Prospect for U.S.-Turkish Relations in the Obama Era

Mark R. Parris
Mark R. Parris Former Brookings Expert

February 11, 2009

Mark Parris spoke to the International Investors Association (YASED) conference in Istanbul. His speech covered the U.S.-Turkish relationship and how it may fare in the opening years of Barack Obama’s administration. Parris shared his sense of factors likely to shape the new administrations Turkey policy.

It is always a delight to be here in Istanbul. This is a wonderful city, and some of my best friends in the world are here. It is both a pleasure and an honor to be asked once again to address YASED – this time as a private citizen rather than as, on previous occasions, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. And this is probably a good moment to emphasize that my remarks this evening are entirely my own: I do not represent and will not try to speak for the new Administration in Washington.

It has been over eight years since I ended my assignment to Ankara. I don’t get to Turkey as much as I would like to these days. But I do try to follow events here. And my sense is that Turks, like others around the world, have greeted with great hope and anticipation the election last November of Barack Hussein Obama.

As President Obama’s predecessor once famously said: “There is something refreshing about an election.” This is one case where George W. Bush had it right: elections in democratic societies are refreshing. New leaders, like new years, are opportunities to look ahead. They provide a chance to break out of cycles of behavior or outlook that have failed or been overtaken by events. They invite us to ask ourselves what we want to be, rather than to dwell on what we’ve become.

It’s in that spirit that I’d like to approach my subject for this evening: the U.S. – Turkish relationship, and how it may fare in the opening years of Barack Obama’s administration.

There is of course some context here. Most experts would agree that U.S. – Turkish relations over the past eight years or so have been “sub-prime.” Both sides share blame for that, although those who know my work know that I’ve often criticized the Bush Administration for leaving this relationship worse than it found it. As a new team finds its footing in Washington, there is damage to be repaired, there are opportunity costs to be recouped, there are lessons to be learned.

I won’t be able tonight to predict whether those lessons will be learned, or whether the Obama administration’s stewardship of its relations with Turkey will be smarter and more successful than that of its predecessor. What I will try to do is give you my sense of factors likely to shape the new administration’s Turkey policy.

Those factors are of two types. I’ll call them “structural” and “conjunctural.” Structural factors are about institutions and dynamics: they change slowly when they change at all; they aren’t really affected by whether a President is named “Clinton” or “Bush.” “Conjunctural” is a big word to describe the things Turkish and American leaders are going to have to deal with in the months and years ahead: you can as easily call these factors “the issues” or “the agenda.”

I’ll take the structural factors first.

Structural Factors

Local Politics

The first and most basic thing to remember not just about the U.S. – Turkish relationship, but about America’s relations with any country, or for that matter any nation’s relations with another country, is that politics is local. Politicians are in the business of getting elected. Things that don’t directly affect their prospects at the polls – unless they are truly existential — will inevitably have second claim on their attention and energy.

What is Barack Obama’s priority? America’s economy. Full stop. The President has named a stellar foreign policy team and is clearly himself a natural at foreign affairs. But history and the American people will judge Barack Obama in 2012 primarily by how well or badly he has handled the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

What is the implication for Turkey? There has always been a tendency in American diplomacy for crises of the moment to crowd out the tending of long-term relationships. The urgent predictably trumps the important. And Turkey, as a country that by and large has been for decades more an asset than a problem for U.S. policy, has inevitably suffered from this phenomenon

Given the magnitude of the economic and other tasks facing President Obama and his team, and despite what I am sure will be the best intentions of those responsible, it will be a challenge to ensure that Turkey receives the timely, senior-level attention it merits as a country that, more than most, can help or hurt the new Administration’s efforts abroad.


Which gets us to a second structural factor and the enduring bedrock of America’s modern relationship with Turkey: Turkey’s unparalleled location.

Because Turkey has for the past half century or so been so stable and predictable an ally, some in America have occasionally lost sight of the importance of where Turkey sits.

