sets out a dozen top priorities and strengthens our dialogue for work on them.

No problem looms as large—for the United States, for Turkey, and in US-Turkish relations—as Iraq. Criticism and debate over US/Coalition involvement there has been heated from the outset and remains so. Turkey fears long-term instability or even the dissolution of Iraq and the implications for the Iraqi people, Iranian influence and radical al-Qaeda style terrorism. Iraq issues are even existential to many Turks. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorism, organized and supported in part out of remote encamp-ments along the Turkish border in northern Iraq, accounted for some 700 dead in the past 18 months—and 35,000 lives lost over the last 20 years.

Despite these and other complications, Turkey wants what we and the elected Iraqi leadership seek: a secure, unified and prosperous Iraq. Turkey is strongly supportive of its neighbor, the United States and the Coalition. In 2005, Ankara played a key role in eliciting Iraqi Sunni support for the new constitution and participation in the December elections, and its efforts on behalf of Sunni political engagement have continued. Turkish authorities support a massive logistics chain that brings fuel and other vital supplies for Iraq and Coalition forces there through its ports, the Habur Gate border crossing and Incirlik Air Base. Turkey has provided training, humanitarian, medical and other assistance to the new Iraq. Its business presence is surely the largest of any foreign investor and partner.

Iran is also a key topic in work our two countries do together. We agree that Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would be dangerous and destabilizing. Turkey has supported US, EU and UN efforts on the issue. It backed the proposed way forward for Iran made by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany in June 2006. It has taken a strong line despite potential complications for other Turkish interests. Turkey relies on Iran for 15 percent of its natural gas, depends on routes through Iran for the truck trade that helps sustain Central Asia, and values the million Iranian tourists who visit each year—and gain exposure to a free, democratic society. Potential Turkish energy cooperation with Iran is one area where we may see things differently, and we will work through this. One thing is clear: Turkey’s support for and involvement in international efforts to deal with Iran will be critical to their success.

Long a victim of terror, especially at the hands of the PKK, Turkey has been a leader internationally in the fight against terrorism, including al-Qaeda, and in helping post-Taliban Afghanistan to succeed. We have for years helped Turkish authorities go after the PKK in Turkey and elsewhere. We have helped engender a new focus on the terrorism and organized crime implications of PKK fundraising and other activities in Europe. Retired US General Joe Ralston has served for the last year as US special envoy for countering the PKK, strengthening our bilateral collaboration and working toward combined US-Turkey-Iraq efforts to address the organization’s sanctuaries in northern Iraq. In a reprise of Ataturk’s historic help to newly-independent Afghanistan in the 1920s and 1930s, Turkey leads a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Wardak province, has twice commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), and currently leads security forces in the greater Kabul region. It is in the midst of a five-year, $100 million aid program for the Afghan people.

Ankara has excellent relations with Israel, as well as with the Palestinian Authority headed by President Abbas. The Ankara Forum brings together Palestinian and Israeli business and political leaders. Through it, Turkey is seeking to establish industrial zones at Erez in Gaza and, more recently, at a location in the West Bank as a focus for investment, job creation and regional cooperation. Turkey also supports Lebanon and the government of Prime Minister Siniora. It has been involved from the outset in the Broader Middle East and North Africa initiative. While we have differed on high-level contacts with Syria and Hamas, we share the same goals in the Middle East—especially the vision of two democratic states, Israeli and Palestinian, living side-by-side in peace and security.

Our countries also want the same things for the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus: security, democracy and prosperity. We have worked together and with key regional players to develop Caspian basin oil and gas resources and infrastructure to bring those resources to market. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline that began operations in 2006 is one fruit of that effort, and an east-west gas corridor to Turkey and European markets beyond is next in line. Energy, the Caucasus and Central Asia have figured prominently in our bilateral consultations throughout 2006 and 2007.

The United States and Turkey share the goal for Cyprus of a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation achieved through a peacefully negotiated settlement that is acceptable to majorities on both sides of the island. We strongly supported the plan developed in 2003-2004 by then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. We are committed to achieving a comprehensive settlement as soon as possible under the auspices of the United Nations.

As this is being written, the oft-proposed Congressional resolution regarding the forced exile and death of many, many Ottoman Empire Armenian citizens during World War I hangs over US-Turkish relations. The history is obviously difficult and needs to be dealt with sensitively. The late Turkish-Armenian writer Hrant Dink advised that “Turkish-Armenian relations should be taken out of a 1915 meters-deep well”—away from the traumas of the past and toward reconciliation. He believed that foreign determinations on the events of 1915, and especially use of condemnatory language, poison and foreclose the prospects for mutual understanding and reconciliation. The Bush administration, like its predecessors, strongly opposes political determinations on the terminology of this tragedy, believes that judgments about it belong to historians, and hopes to see Turks and Armenians proceed with the task of reconciliation and building a new future for them-selves and the region.

Domestic Scene

2007 has been immensely important for Turkey domestically. It was obvious in January that the year’s presidential and parliamentary elections would be important bell-wethers of the country’s future development. Events bore out that expectation. The ruling Justice and Development Party won a strong victory in July polling for parliament. Its candidate, outgoing Foreign Minister Gul, secured the presidency in August.

Many challenges remain ahead for Turkey. The government’s revived electoral mandate, a parliament that is more broadly representative of the Turkish electorate than its predecessor, and this country’s commitment to representative democracy that events in 2007 reconfirmed give one confidence about Turkey’s prospects for meeting those challenges. So does the priority attached by President Gul and other leaders to EU accession-related political and economic reforms, in which the United States has a strong interest.


Turkey’s immense strategic importance is defined by geography and politics. Its prosperity, strong democratic institutions and positive influence throughout the region are the fruits of work by Turkish citizens over many years. They also reflect a consistent US commitment that President Truman advocated 60 years ago to support “free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.” As Turkey deals with its past and shapes its future, our countries must—and will—remain strong partners in advancing freedom, democracy, prosperity and peace in the region and in the world.

Issue Date


United States Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey