Since its founding nearly a century ago, Turkey’s foreign policy goal has been summed up in a simple phrase: “No problems with our neighbors.” But the situation today is different: “all our neighbors have problems.” And the Turks have plenty of their own.
There is no understating how important it is that the U.S. and other NATO allies quickly mend fences with Turkey and help it through its regional crisis.
The Turks are under great strain from the fight against terrorists in Syria and Iraq, a rare instance of sustained warfare along NATO’s southern flank. Russia is moving ever closer to Turkey, coordinating military operations in the Middle East and agreeing to sell the Turks a top-of-the-line S-400 air-defense system, over protests from the U.S. and other NATO countries.
Domestically, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a highly polarizing figure who continues to fume over the failed coup against him last summer. More than 50,000 Turks have been jailed and 150,000 have lost their jobs, actions that will reverberate in Turkish politics for a generation. Crackdowns against “unruly journalists” and “suspect jurists” are common. And the independence movement among the Kurds of Iraq and Syria has put an end to hopes for progress on relations with Turkey’s own restive Kurdish minority.
Meanhwile, U.S.-Turkish relations have cratered following a string of confrontations that run from the profound to the petty. Erdogan continues to be obsessed with extraditing Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric now living in Pennsylvania, whom he believes to have been at the heart of the coup. His security detail is under indictment in the U.S. after they beat a group of protesters in Washington. This month, a Turkish citizen working for the U.S. State Department was jailed, triggering visa retaliations back and forth between Ankara and Washington and dealing a staggering blow to the Turkish lira. And the U.S. is understandably concerned about Turkish moves in Syria, which seem to be more aligned with the interests of Russia and Iran than the U.S.
This has led some U.S. critics to wonder whether NATO might be better off without Turkey as a member. That is a foolish thought. Rather, as we confront the lowest point in U.S.-Turkish relations in a generation, we need to think through a meaningful strategy for bringing this crucial partner back into the fold. What should the U.S. and its NATO allies do?
First, we need simply to accept Turkey’s fundamental strategic importance. When I was the supreme allied commander of NATO forces, people would often say to me, “Turkey is a crucial bridge between East and West.” Actually, Turkey is much more than just a bridge. Such comments miss the power, importance and history of Turkey, which is in every sense a power center unto itself. Over the centuries of the Ottoman Empire, the Turks proved their ability to build a powerful economy, conduct complex imperial politics, and dominate vast swaths of territory throughout Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Today, Turkey has the 13th-largest economy in the world, a growing population of 80 million, a powerful diaspora around the world (including within Europe and the U.S.), and a highly diversified economic base. It also has the second-largest army in NATO and hosts the headquarters of all alliance land forces. The military is highly professional (albeit battered at the senior-leadership level in the face of post-coup purges). Turkey is a powerful and important actor throughout the Middle East now, and will be a significant global player by mid-century. None of this can be ignored.
Second, we must articulate and execute a strategic plan for engaging the Turkish government. Any rapprochement with Ankara must include conducting more frequent political visits at every level, especially cabinet and immediate sub-cabinet U.S. officials visiting their counterparts. Western governments should encourage more direct business investment and a higher level of technology transfer in sectors such as light industry, cyber and robotics. The U.S. must involve Turkish leaders and concerns as it tries to resolve the crises raised by the independence movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. The U.S and Europeans should also help conduct humanitarian operations including joint efforts in the massive refugee camps along the Turkish-Syrian border, which are costing Erdogan’s government a fortune.
Third, the U.S. can encourage geopolitical relationships that keep Turkey oriented toward the trans-Atlantic world. These would include helping to ease tensions with Greece over the Aegean and the flow of refugees; resolving the long-standing dispute over Cyprus (which is closer to a possible solution than it has been in decades); helping to rebuild a once-strong relationship with Israel that has frayed among arguments over everything from the Kurds to the status of Jerusalem; and helping melt tensions with the Sunni Arabs, who feel threatened by the Turkish moves to align with Iran. Above all, the U.S. should encourage the Europeans to at least continue negotiations on possible EU membership for Turkey, which unfortunately has never looked so distant).
Fourth, we must find a modus vivendi with President Erdogan. He is clearly in control of his country’s destiny, and will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Yet his increasingly dictatorial tendencies will create real tension with Washington. We should adopt a strategy of criticizing in private while working visibly with him in public. Creating public confrontations will not help — we need deft personal diplomacy to encourage him to ensure the long term viability of democracy, rule of law, and freedom of the press.
Finally, we can enhance military-to-military cooperation. This means more exercises and training missions in Turkey, both with the U.S. bilaterally and through NATO; better information and intelligence sharing, especially in regard to operations in Syria; more U.S. military sales to Ankara (particularly now that Russia has established itself as a competitor); naval exercises in the Black Sea with Turkey alongside other NATO Allies and partners (Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Ukraine); joint missions for humanitarian and security operations in Kosovo and Bosnia; and high-level military delegations exchanging visits.
None of this will be easy or cost-free. But it would be a geopolitical mistake of enormous proportions to allow Turkey to drift away from the U.S., Europe and NATO. We are in danger of seeing that shift occur before our eyes, and we need a plan to prevent it. That will mean rising above some of the heated rhetoric in the relationship to keep our eyes on the strategic value of Turkey as a friend, partner and ally.