The first years of the Twenty-first Century ought to have put paid to that misconception. The Obama administration comes into office with recent, clear reminders that Turkey is awfully useful if Washington wants to get help to a Georgia, or to support or withdraw forces from Iraq, or to develop alternative supply routes for Afghanistan. It’s awfully useful if you want to coax Russia onto a more constructive path, or to build a coherent strategy toward Iran or Syria. It’s a unique nexus in terms of energy security strategy, or combating the spread of weapons of mass destruction and organized crime.

There may be places in the world as important to the U.S. on one or a few issues we really care about. I can’t think of a place as important on so wide and overlapping a range of interests. And experience shows that, when America needs to use or transit Turkey’s geography, it is usually in a hurry.

It will happen again. And this provides a corrective to my point on local politics. Turkey may not be today at the top of Barack Obama and his senior foreign policy team’s initial “to do” list. But life and geography will get it on their screen in due course. When it does, they will find, as have their predecessors, that it is always easier to work with Turkey than around Turkey. It’s a matter of simple physics.


So, where Turkey sits is important. But there is another reason Turkey will find its way onto the new Administration’s screen sooner rather than later. Turkey can’t be overlooked for long by Washington because of what it is.

It is, first of all, big: in landmass, in population, in its economy. Size always matters.

In addition, Turkey’s Ottoman legacy gives it unique standing among – and arguably understanding of – players who figure prominently among the Obama administration’s challenges and priorities. Thus the prominent role Ankara has come to play as a mediator among Israelis and Syrians, Syrians and Lebanese, Russians and Georgians, Iraqi Sunni and Shia Arabs, Iran and the world, Israelis, Palestinians and Egyptians, and even Armenians and Azeris.

A country that can operate in such circles is important in terms of U.S. interests. Because of course Turkey also happens to be a functioning democracy, a member of NATO and the OECD, a candidate for EU membership, an active participant each year at Davos, a poster child for the IMF and World Bank, and a newly elected member of the UNSC. It belongs to some really good clubs.

It is also, of course 99% Muslim. And since September 2001, coming to terms with Islam in its many forms has been a core problem of American foreign policy. In one way or another, it will remain so for a generation or more.

Some would argue that the United States has not done a particularly good job of engaging the Muslim world since 2001. Some would argue Turkey is a prime example. But what is indisputable is that, in post 9/11 America, the very existence of a country like Turkey is an important fact. One that demonstrates in concrete terms that there is no necessary contradiction between Islam and the West, between Islam and globalization, between Islam and parliamentary democracy, between Islam and free markets.

Americans are not very good at expressing these sorts of things. We lack the practice; we lack the context, we lack the vocabulary. But call it a “model;” call it an “example,” call it what you will: seen from Washington, Turkey’s success serves fundamental American interests. Reports that Turkey is being considered as the site of an early speech on America and Islam, if true, suggest the Obama team understand this.

Values and Interests

Those of you who follow these things may have noted that I’ve not yet mentioned a factor usually cited at the outset by those seeking to convince audiences that all is well in U.S. – Turkish relations: the notion that our bilateral ties are rooted in common values and interests. There is a reason for that. The fact is that the case is harder to make today than in the past.

Let me be clear: at the level of “interests,” I continue to believe there is a basic correspondence in terms of what each country wants to see happen in the region surrounding Turkey.

It is when you get into the question of how to achieve these ends that there is room for doubt as to whether we are really on the same page in terms of how we perceive our respective interests. And, perversely, Turkey’s more self-confident foreign policy in recent years has sometimes fueled such doubts in America even as it has arguably enhanced Turkey’s potential value to the U.S. as a strategic partner. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute.

As for “values,” we need to acknowledge that both sides’ images in recent years have suffered in the eyes of the other. In Turkey my sense is that this was a function of repeated missteps by the Bush Administration, perhaps the most important of which was the agonizing, unexplainable delay in taking effective action against PKK terror from Iraq. The result was the famous polling data of a few years ago showing U.S. approval ratings in single digits, the lowest in the world.

In the U.S. , meanwhile, perceptions of Turkey have been shaken in recent years by a series of episodes suggesting that important elements in Turkish society do not fundamentally share the values of liberal democracy that make the West “the West.”

