At a time when an enraged U.S. Congress is threatening Turkey, its president and other political figures with sanctions, President Tayyip Erdoğan is travelling to Washington to meet with his American counterpart. In a letter reportedly delivered to the presidential spokesperson and de facto National Security Advisor İbrahim Kalın, President Trump asked that Turkey not activate the S400 missiles purchased from Russia, which would trigger the imposition of CAATSA sanctions by Congress. It was also reported that, in his response, President Erdoğan refused to discuss this issue with preconditions. On the other hand, answering a question from a journalist accompanying him on his trip to Hungary, Erdoğan also said that the S-400 issue would be on the agenda along with the sale of Patriot missiles and F-35s — although he was not even asked about the Russian missiles.
The dismissive and offensive language that President Trump used in an earlier letter he sent to Mr. Erdoğan on the day Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring began, and that was made public by the White House, originally put this visit in doubt. Ultimately, ignoring public outrage over the content and tone of that letter, the Turkish president decided to go ahead and potentially use his close relations with Mr. Trump, his only remaining ally in the American capital, to thwart the momentum for sanctions.
Even if that part of the visit proves successful, as he himself said, Mr. Erdoğan will have to address the S-400 issue. He will likely face pressure from the American president. He may have to accept a face-saving formula whereby the missiles that had already been delivered will not be activated, further purchases will be cancelled and a green light will be given for Turkey to rejoin the F-35 program and purchase up to 120 units of the stealth aircraft. Undoubtedly this is a tall order, and as in so many other issues between Turkey and the U.S. these days, the Kremlin and President Putin’s policies and views will certainly be given due consideration by Mr. Erdoğan. In this light, the S-400 issue is not just about the incompatibility of this weapons system with those of NATO. Much more importantly, it is about Turkey’s strategic identity.
It is widely recognized that Turkish-American relations are in deep trouble. In Turkey, anti-Americanism, at times openly encouraged by the government, is rampant and delirious. It is difficult to have a sensible discussion about bilateral relations, and beyond that, about Turkey’s strategic identity in the Western alliance. Many members of the American strategic community openly and at times aggressively question the value of Turkey’s membership in the Atlantic alliance, as well as Ankara’s trustworthiness as a reliable ally for the United States. Notwithstanding the self-righteousness and irritatingly sophomoric judgments articulated by observers on both sides, the crisis is real.
The reality of the crisis is not just a function of current developments or the acrimony generated by one or the other side’s real or alleged misdeeds over the past few years. The problem is more structural than that. Simply put, since the end of the Cold War, Turkey and the United States have had diverging interests about which they never seemed to have had an honest conversation. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Turkey believed that it had its own interests to pursue and demanded that it be granted an autonomous space to pursue them, even if they clashed with collective Western or particular American interests.
At times, for example under the Clinton administration, the American side did define a pivotal role for Turkey in its strategic outlook and pushed hard to fully integrate Turkey into the Atlantic system — which was not yet under assault by first the Bush and then the Trump administrations. Washington’s view at the time was that Turkey’s identity as a Western ally was too dependent on NATO membership, and it had to be complemented by membership in the European Union. In the heyday of “enlargement”, this meant Washington was finally paying attention to the consolidation of democracy in Turkey.
This approach was not unprecedented either. As far back as 1969, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, Robert Komer, whose car was overturned and set on fire by students during his visit to the Middle East Technical University (built by Ford Foundation money), dispatched a report at the end of his short tour of duty in Ankara. In that document he made the following observations:
“The problem here is not just one of US-Turk relations, but of Turkey’s whole westward orientation, which in turn plays a key role in the stability of its democratic regime. For unless Turkey gradually joins Europe, it will probably not be able to solve its deep-rooted economic and social problems within a democratic frame. Since the 1960 revolution successive Turkish Governments and Turkey’s politically articulate minority have been reappraising Turkey’s role in the world and its alliances, in which the US plays by far the largest part…Despite all (their) reservations, most Turks still believe that Turkey has no realistic alternative but to rely on the NATO umbrella to protect it against unpredictable Soviet pressures. Highest priority should go to restoring Turkey’s faith in the US as its chief ally.”
Fifty years hence, the issues have obviously changed, but the undercurrent of suspicion and mistrust held by different segments of the population for their own reasons and the prevalence of such feelings even among the ruling elites, military and civilian alike, has remained. Under the Bush administration, the support given to Islamists in search of a “moderate Islam” model irked the secular public. The zeal with which the Bush administration went “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” in 2003 assaulted Turkey’s strategic comfort zone. Under the Obama administration, with Turkey enjoying a sound economy, high prestige in the international system and the Islamist AKP in power still as a paragon of democratic virtue, relations improved. The new president’s choice of Turkey as the site of his first bilateral transatlantic visit and elevation of Turkey to a “model partner” testified to the high expectations Washington had from Ankara.
In the event, the efforts failed. The Arab revolts tempted the new ruling elites of Turkey to pursue an ideological agenda instead of the pragmatic one they had favored earlier in their rule. In Syria, as the Obama administration disappointed the Turkish government, and the latter failed to tame its own zeal and correct its misguided policies in targeting the Bashar al-Assad regime, the two partners moved further apart. It is now up to an incoherent Trump administration and an Erdoğan government much beholden to Russia to put the relations back on track and challenge the prevailing frenzied mood in both countries.What is at stake for both allies is to maintain Turkey’s strategic identity. In that sense, we are revisiting Turkey’s 1945 moment — in which the decision was made to join the Western security system at all costs. The stakes are high, and so in order to be overcome, the crisis therefore deserves more care, deliberation and strategic sensibility than what either side proved capable of generating so far. A tall order indeed.