A new vision for Turkey and the US

A new vision for Turkey and the US

Bora Bayraktar

Ups and downs in Turkish-U.S. relations sometimes create big problems for both countries. When Turkey’s security priorities and the U.S.’s regional interests do not match, problems get deeper. Last week we, as a group of academics and journalists, discussed the question of a new vision in bilateral relations at the Harvard Club in New York.

In my opinion, a new vision can only be shaped through studying new challenges, risks and opportunities in the region. From this point of view, U.S. policy in and around Turkey is open to discussion.

When we look at global challenges, the main issue is three competing geopolitical strategies and the tension it perpetuates: The first one is the Chinese “One Road One Belt” project to overcome the pressure they feel in the Malacca Straits. To reach Western markets via inroads, China is trying to establish a transportation system to Europe. The second one is Russian Euro-Asianism which is defined in their foreign policy concept and military doctrines. The other is the U.S. strategy to protect its position in the globe, based on post-war Rimland strategies.

At the intersection point of these three strategies lie Turkey, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Gulf countries, Syria, Egypt, Israel and Libya. This region is the main competition area. Turkey’s multi-regional location makes her a key country in determining the balance of power.

The energy security of Western countries is another global challenge. The U.S. and European countries are looking for ways to bypass Russia and pressure Iran.

Another global challenge is migration. Climate change, economic problems and wars force people to leave their homes and millions of people are ready to migrate to find their ways into western European countries. On the main route of this mass movement of people, Turkey’s role is very important.

When we look at the regional challenges, we see a list of issues: Tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Gulf region; although not on top of the list, Iraq’s strategic congestion which caused three crises with Kuwait; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is ready to erupt anytime; the sectarian violence triggered by the Iraq War; tension between Turkey and Greece; Cyprus and Gaza problems; political tension in Lebanon and Egypt; NATO-Russia tension in the Black Sea region; crisis in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea by Russia; ethnic tension between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq and Syria as well as international and regional terrorist organizations’ activities.

Under these circumstances what can and should be the common vision of Turkey and the U.S.? What is the approach of Turkey?

According to classical realist theory in international relations, the system is anarchic, and states try to maximize their power and provide security. As Stephen Walt showed us especially in the Middle East form alliances when they feel they are under threat. From Turkey’s point of view when she was under existential security threats, her traditional alliances did not work for the last 10 years. For this reason, Turkey looked for alternatives. Turkey has been forced to make some choices. Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s and developing relations with Russia should be evaluated from this perspective. After waiting for 17 months to get a response from her Western allies over its demand of air defense systems, Turkey started to search for alternatives.

From the U.S. perspectives, when we look at the list of challenges, the American administration acted as if there was no need for strong allies in the region. The search for a pact with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the PYD/YPG by alienating Turkey does not match the challenges ahead.

Furthermore, despite some disagreements, Turkey and the U.S. are on the same page on many strategic issues. Turkey is against the occupation and annexation of Crimea. Turkey is against Iran’s developing nuclear weapons while supporting its peaceful nuclear activities. Both countries do not want to see Bashar al-Assad in power in the future of Syria. Both countries are effectively fighting against ISIL.

A new vision should be shaped by taking these challenges, risks and opportunities into account. The U.S. policy of working only with Gulf countries, whose military capability and abilities are limited, with the YPG/PYD whose legitimacy is questioned not only by Turkey, but also by the Kurdish population. None of them can be alternatives to Turkey.

Deteriorating relations are not good for Turkey. But neither is it good for the U.S. Last week’s phone call between the Turkish and American presidents shows us that both leaderships are aware of this and there is a will to protect bilateral relations at the highest level.