October 16, 2010


What if Washington loses Ankara (and vice-versa)?

by Ariel Cohen*

Erdogan is jeopardizing Ankara's long-standing relations with the US. America is alarmed by Turkey's relations with Russia and its stance on Iran, Islamism and Israel. What should the United States do? And what role can the E.U. play?

1. U.S.-Turkish relations are in trouble – and so are Turkey’s relations with Europe. They are adrift and no one knows the destination. As a senior US military commander recently said at the Heritage Foundation briefing, “It will be a geopolitical disaster [for the U.S.], if Turkey slips apart from Europe and goes East.”
      For decades, Turkey and the United States cooperated in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, and even Korea. However, Turkish and U.S. interests in the Balkans, Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf have recently diverged. On its current trajectory, Turkey’s traditional strategic relationship with the West could devolve while Turkey enters into a closer relationship with Iran and other powers competitive with or hostile to U.S. global leadership.
      Commonly referred to as the West’s bridge to the Muslim world, Turkey has long been a key NATO partner and a strategic ally of Europe and the United States. On his first official state visit to Turkey, President Barack Obama singled out Turkey as a “strong, vibrant, secular democracy.” ( For decades, Turkey and the U.S. have cooperated in areas from the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf to Central Asia and even Korea.
      However, clashes between Turkish and U.S. strategic interests have recently emerged. These regard critical issues, especially the Middle East, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and Ankara's support of Iran and Hamas.
      In June 2010, Turkey openly defied its traditional allies by voting against a fourth round of U.N. sanctions against Iran. Further, the ruling Justice and Development Party (Akp) has displayed growing Islamist sympathies. Recent trends have raised legitimate questions about Turkey’s commitment to secular democracy as well as to Nato.
      U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stated that Turkey’s strategic drift away from the West is due in part to the European Union’s reluctance to grant Turkey full membership in the organization. (1) Nato Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen also criticized the European Union for its “unfair” treatment of Turkey. (2) The EU has sent mixed messages to Turkey, granting it candidate status but then ignoring Turkey’s progress in achieving the goals set out for accession.
       The United States, Turkey, Nato, and the Eu have shared regional interests, including the stability of the Caucasus, energy security, and increasing economic ties. To avoid losing such a partner, the West must revitalize their relations with Ankara. However, Turkey needs to play its part too. From the American point of view, Ankara should not undermine solid allies such as Israel while engaging dictators like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir.

2.    By distancing itself from Europe and the U.S. and reaching out to Russia and the Muslim world, Turkey aspires to become a pivotal, independent power in a multipolar world. This phenomenon, often described as “neo-Ottomanism,” (3) emerged at the end of the Cold War when Turkey no longer needed U.S. protection against the Soviet Union. (4) The gradual Islamization of Ankara’s foreign policy also plays a role. (5) Culture, Muslim identity, and affinity with the Muslim ummah (global community) affect the Akp’s worldview and, consequently, Turkey’s international behavior.

(12 Ottobre 2010)