Can the U.S. address deteriorating strategic relations with Turkey?

The U.S.-Turkey alliance is in need of significant recalibration. A U.S. Army-funded RAND paper recently examined several potential future orientations for Turkish foreign policy and what the implications could be for the United States’ strategic relations with its Middle Eastern NATO ally. On Sunday, I took a brief look at two of the possible, but unlikely, scenarios the paper examines.

In one, a resurgence of democracy in Turkey could produce a realignment with the United States and Europe, but this is unlikely given President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strengthening of authoritarian controls and the divisions among Turkey’s polarised political parties.

In the other, while some elites in Turkey may desire transforming Turkey into a Eurasian power, Ankara is unlikely to fully cut ties with the West by leaving the NATO alliance and backing away from trade with Europe.

At present, Turkey is a troublesome ally, causing difficulties for U.S. interests. If current trends endure, one probable scenario RAND outlines is that Turkey could continue “to be a difficult and sometimes wavering ally, but remains committed to NATO operations and policies and reliant on the alliance’s collective security guarantee”.

However, if issues with the United States and Europe go unresolved, RAND also plausibly imagines that Turkey could decide to more openly balance between NATO and other emerging partners, including Russia, Iran, and China.

“This is a strategy outlined in Erdoğan’s 2018 election manifesto, and it reflects the worldview of many AKP and MHP politicians,” the paper said.

Faced with deteriorating strategic relations, recent U.S. policy has primarily been reactionary. Taking into account Turkey’s increasingly divergent views on policy approaches to shared problems, the United States should develop a more coherent and consistent Turkey policy to preserve the strategic relationship. How to do so is a complex question.

“The future is murky,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Ahval, “mostly because there are so few areas where the United States and Turkey share overlapping interests.”

“Ideally, the two sides can get to a place where they are transactional and can horse trade,” he suggested, “but even in that scenario, Ankara has to be willing to compromise. To date, looking at Syria and around the Mediterranean, that has not been the case.”

“Turkey has maintained maximalist positions, mostly because it is so appalled at American actions in Syria and in support of the YPG,” he said, referring to the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian Kurdish force that made up the bulk of the ground force that with U.S. backing drove back Islamic State from almost all of Syria. The Turkish government sees the YPG as a national security threat and says it is linked to Kurdish insurgents operating in Turkey.

The RAND paper also notes: “EU-Turkish relations are likely to become even more transactional and focused narrowly on free trade, immigration, and counterterrorism, but even this model will be hard to establish in the near future given lingering differences on these issues.”

In her 2018 paper, Amanda Sloat, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed that, “the West should also be realistic about its capacity to alter Erdoğan’s behaviour at this stage.”

However, she does not think transactionalism is the best way forward. While the relationship will remain bumpy, she argued that, “constructive and principled engagement - including cooperation where possible on shared challenges, frank public and private comment on governance concerns, use of economic leverage, and expanded people-to-people ties - remains the best way to maintain relations between countries and preserve the possibility of better relations in the future.”

Despite Erdoğan’s routine anti-Western rhetoric, there are pragmatic reasons to believe he will not risk a complete break with the United States and Europe. The RAND paper highlights the fact that NATO, “still plays a central role in Turkey’s national security strategy and plans for defence against high-intensity threats.”

Turkey is unlikely to want to give up its seat at NATO’s North Atlantic Council, where key Euro-Atlantic policy decisions are made, and RAND further notes that Turkey “remains actively engaged in other alliance political institutions, the integrated military structure, and exercise programmes and continues to make substantial contributions to current operations, standing forces, and the NATO Response Force.”

Perhaps most tellingly, the RAND paper observes that, “when regional tensions have risen in recent years, Turkey has promptly turned to the United States and other NATO allies for military support”.

Although Turkey it not likely to leave NATO, the risk of it drifting further towards a policy of strategic balancing is real. “To project power, Turkey needs some large power support, which has led to an entente with Russia, driven by both Erdoğan and Putin,” Stein said. “Russian-Turkish cooperation benefits from the very real fact that both are highly centralised authoritarian systems, which allows for both leaders to personalise the operations of the state.”

Although President Donald Trump has a cordial relationship with Erdoğan, he does not have the same authoritarian freedom to personally dictate major bilateral policy decisions.

“While the Trump administration has tried to compartmentalise the many bilateral disagreements with Turkey and address them on an ad-hoc basis, this approach has failed to reverse Turkey’s steady, strategic drift away from NATO, or even to stop the anti-Western invective from the government and its media,” said Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey Program coordinator at the Washington-based Project on Middle East Democracy think tank.

“To put U.S.-Turkish relations back on track for the long-term, U.S. policy needs to treat Turkey's democratic backsliding at home and adventurist policies abroad as fundamentally interlinked,” she told Ahval. “Only such a holistic approach can begin to address Turkey’s anti-Western posture and reverse its drift away from the transatlantic community and its values.”

Given the current realities, the RAND paper focuses on actionable recommendations that could be useful to both transactional and more holistic values-based strategies for approaching the fractious U.S-Turkey relationship.

“Turkey, the United States, and other NATO allies still have a number of convergent strategic interests, including countering terrorism, promoting peace in the Middle East, constraining the growth of Russian and Iranian power, and expanding energy transit corridors, but they don’t agree on the policy courses to achieve these interests,” said Stephen Flanagan, the lead author of the paper and a senior political scientist at RAND with extensive U.S. government experience.

To overcome their policy disagreements, RAND suggests U.S. officials should maintain extensive dialogues with their counterparts in the Turkish government and military on each of these issues. At the same time, the U.S. should pursue alternative options outside Turkey on various issues to remove Ankara’s leverage to maintain maximalist positions.

For example, to counterbalance Russia, Flanagan said, “the U.S. military should maintain its engagement with Turkish counterparts in the development of NATO’s tailored forward presence in southeastern Europe and in U.S. European Command’s Black Sea exercise programme.”

“However,” he said, “given the uncertainty as to how the Turkish government might respond in a period of heightened tensions with Russia, the U.S. military should design and deploy flexible options to support any NATO peacetime deterrent or crisis response options for Bulgaria and Romania.”

“Our report recommends that the United States pursue a long-term strategy that includes preparations for disruptive developments in some aspects of relations and initiatives that could maintain cooperation on abiding mutual interests over the next decade and help restore long-standing ties if these negative trends are reversed,” Flanagan said.

Stuck in a reactionary mode, the U.S. needs a long-term Turkey strategy and RAND’s paper offers a way to begin fleshing out either a transactional or more values-based approach to strengthening the strategic relationship.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.