August 3, 2018
Washington has imposed sanctions on Turkey’s Ministers of Interior and Justice. These may be symbolic but their significance cannot be underrated. Ankara has reacted. The disarrayed opposition is clamoring for retaliation. Russia and Iran have condemned US action. Their “support” has made headlines in the Turkish media with some newspapers now drawing attention to the “religious dimension” of the dispute. Turkish currency continues to fall.
If one were patient enough to draw up a list of the problems on the Turkish-American agenda this would reflect a relationship not between NATO allies or family members as some seem to remember in times of distress but adversaries. It is the overall bilateral chemistry, Syria, PYD/YPG, FETO, Iran sanctions, Turkey’s purchase of S-400s, US threat not to deliver F-35 aircraft, new obstacles to trade not to mention other and related issues. The Brunson case which does not figure on the top of that list will be resolved at some point but the damage done will last. And, the erosion of mutual trust will continue unless a major effort is undertaken to reverse the downturn.
The Trump administration has been criticized for its unpredictability. Indeed, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, for example, once was Mr. Trump’s number one target on Twitter. Not anymore. Iran appeared to emerge as Washington’s regional arch enemy but now President Rouhani is offered an opportunity for a summit with the US leader. Perhaps even President Assad is wondering when he’ll hear the knock on the door. Yet, it would be fair to say that in its relations with Ankara, Washington has been fairly predictable at least in its public discourse. In fact, the relationship started to sour particularly during the second tenure of President Obama at the White House. Initially he had invested heavily in Turkey’s “vibrant, secular democracy”. Then he became utterly disillusioned. Nonetheless, his administration continued to emphasize cooperation with Turkey which was uniformly referred to as “an important NATO ally and a partner in the fight against ISIS”. The Trump administration has basically continued this policy. But, problems were allowed to linger on. Even “minor irritants” could not be eliminated and now the two allies find themselves in an unsustainable situation.
Turkish foreign policy has also been unpredictable in the last decade. Moreover, it has become a tool of internal politics. Bravado and rhetoric have replaced more conventional approaches to international challenges doing disservice to Turkey’s even well-justified positions. There is no transparency. And, every deal has to be a “victory” for public consumption.
Secretary Pompeo’s Singapore meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on the margins of the ASEAN Ministerial has been described as “constructive” by both sides. Maybe Singapore is the lucky place for conflict resolution. After all, that is where President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un held their historic summit.
What should have been done long ago for a healthier Turkish-American relationship is obvious: giving diplomacy a real chance by cutting down the rhetoric and engaging in result-oriented talks to resolve, at least contain differences. Hopefully the Singapore meeting is not more of the same but a beginning in the right direction. If that does not prove to be the case, the only advice one can offer could be watching Steven Spielberg’s 2015 thriller “Bridge of Spies” with Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance in leading roles. Yes, that was a Cold War movie but today Turkish-American relations also reflect anything but warmth.