An Alternative Reading of U.S.-Turkish Relations Within the Context of the Middle East

Dr. H. Akın Ünver

Turkish-American relations have always been defined as a ‘strategic partnership’. Almost without exception, decision-makers and diplomats at the highest levels point to a particular ‘importance of the strategic partnership’ or ‘relationship’ whenever they try to define bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States. Surprisingly at the public level, we take this definition for far too granted, without really asking what exactly a strategic partnership is, and how it is translated into policy practice.

Strategic partnership’ is in fact a business term, which defines a case in which two companies integrate and/or coordinate one or more components of their enterprises in order to maximize profit in a short or medium-term investment. Falling short of a full merger or acquisition, the defining element of a strategic partnership is this particular investment goal and undertaking without which such partnership wouldn’t take place.

In other words, strategic partnerships form in the face of a perceived profit or in order to pass a particular, anticipated threshold, and fall apart when the expected profit is received. In many ways, the common goal that had initiated the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership was the Cold War and countering a common, perceived Soviet threat. This later evolved into cooperation during successive Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars, but came to a halt during the earlier phases of the war in Iraq. When the third component (i.e. common goal) of a strategic partnership is no longer there, the partnership falls apart like a tripod losing one of its legs, and like many other strategic partnerships, without the ‘third leg’, we are witnessing an episodic downgrade in Turkish -American relations.

With some exceptions, the most recently prevalent argument within the American scholarship on U.S.-Turkish relations is that these relations are undergoing a period of structural stagnation. Some arguments even propose that Turkey is leaving ‘the West’ and ‘turning towards the East’ (rarely offering a proper operational definition of what these cardinal directions culturally imply) and that Turkish-American relations are no longer a relationship of cooperation, but one of rivalry. Such analyses, with varying degrees of validity, propose that Turkish foreign policy is becoming increasingly Islamized in a radical fashion, as Turkey seeks to develop closer and more advertized relations with Iran, Syria and Hamas, rather than with more moderate Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon. Interestingly, ‘the West’ (again, whatever concrete and operational policy definition this may entail) is also divided in providing explanations as to why Turkey is ‘lost’; while the United States frequently blames the European Union for refusing membership to Turkey because of ‘short-sighted, electoral concerns’, the European Union (most recently Manuel Barosso) had identified that Turkey’s so-called ‘axial shift’ took place due to a clumsily initiated, protracted Iraq war and the wider regional instability it brought (1).

We will not deal with this debate here, as it has been (and already is being) discussed widely by the American, European and Turkish scholarship. Rather, there is a subtle, yet very critical dimension to this seeming stagnation in Turkish-American relations that elides almost all analyses and observers: the dimension of culture and epistemology. This dimension became more explicit to me as I participated in a roundtable conference recently that had brought a group of American and Turkish Middle East experts to discuss regional issues and prospects of harmonizing the two countries’ foreign policies in the region. Surprisingly, following three full days of intense debate that covered almost every aspect and argument regarding the U.S. -Turkish relations within the context of the Middle East, the debate did not produce a conclusion of severe and existential disagreement or incompatibility between the U.S. and Turkey. Be it the convergence of the primary objectives in the region (Arab-Israeli peace, a nuclear Iran, promotion of democracy and economic interaction among the countries of the region), importance of issue linkages in foreign policy and the importance of ‘soft-power’ in policy formulation, Obama and Erdoğan governments appeared almost identical in aim and priorities.

Yet when these ultimate goals were addressed in detail and in a micro-managing – operational fashion, there were serious disagreements and acute epistemological differences. In other words, there was little incompatibility between Turkish-American primary objectives in the Middle East regarding ‘what’ to do, but when it came to ‘how’ to do it, it was as if both sides were speaking a different language.