This is not the place to dissect the accuracy or inaccuracy of perceptions on either side. I’ll just point out that, while in the past incoming administrations – American or Turkish – could point to the existence of a broad commonality of values and interests as reason for confidence in the relationship, the Obama administration may think twice before trying to make that case.

Single Issue Politics

I’ll conclude my review of structural factors that will affect U.S. – Turkish relations by returning to U.S. domestic politics, where the existence of single issue interest groups hostile to Turkey has for decades been a feature and an irritant in our bilateral relations.

The good news is that our new Administration, unlike its predecessors, may get a pass from the Greek lobby. That is in large measure a function of the far-sighted and occasionally courageous policies that Ankara has pursued over the past decade on the complex of issues relating to Greece and Cyprus.

The bad news is that the Armenian lobby is fully mobilized, highly motivated and in possession of unprecedentedly clear and unqualified commitments from leading members of the new Administration that the events of 1915 will be termed “genocide.” It is not clear at this juncture when the genocide issue will come to the agenda, or whether the venue will be the White House or Congress. But there is a very real prospect that this highly charged question could be a formative experience for Turkey with the new Administration.

Conjunctural Factors

That is a good transition to the second set of factors that will affect U.S. – Turkish relations, what I call conjunctural factors. What issues in the weeks and months ahead will give U.S. and Turkish leaders the opportunity to take one another’s measure? What are the prospects that these initial exchanges will go well?


Let’s start with the crisis of the moment: Israel’s recent military operation in Gaza and its aftermath. It’s an apt point of departure, because it will amplify some concerns I’ve already expressed.

I don’t need to get into a discussion of whether Israel’s actions have been right or wrong to note that Turkey’s response highlights the dilemma that some in the U.S. see in Turkey’s more assertive regional diplomacy.

On the one hand Turkey appears behind the scenes to have been an active, creative and constructive contributor to negotiations leading to a cease fire.

On the other hand, some of the rhetoric here has, I fear, undermined Ankara’s hard-earned reputation for even-handedness. That has to be considered a loss as the Obama administration considers how – and with whom – to begin the process of re-engagement in pursuit of a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors.


The tensions I’ve just described could also affect the extent to which the new Obama administration and Turkey are able to work together on Washington’s most pressing strategic challenge – Iran.

The good news is that Obama and his team seem committed to shifting U.S. policy in a direction Turkey has long advocated. We will seek to engage Iran diplomatically. We will be creative in seeking to devise inducements for the Iranian leadership to adopt a more constructive approach. All this will be music to Turkish ears.

More problematic will be Washington’s likely argument that, to maximize prospects for successful diplomacy, Iran will need to see that the international community is more united than in the past in its willingness to impose a penalty for intransigence. In a word, more sanctions – sooner, or later.

The starting point for building international consensus on new sanctions has of course traditionally been the UN Security Council. What this means for Turkey as a new member of that body is that it will find it hard to argue, as in the past, that its position will conform to some ill-defined notion of “international legitimacy.” As a UNSC member Turkey will participate in the making of international legitimacy: there will be no place to hide. Any gaps between its approach and that of the Obama administration will stand out in high relief.

I would note in passing that, in this context, Turkey’s on-and-off pursuit of investments in Iran’s energy sector are also likely to acquire a higher and more problematic profile.


And I’ll use that as a transition to a more encouraging subject: energy. For those like myself who participated in the highly effective cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. on strategic energy diplomacy in the nineties, the past eight years represent a tragic lost opportunity. We are seeing the results today in stories of shivering Bulgarians, panicky West Europeans, and worried Turks.

The hour is late. But Russia’s test of wills with Ukraine this winter could be the impetus for a renewed commitment by the U.S., Turkey and Europe to overcome the petty and self-interested squabbling that has frustrated rapid movement on the Nabucco and other projects essential to the long-term energy security of the West. And that could return partnership on energy issues to a prominent place on the U.S. – Turkish bilateral agenda.


Another area where time and opportunity has been wasted in recent years is Europe. Here, too, there is plenty of room for finger-pointing. But here, too, the time may be right to move beyond that.

