U.S.-Turkey relations: an overview

By Zachary Popovich

Relations between the Republic of Turkey and the United States are continuing to decline as the former slides deeper into autocracy, threatening future cooperation. Turkey’s crackdown on political dissent and violence against its own people along with their active cooperation with nations adverse to America’s strategic interests illuminates the need for the United States to seriously analyze its relationship with the once bright example of secular democracy in the Muslim world.  

An honest face value look at the Turkish state fails to assume any natural alliance between Washington and Ankara. From the beginning of the 21stcentury to today, Turkey has taken deliberate steps to centralize political authority and crackdown on a wide array of political opposition which dramatically increased following the failed coup led by Turkish officers on July 16, 2016

Since then, more than 200,000 people including members of the military, journalists and academics have been sacked from their positions or jailed. Just recently on June 18, Turkish police launched a nationwide raid detaining over 160 individuals connected with the failed plot, showcasing the regime’s desire to extinguish dissent and bolster its own authority.   

Turkey’s nosedive into authoritarianism has further been codified as consequence of the country’s historic constitutional referendum in 2017. The passed constitutional changes morphed Turkey into a presidential republic from a parliamentary system and shifted inordinate executive, legislative and judicial authority under the auspices of the president.

Keep in mind, this new system was scaffolded specifically around Turkey’s current ruler, President Recep Erdogan, who now in theory can stay in power along with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) into 2034. This possibility would place President Erdogan at the helm of Turkey for over three decades; a first in Turkey’s democratic history. 

The truth is, this is all unsurprising. President Erdogan has made it his goal to reclaim Turkey’s position in the Muslim world and assert dominance in the region. Gone are the days of Turkey being seen as some sort of bulwark for liberal principles thriving in a sea of political and cultural authoritarianism. 

This should come as no shock, as President Erdogan clearly telegraphed these goals as far back as 1996 in an interview with pro-government Milliyet newspaper stating, “Democracy is a means not an end….democracy is a tramway-you climb on to get to where you want to go, and then you climb off.” 

President Erdogan has always seen his vision for Turkey in conflict with that of the west and NATO. Under his leadership, Turkey has turned away from the modern secular nation-state created by founding father Mustafa Ataturk and is regressing into a neo-ottoman catastrophe, underpinned by illiberal rule and political oppression. 

Strategically, Turkey has fared no better to support NATO efforts or that of American interests. Ankara is still set on acquiring Russian S-400 air defense systems despite overt American and western objections. The U.S. has even threatened expulsion of Turkish pilots training in America, sanctions on Turkish firms and the exclusion of Turkey from the F-35 fighter program which is set to supply NATO members over the coming years. 

The fact that a NATO ally would not just collude with or secretly support, but actively work with an adversarial nation such as Russia is demonstrative of the kind of state Turkey has become and the failing treaty-ally it has devolved into.

Equally important is Turkey’s opposition to America’s partners in the Middle East. A key element in America’s strategy against ISIS has involved working with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Kurdish Peshmerga fighting forces in northern Iraq and Syria. However, Turkey’s own historical, political and cultural issues involving ethnic Kurds in Turkey as well as fighting with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) has placed the U.S. and Turkey on polar opposite ends in terms of welcoming Kurdish support. 

According to Bloomberg, President Erdogan recently went so far as to posit that American support for Kurds fighting in Iraq and Syria were all part of an effort to topple his own regime in stating, “Do you know what their biggest goal is now? ‘How can we topple the AK party from power,’ this is their matter. But they won’t be able to overthrow, their power would not be sufficient for that.” 

When a NATO member is buying missiles from Russia and accusing the alliance’s largest military of actively trying to topple its government, you know there are significant problems, albeit not permanent ones. 

Despite these setbacks, the relationship between Turkey and the United States can be saved. 

Strategically, Asia Minor’s position along the Black Sea is a valuable asset for America’s and NATO’s defense against potential Russian expansionism in the region. Turkey has also provided crucial bases for coalition forces fighting against the Islamic State and other similar threats. Further, Turkey can prove to be an important component of America’s strategy against the militant Islamic Republic of Iran and its many proxy groups.   

Geography aside, President Erdogan is driving Turkey dangerously close toward the point of no return. His autocratic tendencies and crackdown on democratic principles alone are grounds enough for America to seriously reconsider its relationship with Turkey. By continuing on its current course, President Erdogan’s regime will threaten to strip Turkey of the strategic, economic and political benefits it currently enjoys as well as debase itself on par with nations such as President Putin’s Russia and President Maduro’s Venezuela. Failure to heed this warning would leave the United States no choice but to look at tools such as economic and political sanctions or even press for an evaluation of Turkey’s current membership in NATO. Turkey is not entitled to the continued support and protection it has enjoyed over the past 70 years and must make prudent considerations for its place in the international community, or else face consequences.   

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Zachary Popovich

Zachary Popovich is a current Master of Public Administration student studying at James Madison University.

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