Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Donald Trump at the White House
Don’t expect major improvements in the old alliance any time soon, but don’t expect it to vanish either.
By Nathaniel Handy / 01.15.2018
The scepter of Turkey’s reorientation from its traditional pro-US foreign policy has been the subject of fevered speculation in Western policy circles for many years now. The latest series of spats between the administrations of Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan — two men not inclined to dodge a confrontation — appears to lend added weight to such concerns. Is the fear justified?
There is no question that relations between the long-time allies are strained. In recent months, there’s been a dispute in which the US suspended most visa services in Turkey in response to the arrest of a Turkish citizen employed by the US consulate; repeated disgruntlement on the part of Turkey about US support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, including the recent summoning of the US Charge d’Affaires in Ankara, Philip Kosnett; and now a tit-for-tat advisory against travel to the respective countries.
These recent rumblings can be viewed within the context of a broader move away from unconditional support for the US on the part of Turkey. This has its roots in the shift in political control from the traditional liberal-secular elite to an emergent conservative-religious elite. One of the first telling outward signs was the Turkish parliament’s refusal to allow US use of the Incirlik air base in southeast Turkey in the Iraq War of 2003.
The decision by Turkey to advise its citizens against travel to the US must be seen within the context of diplomatic — or not so diplomatic — posturing rather than as a response to actual threat. The Turkish advisory immediately follows a US travel advisory to American citizens that cited Turkey as an “increased security risk” due to “terrorism and arbitrary detentions.”
These happen to be exactly the same reasons given by the Turkish government in issuing its own advisory against travel to the US. This is tit-for-tat diplomacy that bears a striking resemblance to similar episodes in recent US-Russia relations, in which actions by one side led to the threat of reciprocal action from the other.
However, though Turkey would like the diplomatic spat to be viewed in the same light as American-Russian entanglements, it is significantly different. The reality is that US-Turkey relations are deeply asymmetric. The US is the global superpower and Turkey is an ally. If the US issues an advisory against its citizens traveling to Turkey, it has real consequences for the Turkish tourism sector.
Unlike the US, Turkey is not a rich country. It is an emerging economy with reasonable growth, but many regions have significant reliance on tourism. This reliance was observed in the Russian ban on its citizens visiting Turkey in 2015. That hit Turkey hard and eventually led to a rapprochement. The US is further away geographically, but it still has an effect.
In contrast, a Turkish advisory is much more about diplomatic positioning. It has negligible effect on the US or its economy. Though President Erdogan would not like to see it this way, its prime function is simply to send a message to the Trump administration. The trouble is, when you are the weak partner in an asymmetric relationship, such actions can end up simply looking like petulance rather than a serious threat.
Many will say that these actions hold in them the threat of Turkey abandoning its long-time allies to the West. The question to consider, though, is abandonment in order to pursue what? The idea of a drift to the East has involved theories of a reorientation of Turkish foreign policy toward the Middle East, toward China and even toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is a major supplier of Turkey’s energy needs. None of these are yet convincing alternatives.
The counterrevolution that followed the Arab Uprisings has destroyed Turkish aims at an integrated Middle East. The Syrian Civil War has pitted Turkey against both Iran and Russia, even leading to the downing of a Russian jet and the ensuing diplomatic crisis. Perhaps the only steady partner has been China, yet it is still no substitute for the alliance with the US and NATO.
Despite President Erdogan’s evident antipathy toward much of what the US represents, his government knows it must remain within its orbit for now. There simply isn’t a safe alternative. The world is increasingly ruled by inflexible strongmen who see politics as a zero sum game, just as Trump and Erdogan do. None of those leaders — in Russia, in the Middle East or elsewhere — are reliable enough for Turkey to put its faith in.
The posturing that now characterizes US-Turkey relations will increasingly become the norm, as Ankara seeks to gain the maximum leverage for itself in an ever more multipolar world. Yet, while the US may not reestablish itself as the close, intimate ally it was in the 20th century, Turkey will also be careful not to sever ties completely, nor seek a new overbearing ally in an unstable Asian neighborhood.