Since US President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence started publicly speaking about their disappointment with Turkey, the decadelong debate about who "lost" Turkey and ending the strategic partnership has reappeared in the spotlight of Turkish and international media.
On the Turkish side, the status of Turkish-American relations is at best quite complicated. The common theme Ankara openly advocates is that Turkey doesn't need the United States. A "global anti-Trump alliance” has become the new focus of televised political discussions. Ordinary Turks have been protesting the use of US dollars as well as smashing iPhones, calling for NATO bases to close and carrying out rather counterproductive methods to boycott the United States. On the other hand, construction of the US Embassy in the Cukurambar district of Ankara continues as planned, while military operations in Syria and other NATO bases are mostly on track.
Most analysts watching the back-and-forth threats and demands between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have thrown in the towel and concluded, “Anything is possible; we will see soon.” Indeed, Hasan Yalcin, the strategic research coordinator of the ruling party's prominent think tank Foundation of Strategic, Economic and Social Research (SETA), complained about that attitude by Western pundits, and he has a valid point. It's crucial to discuss whatever options might be available.
The way it stands now, continuing the status quo is optimal for Erdogan. He wants to have his cake (by resisting and refusing the West) and eat it too (by enjoying the benefits of the alliance). This duality indeed generates cycles of crises between Turkey and the United States, and this ebb in their once-positive bilateral relationship could transform the much-wounded alliance.
On Aug. 13, speaking at the annual Conference of Ambassadors, Erdogan made a crucial statement about international politics. After explaining foreign forces’ "siege" of the Turkish economy, Erdogan harshly targeted Trump without naming him. “You can't say, ‘I did it, and [so be it],’ even if you are the president. You can't wake up one morning and say, 'Here are new taxes on aluminum and steel.' There is the matter of continuity. Countries base their planning on the understanding that they can count on continuity and take steps accordingly. [If you act like this] will there be any confidence left in relations among states? On the one hand, you claim to be a strategic partner; on the other, you shoot bullets at the feet of your strategic ally.”
A seasoned Western diplomat in Ankara told Al-Monitor, “This statement could easily have been the venting of any one of us [foreign representatives] about Erdogan since 2011. On the one hand, he boldly challenges the West, all the while appealing to the World Trade Organization about the extra taxes imposed by the United States. Considering this is the same leader, the same country that keeps reneging on its own international promises and commitments, how does this add up?”
Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952 and has aimed to be a full member of the EU since the 1960s. However, since 2011, we've been witnessing a gradual and relatively quiet transformation of the Turkish system, frequently referred to as the silent revolution.
Turkey’s relations and place in the Western world has changed over time as well. To sum it up, three reasons explain why Turkey isn't able to sustain institutionalized alliances where promises and norms guide behavior and entice cooperation. First, Turkey is a weakened state run by one strongman. Government agencies are transformed and most, including the parliament, have been stripped of their independence and oversight powers. Lack of political accountability and transparency make it impossible for allies to count on consistency from Turkey.
Second, Ankara’s willingness to fit in with the West is at best questionable. Does Turkey really respect Western norms and ideals? Erdogan is a savvy and shrewd politician who represents a challenging identity for the West: On one hand, he candidly despises the West and its values; on the other, he is happy to enjoy the laws to his own advantage, contributing to a near-constant state of crisis.
Third, Turkey has a strong sense of entitlement. This is apparent not only through Erdogan’s words but also constantly in media that support Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP). For example, Mustafa Sen, a pro-government analyst repeated Aug. 21 what is heard frequently — that Turkey must remain determined in resisting the United States because the West and Russia can't sacrifice their relations with Turkey. Sen listed several reasons, such as Turkey's accommodation of refugees, the country's energy transportation lines, and the sizable and lucrative Turkish consumer market. He also noted that Turkey is the West's last intermediary in the East with Iran, Russia and China. He argued that if the strategic alliance with Turkey ends, the West will lose (to Russia) its access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and will sacrifice (to China) US access to Africa.
One of the reasons for the rise of anti-Americanism and xenophobia in Turkey is its delusion of being a superpower.
So what would a post-America Turkey look like? A professor of international relations from a respected Istanbul university told Al-Monitor, "The current situation resembles a children’s game of chicken, where two stubborn individuals dare and double dare each other. If one of them backs down and risks being labeled a coward, a head-on collision can be averted. But so far, Erdogan has not taken any of the opportunities presented to him for a graceful exit from this game.” Several bureaucrats and sources close to the palace confirm that “Erdogan is having a ball, why should he back down?” It seems that one of the reasons Ankara is always in crisis is Erdogan’s ability to thrive in times of disaster. “It's like drugs to an addict — Erdogan energizes through conflict,” said a former AKP lawmaker.
So overall, anything is not possible. In the game of chicken, if one player doesn't swerve, sooner or later there will be a collision that will strain completely Turkey’s strategic alliance. Given that Turkey is no longer the same country that became part of the Western alliance, this path seems highly probable. One current dilemma arose from Turkey's arbitrary arrest of American pastor Andrew Brunson — but even if he is released, Erdogan’s regime will continue holding other possibly innocent Westerners and acting in ways that are harmful to the majority of its own citizens, as well as to the international situation.
The United States now has to decide whether the cost of ending the strategic alliance with Turkey is higher than appeasing Erdogan's arbitrary demands. One crisis after another tells us that until the situation is calmer, institutionalized relations should be frozen. Considering that the much-praised alliance is on life support now, disengagement may be the most effective policy for those who don't enjoy life in turmoil. Selective joint projects through ad hoc decisions can be carried out when the interests of two countries are aligned, but insisting on an alliance that only generates further conflict is futile.
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