The future of US-Turkey relations

The future of US-Turkey relations

Perhaps the only certainty in the relationship between the United States and Turkey is that it will soon change, due to the ascendance of either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump to the presidency. These two would-be presidents represent different approaches to foreign policy, which will result in their pursuit of different types of relationships with Turkey. 

Commentators have criticized Barack Obama for employing a foreign policy strategy that is almost entirely reactionary. His term of office has seen a relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unravel from one of close confidants to that of tense allies frequently on opposing sides of policy issues. Meanwhile, Obama has pursued very few foreign policy initiatives in the Middle East; most of Obama’s policies have tried to extract America from the region or have been responses to emerging issues that he had previously ignored. Obama’s reactionary foreign policy has frustrated long-serving State Department hands, other officials within the administration, and America’s allies around the world. This is especially true of Turkey, where America’s interests have almost unilaterally focused on the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), virtually ignoring Syria and millions of Syrian refugees.

A Trump presidency would likely also employ predominantly reactionary foreign policies. Despite an already lengthy election season, the Trump campaign has provided little evidence of clearly defined foreign policy goals. Trump’s foreign policy, at least initially, is thus likely to use foreign relations with countries as leverage to extract short-term gains or assistance.

In the case of Turkey, this would likely begin with Trump pursuing a relationship that would enable his lone, often-repeated foreign policy goal of “crushing” ISIL. In this regard, he would likely view Turkey as an important strategic ally. But Trump may be even less likely than Obama to engage in bilateral relations with Turkey – especially addressing the Syrian refugee crisis. 

Another factor likely to affect U.S.-Turkish relations in the case of a Trump presidency is the personalities of both Trump and Erdoğan. Erdoğan has criticized Trump, both for Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States and for the name of Trump Towers in Istanbul. However, another powerful leader – Vladimir Putin of Russia – has relationships with both men. All three men combine a macho leadership style while emphasizing the importance of support from the ballot box. Although unlikely, if Putin had reason to encourage Trump and Erdoğan to align, a Trump presidency could involve personal ties between Trump and Erdoğan. However, these ties would likely seesaw, as both men regularly exhibit frequent changes in their priorities. 

A Clinton presidency, on the other hand, would likely begin with several ambitious policy goals in the Middle East, many the result of priorities and problems she felt unable to confront due to a lack of backing from the Obama administration during her tenure as secretary of state. Many Washington foreign policy insiders expect that both Trump and Clinton would take steps to bomb Syria during the early days of their presidency. However, due to Clinton’s relationship with Erdoğan forged during her time at the State Department, she would be more likely to take Turkey’s considerations into account when deciding whether or not to do so. Clinton clearly views Erdoğan as a formidable leader, having described him in her memoir, “Living History,” as an “ambitious, forceful, devout, and effective politician.” Although Erdoğan and Clinton may not always align on policy goals, it is likely that Clinton would pursue strategies that emphasize working with Turkey to pursue mutually beneficial outcomes, particularly concerning Syria. 

It is difficult to determine what the status of Turkey’s extradition request for Fethullah Gülen will be by the time the new president takes office. Per a 1979 extradition agreement with Ankara, requests are ruled on by the Department of Justice, which is not under the president’s control. However, depending on how far the request progresses, the new president may have a small amount of influence late in the process. If Trump were to be placed in such a role, it seems that his likelihood to intervene – either for or against the extradition of Gülen – would likely be impulsive. Clinton would likely base the little discretion she would have on the advice of the Department of State, the Justice Department and the Pentagon. 

The future of U.S.-Turkey relations seems more uncertain than it has been for decades. The two possible candidates to become the next American president offer Turkey distinctly different opportunities and constraints to consider as it weighs foreign policy decisions.

*Sarah F. Fischer, Ph.D., is a faculty member at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia.