Policy Roundtable: The Future of Turkey’s Foreign Policy

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: The ongoing disintegration of U.S.-Turkey relations has deep roots in problems inherent to Turkish, Russian and American politics that go beyond defense and security and will likely persist once the current conflict subsides.

For the first time since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey is playing “a central role in world affairs.” A series of conflicts has reminded the foreign policy establishment that “the security and politics of Turkey remain profoundly important to the rest of the world.”

Last year, Turkey piqued the ire of the American foreign policy establishment by fighting the Kurds -- American allies in the fight against ISIS -- in Syria, and then by accepting Russian military aid, despite being warned not to.

Though these are relatively recent flare ups, the ongoing disintegration of U.S.-Turkey relations has deep roots. In this roundtable, four preeminent Turkey scholars agree that “the erosion of U.S.-Turkish relations reflects fundamental issues in Turkish, Russian, and American politics that transcend the defense or security sectors.”

Lisel Hintz argues that the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the United States has its roots in both countries’ domestic politics. She argues that for years the United States has pursued policies “without apparent regard for Turkish desires,” and without a clear strategy. This is particularly problematic because Erdogan’s Turkey “does not share the same belief in Western identity and Western values as the United States does,” and may not share similar goals.

This lopsided strategy has stoked the fires of anti-Americanism within Turkey’s borders, further escalating the conflict. Hintz suggests that Turkey’s relationship with Russia “may be more pragmatic than ideological,” and that Russia (and Europe in general) prove that the United States could make headway with Turkey by treating them as an equal.

Michael Reynolds concurs that this international conflict has its roots in Turkish domestic politics, but “as the culmination of longstanding currents in Turkish politics,” not “a unique product of Erdogan’s populist politics.” Specifically, Reynolds argues that the U.S. foreign policy establishment fails to appreciate the contentious past our countries share, as well as the depth of Turkey’s relationship with Russia.

Reynolds observes that Russia supported Istanbul as early as 1832, and gave significant “financial and military aid” to the Turks during the 1919 war for independence. This alliance continued through the Soviet era, until Stalin’s demands for territory pushed Turkey to embrace Western allies. From this perspective, Turkey’s “budding” relationship with Russia is actually a return to normal, not a new development.

Paul T. Levin argues that Turkey’s adversarial stance towards the United States reflects Erdogan’s decision to act in his own self-interest -- not the country’s. According to Levin, “Heightening rather than easing tensions between the United States and Turkey serves to strengthen Erdogan’s support among his political base, and plays to a particular type of Turkish nationalism.”

Given this dynamic, Levin concludes that Turkey’s relationship with the United States will worsen as its relationship with Russia grows stronger. Levin goes as far to suggest that Turkey is being forced to choose sides in a nascent cold war between “liberal democracy and oligarchical authoritarianism,” represented by the United States and Russia, respectively.

Burak Kadercan echoes much of the aforementioned analysis, writing that the U.S.-Turkey alliance was, historically, a matter of convenience, and that “crises in U.S.-Turkish relations are more the rule than the exception.” He suggests that the two countries’ diverging positions on the Kurds, a divergence which has been exacerbated by “U.S. combat operations in Syria and Iraq,” are key to the roots of this conflict.

Despite diverging and disagreeing on several points, all four scholars in this roundtable agree that Turkish domestic politics are they key to understanding the country’s foreign policy choices, and that “the turbulent relationship between the United States, Turkey, and Russia is unlikely to become less dynamic any time soon.”

Read the full roundtable here.