Developments over the past few years have demonstrated the risks to U.S. and European interests in allowing Turkey’s EU candidacy to drift. Washington ought to have no higher priority in its policy toward Turkey than to revive Turkey’s prospects for EU membership.

Why is that? I said earlier that, because of the kind of country Turkey is, Turkey’s success inevitably serves fundamental American interests. Let me put it more starkly: the irreducible U.S. interest in Turkey is that this unique, strategically located country not fail. A Turkey that is a member of the EU, or on track to becoming a member of the EU, cannot fail. It is that simple.

Whether Turkey gets into the EU is, ultimately, something for Turks and Europeans to work out. But the United States cannot be disinterested in the process. An Obama administration that will bring renewed credibility and a more collegial spirit to the task of rebuilding our trans-Atlantic relationships may be able to do more than its predecessor to facilitate a revival of Turkey’s EU candidacy.


Then there is Russia, an area where the Obama administration has signaled a more nuanced approach, and where vital Turkish and U.S. interests have traditionally intersected.

President Obama’s national security team is going to find that Turkish-Russian relations are not where they left them in 2000. Turkey’s trade relations with Russia have mushroomed in recent years to a volume several times that between the U.S. and Turkey. Despite efforts to diversify, Turkey remains overly dependent on Russian energy imports. And a quick review of foreign policy developments over the past few years will show that Turkish and Russian positions on issues like Iran, Iraq, Palestine and Black Sea security have converged.

Now, Turkey and Russia have a lot of history – much of it problematic. I’m not among those who believe Moscow will ever provide an alternative to strategic partnership with Washington or the West generally. But as the Obama administration re-engages on issues like energy security, or the security and independence of former Soviet territories like Georgia or the Ukraine, it will find, I suspect, that it cannot count on Ankara’s simply following the U.S. lead, as might have been the case in the past.


I’ve been speaking for quite a while now and have barely referred to Iraq, on which the U.S. – Turkish partnership stumbled so badly in 2003 and 2004. The reason for that is that, by and large, my sense is that the two sides are largely on the same page today as regards Iraq, and are likely to remain there.

There will be challenges. But I see no evidence that the Obama administration’s approach in Iraq will jeopardize Turkish interests there. And from Washington’s perspective, Turkey’s constructive diplomacy toward and in Iraq, and its contributions to its neighbor’s economic revitalization, cannot help but be seen as added value.

I believe Washington will also see Turkey as part of the solution as it refocuses American military resources on Afghanistan.

Turkish Internal Politics

A final factor I want to mention is Turkey’s internal politics. There are good reasons why democracies – and former Ambassadors — as a general rule try hard not to become involved in or even to comment on the politics of other friendly, democratic countries.

That said, there are many in the U.S., including in the new administration, who believe failure to speak out more clearly on such developments as Turkey’s 2007 and 2008 constitutional crises risked outcomes that Washington would not have welcomed. It is also the case that Democratic administrations have often been more inclined than Republican to comment on internal developments in Turkey, particularly with respect to human rights, freedom of expression and the rule of law.

There is a lot going on in Turkey today. Much of it is obscure to outside observers. It is not clear where it will lead or whose interests will ultimately be served. But as events take their course, it may be that for the first time in years Turkey’s internal situation will be something Washington feels compelled to raise in private and talk about in public.

* * * * *

I have covered a lot of territory tonight.

I hope you will have taken from what I have said that there is some hard work ahead for both Washington and Ankara to get U.S. – Turkish relations out of the doldrums of the past few years.

Our 2008 elections were about change. There is no doubt that the change we saw January 20 is refreshing.

But changing Presidents doesn’t mean U.S. – Turkish relations default to 1999. Turkey, the U.S. and the world have changed in important ways since then. There are pitfalls and snares ahead that will trip up the unwary. For America, getting Turkey right will require focused, sustained, hands-on management at the highest levels of an Obama administration that takes office with a very full in-box. But the last eight years are a cautionary tale in the consequences of failing to make that investment. Let’s hope the new team in Washington is paying attention.