Those who are familiar with the post-2003 Turkish foreign policy are aware of the concept of identity within the ‘strategic depth doctrine’ and how it relates to Tur- key’s approach towards its immediate neighborhood. In many ways, Turkey’s current foreign policy doctrine emphasizes the importance of culture on external relations and for this reason it is (or at least appears to be) closer to the English constructivist school; more specifically to Barry Buzan’s regional security complex theory. Emphasizing regionalism along cultural lines in a post – Cold War unipolar global system within which the ‘unipole’ is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain its undisputed hegemony, the regional security complex theory (as materialized in the AKP’s foreign policy) looks at the world through the lens of ‘regional security complexes’ whose processes of constructing what a friend/ foe is chiefly determined by culture–which in turn can be defined in religious, geographical and historical narrative lines. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, in his ‘Strategic Depth’ book that serves as the magnum opus of Turkish foreign policy, explicitly proposes a ‘Turkish zone of civilizational influence, as determined by an Ottoman imperial legacy’ that also includes the Middle East, to which Turkey, according to Davutoğlu, has ‘responsibilities that are dictated by historical and organic ties’. Also containing Haasian neo- functionalist elements, Turkey’s foreign policy (at least in principle) seeks to create economic inter- dependencies that would ideally ‘spill-over’ to stronger, peaceful and stabilizing political cooperation. Therefore, Turkey’s foreign policy is a conscious break from Turkey’s realist / hard politics priorities and prescribes a new approach based on culture, economic relations and identity. Of course, whether this theoretical approach has been successful or not in policy practice can be subject to further debate.

As opposed to a more elaborate Turkish foreign policy, which has deeper academic and intellectual roots (though this doesn’t mean that it is always right), the U.S. foreign policy seems to be currently ‘up in the air’, making a profound transition from the previous administration’s confrontational approach into a subtler and perhaps more appeasing line. Therefore, the United States is currently shifting from a tried, tested and failed foreign policy into a doctrine that is evaluated by some as a reformulation of Wilsonianism with a dose of Clintonian approach that emphasizes inter-personal relations and less advertised belligerence. An April 2010 expert panel discussion on website (2) had evaluated Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel’s statement that Obama’s foreign policy resembled more to George H. W. Bush’s cautious/ defensive realism rather than his son’s discursively aggressive confrontational offensive realist policies. While the panel had different views on Obama’s Emmanuel-imposed credentials as a foreign policy ‘realist or idealist’ or ‘realpolitician or Wilsonian’, they did not, could not move beyond the simple dichotomy of ‘cold -blooded versus friendly’, ‘hard versus soft’ or ‘realistic versus ambitious’ in defining U.S. foreign policy. It was very surprising to see perhaps some of the most senior and highest end experts of U.S. foreign policy being unable to add a new dimension to policy analysis beyond the simplest realism -liberalism debate that was both academically and intellectually outgrown decades ago. More worrisome perhaps, was that not even a single senior expert had introduced any argument that analyzed the role of perception, culture, social norms, dependency, meaning or discursive construction in U.S. foreign policy. Labels such as ‘ irrational ’ , ‘calculating’ and ‘predictable’ were flying around in a rigidly and almost unanimously rational choice based debate, which did not even briefly witness a discussion evaluating the influence of culture on what a particular country may define ‘rational’. Even more worrisome was that instead of defin- ing ‘rationality’ as a social and cultural construction, these experts were taking a strictly Cartesian understanding of binary rationality as granted, exposing a serious intellectual narrowness in the U.S. foreign policy debate. It was as if constructivist, normative and post structuralist strands never made it to the right side of the Atlantic.

“…Turkey and the United States become two cooks that want to cook the same thing with different ingredients and cooking techniques.”

