Keeping your Enemies Closer: Why the United States must Repair its Damaged Relationship with Turkey
Turkey’s use of bellicose rhetoric, zero-sum diplomacy, and ham-fisted military actions have isolated it from its historical NATO partners, pushing it into the welcoming embrace of America’s primary adversaries, Russia and China. Yet, while U.S. diplomats view this troublesome NATO partner with frustration, they should apply all of the economic, technological, and diplomatic leverage they have to resuscitate this relationship due as much to the harm Turkey could cause as to the benefits it could deliver.
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey under the Obama Administration once said, “You have to deal with the Turkey you have, rather than the one you'd like to have." President Obama, once believing Erdogan as a potential model leader for the Muslim world, understood the importance of Turkey as a strategic partner despite its decent into authoritarianism.
That understanding of Turkey and its combative President has been tested over the past three years, as Turkey’s behavior has become more unpredictable and adversarial, further trying the sensibilities and patience of policy makers in Washington who now view Turkey as an enemy. Yet, as satisfying as it would be to cut the chord with an increasingly hostile Turkey, it would behoove the United states to mend ties to ensure America’s strategic position in the Middle-East is not jeopardized.
It is highly likely America will have a sizeable footprint in the region for the foreseeable future to counter terrorism and the Iranian threat. It is here that the United States will continue to rely on Turkey’s location as the secure northern rim of a hostile and still-important region.
The freedom to navigate, both on the ground and in the air, in places like Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere will still be of great importance and close coordination with Turkey in executing American operations will be essential. Full access to Incirlik air force base will be crucial in tamping down a resurgence of ISIS and ensuring U.S. ground forces in Syria and Iraq are continuously supplied with intelligence and close air support. Perhaps more importantly, facing off with Iranian-backed militias has made it difficult for U.S. forces operating on the ground; adding overtly hostile Turkish-backed groups to the mix would make it that much more dangerous.
In addition to security, Turkey has sizeable economic ties the United States, which has seen trade double in the past decade from $10.7 billion in 2009 to over $20 billion in 2020 with Presidents Trump and Erdogan agreeing to work towards $100 billion annually. Although unclear if this will indeed occur, American steel, iron, cotton, and liquified natural gas exports stand to be impacted with any further deterioration of the American-Turkish relationship.
It is also important to note not only Turkey’s influence on the Middle East, but also Europe as a whole. Turkey is the gateway to Europe for thousands of refugees fleeing conflict, and as was seen in February of 2020, Ankara is able and willing to open, increase, or constrict the flow of refugees. A less adversarial relationship with Turkey could alleviate the pressures facing European domestic politics, NATO, and the European Union, and through that American interests.
Since 2017, Turkey’s economy has experienced a sharp downturn, its woes compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and most recently fears of its entrance into the Nagorno-Karabakh fray. In September 2019, the lira dipped 40 percent against the value of the dollar; it has since gained but still stands at 22.5 percent of the USD value. High interest rates have spooked investors, further highlighting the calamitous economic situation in Turkey. Furthermore, its credit was downgraded by Moody’s to B2 with a negative outlook due to “deteriorating government finances and the fact that the country’s institutions appear to be unwilling […] to effectively address increasing credit profile risks.” With mounting debts burdening Turkish private companies, the economy has sputtered.
Despite the tanking value of the Turkish lira and lack of currency reserves by the Central Bank, a majority of Turks do not favor any loans from the International Monetary Fund. While this suits Erdogan fine, it also presents an opportunity for the United States. Although the U.S. economy faces its own contraction and struggles brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and a slowdown in global trade, American liquidity could serve as a much-appreciated stop gap for the struggling Turkish banks. In addition, it would prevent Turkey from again relying on Chinese cash as it did over a year ago at the height of its economic stagnation. Unlike the enmity caused by European Central Bank and IMF bailouts of Greece and the austerity that followed, a bi-lateral agreement between two NATO partners would be under amiable conditions without strings attached.
In addition to assisting the Turks in their economic recovery, the current tensions centered around the Eastern Mediterranean’s gas rich waters present another opportunity for the United States to use diplomacy and its energy might to both mediate among Greek and Turkish allies, as well as assisting Turkey in gaining energy security. As with Houston-based Noble Energy’s role in developing Israel’s natural gas reserves in the Tamar and Leviathan fields in 2013 and 2019 respectively, the United States could leverage its off-shore drilling technology and expertise that has resulted in America being the lead natural gas producer in the world.
Involving private oil and gas companies, such as Eni, BP, and Total who have developed the region’s existing natural gas supplies, to take part in a fair bidding process of exploratory rights around Cyprus would ensure that Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey to all have competitive rights to the contested waters. This process would be predicated on the removal of all Greek and Turkish military vessels from the waters around Cyprus, in effect turning energy development into an issue of economics rather than security.
Turkey’s search for natural gas is likely driven by geopolitical interests rather than meeting demand, as consumption of natural gas has decreased the past three years. Therefore, the dispute is more so a diplomatic flexing of muscles than a desire to attain a scarce resource. Saber rattling and threats by the European Union thus far have certainly emboldened the Erdogan government to continue its exploration rather than deter it. As Turkey’s distrust and rancor with Europe increases, the United States, having a history of negotiating regional hostilities dating back to the 1974 Cypriot conflict, comes better positioned to play the role of mediator between its two long-time NATO allies EU-member Greece and Turkey.
Even if Washington and Ankara manage to take steps in mending their frayed relationship, America’s reputation and trust among Turks has decreased precipitously. As of 2018, Turks both favor and trust Russia more than the United States, a notion that would have been unfathomable only ten years ago. But as Naz Durakoglu, a Senior Policy Advisor for Senator Jeanne Sheehan noted in 2019, Russia has engaged in a highly effective public diplomacy mission in Turkey that has shifted the landscape of how Turks view their historic enemy, as a majority have supported strengthening an alliance with Russia. The anti-Americanism that Erdogan has spouted has also seeped into the Turkish public and risks further damaging American-Turkish relationship long past Erdogan.
Overall, the United States and its European allies understand Turkey has become a belligerent and adversarial nation rather than a trustworthy partner. However, Turkey is still important enough that the risk of losing it to the Russian and Chinese sphere of influence would be a geopolitical disaster in the long and short-term. As President-elect Joe Biden prepares to lead America into 2021 and beyond, his administration must exercise the full weight of U.S. diplomacy, economic might, and technological ingenuity in keeping an unpredictable ally, that is more and more acting like an enemy, closer.