Turkey, U.S. Foreign Policy, and the Obama Administration’s Global Leadership

On October 11, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) at Brookings hosted a discussion to explore U.S. global engagement, and the forces and actors shaping it (full audio available). The panelists focused particularly on U.S. policies toward the broader Middle East region, including Turkey.

Robert Kagan, a Brookings senior fellow, addressed the “paradox that a United States that remains extremely powerful and is in fact in roughly as strong a position internationally as it has often been throughout the past 60 years nevertheless is acting like a weak and beleaguered power in the international system.” He propounded a number of reasons for this, including the recent recession, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and the role of the Obama administration. Kagan asserted that “at the end of the day … I really think it’s because this president [Barack Obama] just doesn’t care very much about foreign policy.”

Tamara Cofman Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, addressed President Obama’s three high stakes diplomatic gambits in the region: Iran’s nuclear weapons, Syria’s civil war, and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She also looked back to Obama’s initial years, when he “spent his first four years in an effort to roll back in many ways an approach to the Middle East that he … feels he was elected in part to dismantle,” one that was overly military, displayed too much unilateral leadership, and in a region in which the United States was relatively over-invested compared to other parts of the world. 

Wittes examined President Obama’s three core messages from his recent speech to the UN in New York. In response to “a moment of intense demand for a larger American role,” he said three things—(1) to the American public: “I hear you … but that doesn’t mean we can do nothing. If we do nothing there are bad consequences”; (2) a message addressed to the world at large: “I haven’t changed … I still have a preference for non-military tools and non-unilateral approaches”; (3) a message to key partners, setting expectations: “If you want me to maintain these preferences … to restrain the aspects of American engagement that you say you found so troubling with the last guy, then you have to step up.”

Where do we go from here, in the case of Turkey, and how is Turkey going to respond to the three “high-wire acts” Wittes proposed? asked moderator Kemal Kirişci

Soli Özel of Kadir Has University said that criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy “is a bit unfair.” He said:

My sense of what … the president himself tried to do is basically change the rhetoric, change the style of engaging with the rest of the world. And basically offer the hand to almost everyone, to the Chinese, to the Russians, to the Middle Easterners. … Nobody responded, everybody wanted to be a free-rider. The Chinese buy more oil from the Middle East than you do. Do they do anything constructive? No.”

Özel concluded that President Obama “actually is doing what he had in mind when he came to power” by “bringing America’s ambitions in harmony with its newly-reduced capacities,” recognizing that you “cannot run the world as in the 19th century at gunpoint.” 

Listen to complete audio of the event.

Get all Brookings research on TurkeyEurope and U.S. Foreign Policy.

Colleen Lineweaver contributed to this post.