When one compares the terminology and depth that is used to discuss U.S. foreign policy with that of Turkish foreign policy, it becomes somewhat clear why Turkey’s Middle East policy becomes ‘incomprehensible’ and ‘unrealistic’ from an American perspective and why the U.S. Middle East policy is seen as ‘mechanic’ and ‘elementary’ from a Turkish perspective. Surprisingly when it comes to the Middle East, both the United States and Turkey arrive at the same conclusions, despite having completely different approaches. Therefore, the most important observation with regard to American and Turkish approaches towards the Middle East is that, when it comes to end results and primary objectives, there is little disagreement between the United States and Turkey. However, come methodologies and operational approaches, Turkey and the United States become two cooks in the same kitchen. Turkey’s policies come from a normative/ culturalist perspective that is deeply intellectual and historical and also has a clear awareness of the role of culture in regional politics (i.e. how to do or say things), whereas the United States ap- proaches from a strictly realist and Cartesian rational choice point of view. Therefore, when both sides lay down their arguments, the American side perceives Turkey’s positions as ‘wishful thinking’, ‘ideological’, ‘touchy feely’ and uncertain, whereas the Turkish side perceives American positions as ‘unnecessarily harsh’, ‘cold’, ‘too hasty’ and sometimes ‘culturally ignorant’.

Both Turks and Americans that think this methodological difference will cause rivalry or incompatibility are needlessly throwing a mutually beneficial and promising longterm relationship away because methodologies aside, Turkish – American relations are not ultimately conflictual. There is a lot of dot connecting to do for sure, but this requires more engagement; not less. Both Turkish culturalism and American pragmatism are valuable approaches towards Middle Eastern politics and work best when utilized together. The best way to utilize this convergence in primary aims and difference in methodologies comes through giving Turkey more space to maneuver regionally and ‘do its own thing’ in the Middle East, during which the United States could re- main watchful and ‘receive’, rather than ‘transmit’ constantly, without acting too dramatically and allow Turkey to pursue all subtle and cultural options that feel foreign to the United States. This is specifically valid at a time when the US Department of the State is critically lacking personnel with necessary language and cultural training in its endeavors in the Middle East; most critically with regard to Iran (3). Turkey on the other hand must remain in close consultation and interaction with the United States, putting effort into making sure that it is understood well in Washington. If Turkey ends up exhausting all ‘soft -power’ alter- natives and still remains unable to decrease the tension in the region, and if – for example – Iran comes to a point that both Turkey and the United States find unacceptable, then the United States can act as a ‘safety net’. But unlike Iraq war build – up, this time Turkey will know that it has tried all other alternatives and will be more supportive of increasing US involvement in the region at the governmental, executive -branch and public levels.

“Perhaps the relationship can be given a new and positive push by proposing an exchange program for the junior and mid career diplomats between the US Department of State and Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”  

The Middle East at large will soon become the missing ‘third leg’ of U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership. However, this relationship is also evolving from a rigid ‘strategic partnership’ into a more complex, multilayered interaction in which culture and perception will play a far more important role than ever. It would be wrong to demote this relationship for the sake of both sides; instead and to the contrary, there must be a renewed effort in engagement and more willingness to listen. More crucially than ever, U.S.-Turkish relations require culturally transliterate bureaucrats, analysts and leaders, as well as programs and organizations that will put effort into facilitating this transliteration.

Perhaps the relationship can be given a new and positive push by proposing an exchange program for the junior and mid -career diplomats between the US Department of State and Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This will ensure that important things will not get lost in translation in this important partnership and will sow the seeds of longer-term cooperation between Turkey and the United States.


* Dr. Ünver is the Ertegün Lecturer of Turkish Studies at Princeton University. He would like to thank the University of Michi- gan’s Center for European Studies and Center for the Middle East and North African Studies, where he drafted this article as a part of his post -doctoral research.
2) h t t p : / / w w w . f o r e i g n p o l i c y . c o m / articles/ 2010/ 04/ 14/ george_hw_obama
3) S e e f o r e x a m p l e ; h t t p : / / b l o g . f o r e i g n p o l i c y . c o m / p o s t s / 2 0 0 7 / 0 6 / 2 1 / the_state_departments_arabic_problem_is_ worse_than_you_think



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