How US, Turkey can get their relationship back on track
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created the biggest geopolitical crisis in the transatlantic region since the Second World War. It is no surprise that NATO is rethinking its role in the world in light of the new reality in Eastern Europe.
Central to almost everything that NATO does is the role of Turkey. Since the earliest days of the alliance, Turkey has had a front and center role in transatlantic security. Ankara’s control over the Turkish Straits, which connect the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, was crucial for regional security during the Cold War. During the Balkans crisis in the 1990s, Turkish troops played an important role in peacekeeping operations. And during NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, Turkey remained one of the largest troop-contributing nations and stayed until the very end to help with the evacuation of Kabul.
However, after more than 80 years of a strong bilateral relationship, US-Turkey ties have been stuck in a rut in recent years. From Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-built S-400 air defense system, Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program, US support in northern Syria for the YPG group that Turkey considers to be terrorist, and Gulen movement ringleader Fethullah Gulen currently residing in rural Pennsylvania, there are no shortage of big problems in the relationship.
Even with these differences, the current geopolitical situation in Europe requires US-Turkey relations to get back on track. It is time for genuine and modest confidence-building measures between the two sides. Instead of focusing on the major sticking points in the bilateral relationship, like the situation in northern Syria, the S-400 purchase or the extradition of Gulen, both sides should focus on smaller and more achievable areas of cooperation.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu will visit Washington next month for talks with his American counterpart, Antony Blinken. This meeting will follow a series of lower-level engagements between American and Turkish officials. Both sides need to focus on realistic and achievable goals to improve the relationship. There are three areas in particular.
The first is Ukraine. Since Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, Turkey has been one of the most vocal supporters of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. On the one hand, Turkey maintains cordial relations with Moscow for reasons that can be best described as geopolitical pragmatism. On the other hand, Turkey has been one of the more outspoken critics of Russia’s most recent aggression against Ukraine.
Instead of focusing on the major sticking points in the bilateral relationship, both sides should focus on smaller and more achievable areas of cooperation.
Ankara has also provided Ukraine with the Bayraktar TB2 drones that have proven effective in places like Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The drones are also proving to be very capable in Ukraine against Russian forces. In fact, overall, Turkish defense sales to Ukraine for the first three months of 2022 were 30 times higher than in the same period last year. There is little doubt that Ukraine will be top of the agenda when Turkish and American officials meet next month. Both sides should use this issue as a way to build trust and confidence in the relationship.
Secondly, both sides share a common interest in a successful future for NATO. Even with the problems in the US-Turkish bilateral relationship, cooperation has continued inside the NATO framework. For example, there is a lot of agreement between Washington and Ankara on the importance of NATO enlargement at a time when many others in Europe are wavering on this issue. NATO is currently drafting a new Strategic Concept document — the first in more than a decade. This document will guide the strategic direction of the alliance for the next several years. Ankara and Washington should also work together during this important process.
Finally, the US should work with Turkey regarding European energy security. The South Caucasus, the Caspian and Central Asia are regions where the US and Turkey have common and overlapping interests. Both are suspicious of growing Russian and Chinese involvement in these areas. The US wants European countries to tap into the region’s energy resources to reduce dependency on Russia, with Turkey aiming to be the energy hub that makes this possible. Specifically, the US should ask that Turkey use its influence to get Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan to agree to the building of the Trans-Caspian Pipeline to bring Central Asian natural gas to European markets.
In recent weeks, there has been a major shift in Turkish foreign policy to focus on diplomacy and reconciliation. Whether it is improved relations with the UAE and Israel or possible normalization with Armenia, it is clear there is an appetite in Ankara to improve diplomatic relations that have previously been strained.
Since Turkey joined NATO in 1952, the US-Turkey bilateral relationship has helped keep the transatlantic community safe and secure. Not only is it in Washington and Ankara’s interest to get their relationship back on track, but also for the EU, NATO and their partners in the region.
For the sake of transatlantic security, let us hope that Washington and Ankara can find areas of cooperation and rebuild their relationship.
- Luke Coffey is the director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey