Turkish-U.S. ties constantly sinking, says top academic

Trust between Turkey and the United States has been constantly sinking, but with Washington giving more prominence to economic issues, Ankara remains important to the U.S. as it is still considered a stable country with a growing economy in a chaotic region, according to a Washington-based Turkish scholar.

With many Western countries facing their own problems of democratic governance, Turkey’s problems with democracy are becoming less of a priority, said Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institute.

Hurriyet Daily News: How does Turkey look from Washington from the perspective of Americans?

Kemal Kirişci: I cannot say that Turkey has the image it had until summer 2013. I was actually present in D.C. when then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came on a state visit in May 2013. I participated in the lunch event organized for him at the State Department. I just could not believe the praise that he got showered with from [Secretary of State] John Kerry to [Vice President] Joe Biden; it was not just praise bestowed on Erdoğan but his family as well.

However, when the Gezi events took place and Erdoğan seemed to blame not only just Lufthansa, the West but also implied [U.S. President Barack] Obama, too, Obama apparently said to his close circles, “I can’t believe that someone whom I hosted for a private dinner at my residence would be saying this about me.”

That was the beginning of the break in confidence, the mutual trust. If we take that reference point; trust has been constantly sinking and the kind of language the president has chosen to resort to when referring to developments in the Middle East has widened this mistrust.

I also hear that Americans are tired of hearing that these populist statements are made for domestic political consumption.

HDN: Don’t you think another problem is the fact that Ankara and Washington are not on the same page on critical issues like the Middle East?

KK: In Turkey there are two perceptions on that issue: there is recognition in parts of the Turkish bureaucracy, business world and public opinion that the Middle East has become a liability for Turkey in terms of economic relations and security and that Turkey has to reorient its strategic vision as a function of its national interest. 

But there is another position that is much more rhetorical; it is wrapped in political/ideological calculations. I think the Americans are aware of this. Against all odds, at the bureaucratic level, the relations are there.  There is an effort to create a common ground and cooperate but then these efforts are sometimes pushed back to square one by statements coming from the government at the highest level. Still, that relationship is there.

That applies to economics as well. Secretary of Commerce [Penny Pritzker] came to Turkey, and Turkey is still designated as an economic partner for the U.S. and the West. One American official ahead of … Pritzker’s visit said to me: “I am afraid at the Hill these days we would not touch Turkey with a barge poll.” That’s because of the image Turkey has created of itself.

HDN: Although you say there is a relationship, it looks like the two capitals have been finding it more and more difficult to work together.

KK: What I am saying is that in Washington there are people who recognize that Turkey is more than Erdoğan; it is more than his rhetoric. What is leading them to say that is a recognition of a number of factors: one is that Turkey has an important economy; at a time when there is chaos surrounding this neighborhood, there is one economy that has managed to grow 3 percent. My impression is that the U.S. is giving growing emphasis to economic trade issues and will be channeling its energy into this area beside Iran, ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and Ukraine. With its emphasis on the economy, Turkey remains important for the U.S.

This is the message that I hear from officials but also from people who have a say in broader American policy circles. 

And then there is the second realization: Turkey’s neighborhood is really in a mess and there is one country there somehow still managing to maintain some stability. Americans at the end of the day put a lot of emphasis on stability. And so because of the chaos reigning in the area and also because of their own problems with democracy and Europe’s own difficulties with democracy, issues like freedom of speech and democratic performance recede into the background in this broader context. It is less of a priority.

HDN: Political issues used to be the locomotive of relations while economic issues had secondary importance. Is it going to be the other way around?

KK: It would depend on how Turkey is managing economic issues. In the 2000s until 2009; Turkey and the U.S. had shared values, vis-à-vis the market economy, regulatory institutions’ independence, women’s rights, human rights and freedom of expression. There were also shared interests. Now shared values are not totally gone but substantially gone. In the U.S. there are concerns about the independence of regulatory bodies that manage the Turkish economy and about women’s rights.

Shared interests remain in place but because of the climate of mistrust and a lack of confidence, those shared interests are not acted upon it. My personal view is that there is a change that has been unfolding literally in the last three-four weeks. I would also argue that why this is possible is that behind the scenes, there is this constant interaction at the more bureaucratic level

HDN: So what you mean to say is that despite discord at the leadership levels, diplomats keep relations going; there is an accumulated working dynamic that serves as damage control.

KK: What you refer to as a phenomenon does not exist in U.S.-Iranian relations. Turkey and the U.S. have been part of an alliance, and a lot of this relationship has been going on for decades.

HDN: Does that mean that you would then challenge those who say that with the already-good relations with Iraqi Kurds and the possible reconciliation with Iran, Turkey will lose its importance and no longer remain a close ally?

KK: No, I would not challenge that. We must not look at what’s going on in Washington as a homogenous event. In Washington, there are clearly those who argue Turkey is a lost cause, that Turkey is acting against the interests of U.S., that it is an unreliable partner and alluding that rough measures should be taken against Turkey. Then there are those who don’t always openly say so, but argue that there are still shared interests and a decades-old working relationship.

Let me tie this to Iran. Brookings precipitated a debate on who should the U.S. work with in the Middle East to get it out of the trap it has fallen into.

There are some arguing Iran is the partner to work with; there is already an implicit cooperation taking place between Iran and the U.S. In that debate, Turkey is absent; no one is talking about Turkey, and I think the reason why they don’t talk about it is, first of all, this trust issue. The second is huge disillusionment with Turkey, and the third is a recognition that they don’t have any more shared values.

Remember when Obama came to Turkey in 2009; he talked about a model partnership. Then there was talk about how Turkey would be a model for the Arab Spring countries’ transition toward a liberal market economy and democracy. Now there is no talk about that. Turkey is right now a country out in the region that is reasonably stable; there are big question marks about the quality of its democracy, but in relation to the chaos in the neighboring Middle East and the difficulties that the EU is still continuing to experience in getting its economy back on its feet, it seems to be doing OK. But it has no relevance to the U.S. in addressing the challenges of the Middle East.

HDN: You say that despite the loss of trust, there is still a working relationship; Turkey’s position as an ally in the Middle East is questioned as well as whether there are still shared values. Yet the U.S. still appreciates Turkey as an island of stability and thus does not want to criticize democratic backpedalling in Turkey. All this might sound contradictory. 

KK: Indeed, the world that surrounds Turkey extending all the way to Britain is having problems with democratic governance at different levels. Russia invades a neighboring country; in most of Europe the right is on the rise. So deep down, there is a recognition that one must shy away from statements and policies and acts that could undermine or exacerbate not only the relationship but also Turkey’s own domestic situation. The U.S. is also appreciating what is going on in Turkish- Kurdish relations. But when it comes to addressing grand strategic issues like how to tackle the Middle East, Turkey is not there.

HDN: How can Turkey not be there?

KK: There is an [emerging] consensus, but it is ambiguous whether that consensus has put ISIL [to the top of the threat list]. Whether we like it or not, [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad is receding in the list of threats. Somehow I have a feeling that the execution of Jordanian pilot [Muath al-Kasasbeh] by immolation had an impact here in Turkey that may well be changing government’s position on what is ISIL is about. 

HDN: What are your future projections?

KK: I think we will have to wait until parliamentary elections are over in Turkey, and we will have to see what kind of political landscape emerges. I have a feeling if that landscape enjoys a decent level of stability in Turkey, I think we will see an incremental improvement in Turkish-U.S. relations, there will be more and more convergences of policies over Syria and Iraq.

This interview was originally published in Hurriyet Daily News