Asli Aydintasbas is a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a columnist for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. Jeremy Shapiro is research director at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
If the Turkish-U.S. relationship were a television series, it would be a Mexican soap opera with the couple breaking up, separating and falling in love again all within the scope of an hour. In the most recent episode, President Trump bonded with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan over their mutual desire to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. But then, only a few weeks later, Trump threatened to “devastate” the Turkish economy if Ankara attacked Kurdish forces in Syria after the U.S. forces left.
Such roller-coaster rides have become typical of the Turkish-U.S. relationship under the two mercurial presidents. Last summer, Washington imposed sanctions on Ankara for the imprisonment of a U.S. pastor. Before that, there was a spat after a Turkish banker went on trial in a scheme developed by a state bank to bypass Iran sanctions. In between, there were declarations of love and devotion between Trump and Erdogan. During last July’s NATO summit, they fist-bumped each other and Trump was heard mumbling, “I like this guy, I like this guy.”
The list of problems between the two countries is long. Ankara plans to buy an anti-aircraft system from Russia. Washington refuses to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Muslim cleric whom the Turkish government blames for a July 2016 attempted coup. The two governments have also arrested each other’s citizens and hurled insults at each other over U.S. support for Kurdish groups in northern Syria that Turkey considers terrorists. Erdogan threatened to give U.S. forces in Syria “an Ottoman slap” if they didn’t stop supporting the Kurds. Last August, Trump sanctioned two Turkish ministers and talked down the Turkish currency, wounding the Turkish economy even as it teetered on the brink of financial crisis. In response, Erdogan threatened to seek other alliance partners in an op-ed in the New York Times.
Yet the problem is beyond personalities. Sure, both men are into backroom deals and love to bypass their national security apparatchiks to strike personal arrangements. But it’s not enough to make this relationship work. Even when they agree, matters of state or scheming courtiers — Turks believe such to be the case of a recent visit by White House national security adviser John Bolton — conspire to pull them apart.
And there is a reason for that. Beyond Trump’s erratic behavior and Erdogan’s quick temper, something is wrong at the core of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. The relationship was structured in the Cold War at a time when the secular republic of Turkey was determined to claim its place in the West. That Turkey is gone. Today, the U.S.-Turkish relationship stands out for its dangerous volatility because Washington and Ankara have both failed to adjust to the new circumstances of the Middle East and their changing roles in the region.
What is that new reality? Turkey now sees itself as emerging from America’s shadow as an independent geopolitical actor that owes fealty to no one. Erdogan makes no secret of the fact that he wants to oversee the rebirth of the Turkish empire. He views Turkey’s traditional ties with the West, including NATO, as unequal and at times unfavorable to his interests. He sees the world as an arena of great power competition, with Turkey standing alongside China, Russia, Europe and the United States. That’s an exaggerated view of Turkey’s power and capacity — but not to Erdogan.
Washington, for its part, refuses to acknowledge that its effort to draw down in the Middle East and to attend to issues at home comes at a cost in terms of America’s alliances. Demanding that Turkey accept its traditional role as junior partner in a “strategic relationship” makes little sense as the United States becomes an increasingly distant power. Erdogan can see and smell that the United States is on its way out. He has no desire to humor policies that prevent his own regional hegemony.
This means there is no longer a basis for the traditional type of strategic partnership between the United States and Turkey that marked the postwar period. They can and do still work together when interests align, such as with the Islamic State and Afghanistan, or work around each other when interests diverge, as in the case of U.S. support for Syrian Kurds. But their effort to hold each other to the standard of their traditional relationship can cause only disappointment, recrimination and even confrontation.
The future of the Turkish-U.S. relationship can only be transactional — devoid of the emotional baggage about strategic partnership and NATO camaraderie. The Trump-Erdogan telenovela is not the cause of U.S.-Turkish problems, and it will not provide the solution either. At the moment, there are reportedly 80,000 Turkish troops lined up on the Turkish-Syrian border threatening an incursion into areas held by Syrian Kurdish forces, which are still backed up by U.S. special forces. Given their star-crossed history, it is hard to have confidence in Trump and Erdogan’s capacity to negotiate a new settlement in northern Syria that allows the United States to withdraw and avoids further confrontation and violence.
Unless both sides start to seek a new basis for U.S.-Turkish relations, the Trump-Erdogan telenovela will have many more exciting episodes to run.