The Rise of Turkish Gaullism: Getting Turkish-American Relations Right

January 31, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in January-March 2011 issue of
Insight Turkey,
a quarterly journal published by SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research.

2010 proved to be a difficult year in Turkish-American relations. The Gaza flotilla incident and Turkey’s “no” vote to a new round of sanctions against Iran at the United Nations Security Council, once again, triggered a heated debate about the “Islamization” of Ankara’s Middle East policy.  The cliché question of “who lost Turkey?” maintained its relevance for most of the year.  In the meantime, the looming threat of an Armenian genocide resolution continued to sporadically dominate the bilateral agenda. 

Overall, American official circles that follow Turkey closely tend to display a sense of doom and gloom. The perception of an Islamist “axis shift” is real. Popular columnists, such as Tom Friedman from the New York Times, have now joined the cohort of those who share such pessimism. Yet, interestingly such pessimism tends to dissipate in the higher echelons of American foreign policy. There seems to be a less alarmist approach to Turkey at the level of the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense, and certainly the President of the United States. Part of this interesting phenomenon is related to the simple fact that everything is relative.

American officials who focus on Turkey are often experts on Western Europe, NATO, Russia, the EU, and the Mediterranean. With high expectations and habits established during the Cold War, they tend to look at Turkey exclusively as a member of the transatlantic alliance and a Western state. Their level of disappointment is, therefore, much stronger when Turkey acts in defiance of transatlantic and western norms. Similarly, there is a tendency to see any deviation from transatlantic norms as Islamization.

In the eyes of strategist and high level policy makers with global outlook and portfolios, however, Turkey is doing rather well. Turkey is a success story compared to the rest of the Islamic world. It has a growing economy, a functioning democracy, and a strong government that can provide relatively good governance. It is a Muslim country, with a secular, democratic, and capitalist system. And despite its recent popularity in the Islamic world, it is still firmly anchored in the transatlantic alliance represented by NATO. In short, compared to all the major problems and multiple crises facing U.S. foreign policy, Turkey is a country that doesn’t pose serious problems for Washington. Yet, one still needs to explain why Turkish and American national interests no longer always converge in order to understand the pessimism among US officials who closely monitor Turkey.