Businesspeople come to the rescue of ties with US

Businesspeople come to the rescue of ties with US

Wars were always a part of Turkish-Russian history, and the two countries have spent at least half a century during the Cold War in rival hostile camps.

One of the major turning points that started to transform the relationship was Turkey’s decision to purchase gas from Russia. With the end of the Cold War, the exponentially increasing economic cooperation became the main dynamic determining bilateral ties. Currently, a military component is about to be added to the relations that are being frequently called “strategic partnership” by both Russian and Turkish leaderships.

Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400 anti-ballistic missile system from Russia will not only take Turkish-Russian relations to a different level, but it might come at the risk of drastically affecting Ankara’s ties with the Trans-Atlantic alliance.

In contrast to Russian-Turkish history, Turkey and the U.S. enjoyed good relations historically, and being members of the Trans-Atlantic alliance made them strategic allies.

Political/military cooperation has for decades been the main dynamic defining ties during the Cold War and the decade that followed it. Economic ties remained the missing leg of the relations and Ankara started especially in the 1990’s to complain about this weak part in the relationship. Yet, for a long time, Turkey’s purchase of military equipment remained the main bulk of the economic dimension.

As a result, whenever U.S.-Turkish relations bumped into some political crisis (let’s say due to the Armenian or Greek lobby or due to human rights violations), the representatives of the military establishment (the Pentagon) or military industry stepped in to mediate or put pressure on each capital to solve the problems.

This is now changing. The main turning point came during the U.S. intervention in Iraq, when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) refused the U.S.’s request to pass from Turkey, leaving a deep sense of resentment at the Pentagon. What used to be an ally in the U.S. capital might no longer be reliable.

The need for crisis management

Currently, businessmen want to fill the gap and assume the role of consolidating the relations and weathering the storm. Indeed, the U.S. is threatening to suspend the delivery of the F-35 fighter jets if the purchase of the S-400s will go ahead, and as delivery is expected this summer, relations are heading toward a storm. “We are entering a critical process and the strategic partnership between the two countries will be tested,” Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ the president of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAİK) told me in a phone call yesterday. “This critical process needs to be properly managed,” he added.

The Turkish business community seems to already be preparing for a crisis management and is working hard to strengthen the dialogue channels. In this respect, this year’s annual conference in Washington which will take place on April 15 is seen as a good opportunity to have a genuine dialogue. Organized for the 37th time jointly with the American Turkish Council (ATC), the Foreign Economic Relations Council (DEİK) and TAİK, this year’s conference will take place under the shadow of the looming S-400 crisis.

But this “elephant in the room” will serve to vindicate the message of the business community that “just like the case with other countries like Israel or Germany, economic relations should not be affected by crisis at the political level.”

The Turkish business community complains that there is no other country with which Turkey’s economic relations are so vulnerable to the potential political/military problems. And that’s why representatives of the business community want to diversify economic relations, said Yalçındağ. “The more we have a bigger trade volume, the less we will face problems in other aspects of our relations,” he added.

In this framework, another message that will be conveyed in Washington will be on the “threat rhetoric” used by the U.S. leadership. “Threats do not bring the desired outcome. Governments don’t change their decisions when faced with threats. On the contrary, as Turks, we just don’t comprehend the discourse based on threats,” said Yalçındağ.

The Turkish side will propose during the meetings the establishment of an advisory council, made up of wise persons that have easy access to both capitals. “The process ahead is very critical. We cannot leave everything to the presidents. The representatives of the civil society and business need to play a role,” said Yalçındağ, adding that this advisory council will report to officials designated by the two presidents. He believes this small council will help the two leaders understand the issues better. “Turkey has justified reasons to purchase S-400s for its defense needs; these can be explained. We believe the U.S. needs to be more conciliatory. Even the NATO secretary-general said every country was free to purchase the weapons they want.” Yalçındağ thinks if the council could intervene and facilitate dialogue, potential crises in the future can be averted.

Treasury, defense ministers to attend conference

Treasury and Finance Minister Berak Albayrak will be one of the keynote speakers of the conference and he will have the opportunity to explain Turkey’s new reform road map, which he will reveal on April 10 in Ankara.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, U.S. Chiefs of Staff chair General Joseph Dunford and National Security Adviser John Bolton are expected to address the conference.

Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan and her U.S. counterpart, Wilbur Ross, will also be present at the conference, and the U.S. tariffs imposed on steel and aluminum imported from Turkey will be high on their agenda.

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