Transforming the US-Turkey alliance

Transforming the US-Turkey alliance

These are times of significant change within Turkey and its region. Some say Turkey is embracing Islam at the expense of secularism, turning its back on the West in favor of the East, and that U.S.-Turkish cooperation is being displaced by rivalry.

The fact is, Turkey is changing, and so is the nature of our alliance. Also, there is every reason to believe that these changes can be for the better as we now have an opportunity to fundamentally transform our alliance to make it broader, deeper, more durable, and more relevant.

This will not be easy, for we will surely have our disagreements. But if we remain guided by a few core principles, we can succeed. One of those principles is that the U.S. and Turkey need to be honest with each other and build greater trust.

This should begin with us in the U.S. We need to realize that our alliance does not consist of Americans giving orders and Turks getting in line. We also need to realize that we are now dealing with a different Turkey.

Over the past decade, Turkey’s democracy has become more inclusive, defining a new balance between its Islamic and secular heritages, and between the authority of elected civilian leaders and the military’s historic role in politics. Also its economy has experienced strong growth, catapulting Turkey into the ranks of global decision makers.

However, it is widely reported that there are more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other country. The ongoing prosecution of military officers has raised suspicions that many of these actions are politically motivated. Finally, the recent deterioration of Turkey’s relationship with Israel is especially painful for the U.S.

However, America does not fear the growth of Turkish power. To the contrary, we have a major stake in Turkey’s success. One way to do that is by strengthening our common struggle against terrorism. That is why Senator Joe Lieberman and I authored a resolution in Congress urging greater cooperation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) international financing and propaganda efforts, as well as greater U.S. support for Turkish actions to take senior PKK leaders off the battlefield. Such steps could empower Turkish leaders who want to address the legitimate demands of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens.

Another way to invest in each other is through greater trade. One way is to explore the possibility of negotiating a free trade agreement, or joining with Turkey in constructing a new architecture of open trade for the Middle East and North Africa.

Similarly, we now have the chance to expand our defense trade and cooperation. Turkey is one of the only NATO member states that is increasing its defense spending, and this is an opportunity to better align our military capabilities.

The interests and values of a rising, democratic Turkey are increasingly in alignment with ours. This is evident through our cooperation on missile defense, our major contributions in Afghanistan and our closely coordinated efforts in response to the revolutionary changes in the broader Middle East. Indeed, despite our occasional differences, our countries increasingly share a larger vision for the future of this vital region – a vision of democracy, individual rights, opportunity, and the rule of law.

Our ability to translate this common vision into action is being tested the most in Syria. The conflict is becoming a strategic threat to Turkey, and the longer it grinds on, the more Turkey is faced with chaos on its border. The U.S. must support Turkey when they need it the most and devote more of its power to help end the conflict in Syria. In doing so, it can help to consolidate a new kind of relationship with Turkey. It can show the Turkish people and government that America is willing to take risks for the sake of their security and to invest in their success.

If the broader Middle East comes to be defined more by peace than war, future historians will surely point to the fact that two of the world’s preeminent democratic powers, Turkey and the U.S., transformed their long-standing alliance to address the new realities of the 21st century.

*John McCain is a United States senator from Arizona. This abridged article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ).