Update from Turkey: Political Landscape and the US-Turkish Relationship

Courtesy of Kinda Haddad

Summary: The relationship between Turkey and US has become increasingly tense, particularly as Turkey has become more politically volatile. Although Turkey has resources and industry, it has become over reliant on foreign trade, which makes the currency crisis and tariff battle more problematic.

Political Landscape. Despite Ankara’s NATO membership and longstanding alliance with Washington, relations between Turkey and the United States have become strained in recent years. Tension has increased as Turkey has experienced domestic turbulence and the U.S. has engaged in protectionist trade practices. Dr. Özoğlu elaborated on historic tensions between the two nations and offered insight about the factors contributing to the deterioration of ties in the Erdogan-Trump era.

It is important to keep in mind that tension has often complicated relations. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, the U.S. removed several missiles from Turkey without proper properly notifying the Turkish government – piquing Ankara. In a fashion relevant to today’s stand-off, Turkey suggested that alliance realignment could be an option, referring to Soviet Russia. Ankara insisted at the time that a future without the United States would not cripple Turkey. Dr. Özoğlu asserted that both then and now such a strategy would not come into fruition; Turkey would not truly forgo the United States as a military ally. Russia is a historical rival, and there are too many contrasting interests that prevent Ankara and Moscow from working too closely together.

Ankara and Washington also butted heads after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, which resulted in a cut in American military aid; Turkey responded by closing a key American military base. During the George W. Bush Administration, Turkey refused to allow American troops to invade Iraq through Turkish territory. However, in these and other cases the relationship eventually healed.

The sources of tension today vary. On the surface, however, they center on the fate of Andrew Brunson, a jailed Evangelical pastor in Turkey. The Trump Administration faces pressure from a segment of its base, Evangelical Christians, to have the pastor returned to the United States. Turkey’s refusal to do so stems in part from Washington’s refusal to extradite Futhellah Gülen, leader of Gülen movement, back to Turkey. Though he was once a political ally, President Erdogan holds Gülen responsible for the 2016 attempted coup d’état; though proof has not been proffered to Washington, Gülenists were directly involved in the coup. However, Trump’s response to Ankara’s refusal to act on the Brunson matter has included imposing tariffs and on Turkish goods; this directly influences the ongoing lira devaluation crisis. Erdogan’s response to this punitive move included imposing counter-tariffs and calling for a boycott on American technology. The stand-off has escalated despite attempts to find a political solution.

Questions about Erdogan and the ruling AKP’s political power were raised during the discussion. Support for Erdogan is strong but not overwhelming in terms of numbers. But organization matters. Opposition exists but has yet to coalesce, and thus has failed to regain control of the government. Despite the authoritarian trends of the current AKP government, it is assumed that in order to continue their hold on power, they must eventually make some political concessions.

The Economy. The Turkish economy is causing a brain drain. Qualified individuals tend to leave the nation in pursuit of higher aspirations and a better life whilst those less qualified remain. Dr. Özoğlu mentioned how this seeps into everyday life. He illustrated this point by explaining how in a TV appearance a supposedly highly-regarded professor insisted that Noah, from the Biblical account, used a cell phone to contact his son to warn him about the coming flood. While this is an extremely ridiculous case, the point is that this and other such fanciful talk, often heard in widely-accepted conspiracy theories, is commonplace due to the brain drain.

Dr. Özoğlu also made several comments about the Turkish economy. Turkey needs the West for investment; it lacks the capital to continue to improve and modernize its economy on its own. Turkey has a strong industrial base but must import raw materials for production and has become too reliant on foreign trade to help its citizens. However, foreign investors are hesitating to bet on Turkey right now. This is attributable both to political volatility and the litigious nature of Turkish business. Foreign investors lack confidence in the Turkish judiciary.

Courtesy of Kinda Haddad

About the Discussant: Dr. Hakan Özoğlu’s previous research focuses on Kurdish Nationalism in the Ottoman Empire. His book was titled Kurdish Notables and the Ottoman State. The Turkish edition of the book came out in 2004. Özoğlu’s main aim in this project was to understand the process of identity formation and emergence of nationalism. His research interests include the power struggle in modern Turkish Republic after WWI and US involvement of the Middle East through Turkey after the Great War. His latest book deals with the tension between the secularists and the Islamists and with the Kemalist project to tame the political opposition in an attempt to westernize the remnant of the last “Islamic Empire.” His book From Caliphate to Secular State is released by Praeger Press in 2011. He is currently the Director of Middle Eastern Studies Minor. Currently he is working on a book manuscript on “Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol’s Tenure in Turkey.” His interviews and essays have appeared in many international media outlets including, New York Times, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, WTTW PBS Chicago. He is the recipient of 2017-18 Fulbright Core Fellowship

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