Is it the Arab Spring or Obama’s frankness that changed relations?
“Turkish–US relations were never as bad as has been portrayed by some,” a U.S. official told me recently. “I also find the description of the current situation ‘as a golden age’ equally exaggerated,” he continued.
This is how Turks have the tendency to see relations; like a pendulum, it’s either black or white. Yet, while it might be premature to say that US-Turkish relations are living their golden age, there has been a serious change on the convergence level regarding the two governments’ foreign policy choices. While the U.S. official told me he never believed Turkey was drifting away from the West the reality experienced on the ground was that more often than not Ankara and Washington failed to find themselves on the same page.
The severe crisis with Israel came as an irritant to the United States, but it was Turkey’s no vote in the United Nations Security Council for increased sanctions on Iran that constituted the tipping point for Washington.
The Arab Spring is one of the major reasons behind improved relations, according to the same U.S. official. But many, including him, would admit that Turkey’s first green light in the November 2010 NATO summit for the alliance to adopt a missile defense mechanism followed by a second green light from the country in September 2011 to host the radars of this mechanism, has been the real turning point in relations with Washington. These two decisions are extremely significant, since they represent a concrete step marking a change in Turkey’s strategic thinking of where, at the end of the day, it belongs in the contention between the “Western alliance,” and Iran.
To detect the change in the strategic thinking we need to go back to the June 2010 G-20 summit in Canada. The Toronto meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is viewed by insiders as the real turning point.
“Obama expressed his concerns in a blunt two-hour conversation [at the June summit.] Since then, according to both sides, there has been growing mutual trust,” U.S. journalist David Ingatius wrote recently.
It seems that in that “blunt” conversation, Obama openly implied that Turkey needed to make a choice on its strategic alliance with the United States and that consequently the United States would decide whether or not to alter its outlook on Turkey according. I am sure Erdoğan, who takes pride in saying he is from Kasımpaşa where there is no room for political correctness, perceived this message as follows, “You are either with us or not. If you are with us you need to act accordingly and if you are not with us, then we will act accordingly. The choice is yours.”
Following this conversation, Erdoğan made a choice and we then witnessed the fine tuning of Turkey’s strategic orientation. First came the decision regarding NATO’s missile defense system. I believe Turkey’s recent decision to reduce its oil purchase from Iran is also another significant symbol of this shift.
I am sure that as Erdoğan prepares to meet Obama in the G–20 summit in Mexico he is happy with his decision, because with the advent of the Arab Spring he must have seen that not only can Turkey not rely on alternative regional players like Iran or Russia, but it has not yet grown powerful enough to survive on its own.