Alliance reset? What to expect of U.S.-Turkish bilateral ties

Alliance reset? What to expect of U.S.-Turkish bilateral ties

Leslie Esbrook
Americans will go to the polls to elect their president for the next four years. Faced with a choice between incumbent Democrat Obama and the Republican candidate, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, it may be difficult to predict point blank the two candidates’ separate visions of the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

A portrait of the United States’ future relationship with Turkey almost need not be divided into two by political camp. Both Romney and Obama specifically mentioned our bilateral alliance as a necessary partnership to promote regional stability in the Middle East, while articulating a clear retreat from the U.S.’ cumbersome presence in the region over the past decade. Less-than-anticipated economic growth and job creation domestically have failed to offset the rising costs of foreign operations, causing the debt to steadily climb to its current level of over $16 trillion. In no uncertain terms this election rests on which candidate Americans believe will most alleviate domestic economic issues.

This means that for the imminent concern of Syria, Turkey may have to go it alone if it anticipates escalating action against the al-Assad regime. Both candidates eschewed the idea of sending troops to Syria; albeit Romney’s response was a bit more equivocal. Neither candidate referenced possible joint military operations (i.e. NATO), compared the situation to that of Libya (where NATO troops were employed) or spoke of the strong European Union-U.S. partnership that traditionally collaborates on issues of humanitarian concern. In other venues commentators have used the comparison of Syria and Libya to highlight the much larger hurdles to dispute resolution and regime overthrow in Syria as opposed to in Libya, most obviously great differences in population and size of country’s military troops. Such comparison suggested at least a theoretical consideration of intervention. In the foreign policy debate, the question was never broached.

A last point of interest for Turkey regards the commitment from both candidates to strengthen America’s relationship with Israel. Obama throughout the campaign has been accused of loosening the ties between America and Israel and, as Romney puts Obama on the defensive on this issue, Obama too has come out in strong support of showing clearer manifestations of American-Israeli cooperation. Obviously this has the possibility of straining American relations with Turkey to some degree. Although, closer ties with Israel on Middle Eastern policy matters may prompt the U.S. to put a premium on mediation between Turkey and Israel and lead to an alliance of three, at least for certain high priority matters such as Iran’s nuclear buildup.

All this is to say that the candidates’ positions do not indicate any foreseeable alliance reset with Turkey, nor do they indicate a foreseeable alliance boost. The degree of the relationship’s advancement in the coming years will depend on both how much Turkey wants the partnership to grow and Turkey’s independent foreign and domestic decisions. A less hegemonic United States gives Turkey greater freedom to assert its own dominance in places like Syria aimed to promote international peace. Still, Turkey may not have the resources or the desire to pursue such a leadership role without some sort of cushion of support from Western nations. Turkey’s new constitution, if successfully implemented, also has the possibility of attracting U.S. attention as a model for transitional states in the region. America would gladly seek guidance for its own foreign advising and diplomatic actions from a country that can create a constitution peacefully balancing democratic values and more culturally embedded religious values. If Turkey continues to relax its standards for conducting business and advertises its safety and security to investors, an influx of foreign investment, significantly American foreign investment, would strengthen bilateral ties in the private sector and trickle up to the public sector. Attracting American foreign investment would also recirculate wealth to America’s domestic economy and boost the middle class, bringing us back to the most valued policy goal of both candidates.

My prediction that any growth of our bilateral relationship hinges on Turkey’s choice of action is in itself a statement of praise for Turkey. A country without respect on the international stage and relative cohesion on its domestic front could never hope to be in a position to dictate the terms of its relationship with the world’s only remaining superpower. The candidates’ virtual agreement on foreign policy in the Middle East, as it concerns Turkey, also allows Turkey to plan its strategy without much pause for tears or elation on Nov. 7. But perhaps the best expectation, if we are to take candidates’ promises to reel in the wide-reaching arms of U.S. military operations seriously, is the hope that Turkish public perception of the United States can only improve. The next four years will undoubtedly bring challenges and hardships, but the prospect of a stable and promising bilateral alliance looms large.

Leslie Esbrook is a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School.