This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pushed the
U.S.-Turkey relationship from bad to worse.
On Tuesday, he claimed that “spies” had infiltrated U.S. missions
in Turkey and said that Turkey didn’t consider the U.S.
ambassador to Ankara, John Bass, to be a legitimate
representative of the United States.
Turkey’s president thus escalated a tit-for-tat diplomatic crisis
that started on Sunday, when the U.S. Embassy announced that the
United States had been forced “to reassess the commitment of the
Government of Turkey to the security of U.S. mission facilities
and personnel,” and as a result would no longer process
The decision was undoubtedly a response to the arrest of Metin
Topuz, a “foreign service national” who has worked with the Drug
Enforcement Agency’s office in the Turkish capital for many
years, but was accused of supporting the Fethullahist Terror
Organization by the Turkish government, which holds the group
responsible for the failed coup in July 2016. The Turkish
government responded in kind to the U.S. refusal to process visas
— before Erdogan followed up with his rhetorical broadside.
The Topuz case can be logged into an increasingly long list of
conflicts that have challenged the U.S. relationship with
Erdogan’s Turkey over the last few years. It is now clear that
Turkey and the United States are less allies and partners than
antagonists and strategic competitors, especially in the Middle
But it would be a mistake to lay Washington and Ankara’s
troubled relations at the feet of Turkey’s charismatic and
pugnacious president. In truth, the United States and Turkey
have been headed for a collision since Christmas Day in 1991,
when the Soviet Union disintegrated.
So much analysis and commentary about Turkey over the
last decade has emphasized Erdogan’s consolidation of his
personal political power. Although this work has been generally
accurate, it tends to obscure three important factors in
Turkish politics and foreign policy.
First, for all that Erdogan is the central
decision-maker, his ideas about Turkish power and mistrust of
the West have broad support among Turks — and with good
Second, the United States and Turkey share neither values nor
interests. Finally, the world has changed a lot since
the heyday of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, over a quarter century
Given the changing international dynamics, the U.S.
relationship with any plausible Turkish ruling party would
likely be frayed at this point. If Turkey’s main opposition
party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), were in power, for
instance, there would still be considerable tension in the
It would of course look different, but the “strategic
relationship” or “model partnership” would have no more content
and meaning than it does now. For example, the CHP leadership
has taken a pro-Bashar al-Assad stance in Syria and is as
strongly opposed to Kurdish nationalism, if not more so, than
Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. And to varying
degrees, all political parties in Turkey have tended to flirt
with Iran over the years.
This is a reality that often dumbfounds American officials, who
tend to work with a set of outdated ideas about Turkey. Policy
continues to be made based on the mythology of the Cold War,
which has produced a romantic retrospective of Americans and
Turks “standing shoulder-to-shoulder during the great
ideological battle with the Soviet Union” or some such
The myths of the Cold War era obscure the reality that, without
the common Soviet threat, there was not much to bind Washington
and Ankara together. The bilateral relationship was not based
on friendship, trust, or values, but rather the exigencies of
the countries’ shared conflict.
Even after Russian guards lowered the hammer and sickle from
atop the Kremlin all those years ago, American officials
erroneously assumed that Turkey would remain
shoulder-to-shoulder with its American partners. In the early
1990s, some in the foreign policy community thought
Turkey was uniquely positioned to guide the newly independent
Turkic states of Central Asia — whose citizens share cultural
and linguistic affinities with Turks — in stable, democratic
In the middle and latter part of that decade, the
foreign-policy community regarded Ankara as a driver of
security and peace in the Middle East. More recently, Turkey
was held out as a “model” for Arab countries seeking to build
more prosperous and democratic societies.
None of these projects proved successful, because they
overestimated Turkey’s capacities, underestimated the
historical legacies of the Ottoman domination of the Middle
East, and misread Turkish domestic politics and the worldview
of the country’s current leadership. With each failure, the
United States and Turkey drifted further apart.
Although the details of each of these episodes are important,
there was something else at work that contributed to the
unsuccessful outcomes. The American foreign-policy community is
slowly learning that much of what it believed about Turkey
turned out not to be the case. The country’s leaders —
including the military command — are neither democrats nor
pro-Western. In fact, they are deeply suspicious of the West,
especially the United States.
It is a common misconception that relations between the United
States and Turkey were always warm, similar to traditional
allies like the British or Germans. There were good working
relationships between American and Turkish officers at NATO, of
course, but those ties always had an element of mistrust,
stemming from the often prickly nationalism of the Turkish side
suspicious of American intent regarding Kurds and Washington’s
commitment to Turkish security. The officers were not as
“staunchly pro-Western” as so many press reports over the years
indicated, but rather first and only pro-Turkey. The same could
be said for the Turkish political leadership.
Most importantly, Turkey’s leaders do not share the interests
of the United States. At a level of abstraction, of
course, both Ankara and Washington oppose the proliferation of
weapons of mass destruction, support peace between Israelis and
Palestinians, fight terrorism, and want Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad to fall.
Yet Turkish and American prescriptions for achieving their
ambitions are so far apart that it stretches credulity to
suggest that these goals are actually shared. In each case,
officials from both governments can articulate how the other
has undercut their efforts in these areas. From an American
perspective, Turkey’s periodic warming of its ties with Iran
has weakened efforts to contain Tehran’s nuclear development,
while Ankara is also guilty of enabling extremists in Syria and
supporting the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
These tensions pre-date Erdogan and the rise of the Justice and
Development Party. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, for
example, the Turks chafed mightily over international sanctions
on Iraq. And of course, there were differences over many years
concerning Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, the subsequent
American arms embargo, and security in the Aegean.
The world has changed so much that Turkey, a NATO ally, works
with Russia — whose leaders are intent on weakening the Western
alliance — in Syria while the United States fights the
self-declared Islamic State with Syrian Kurdish forces who the
Turks believe (rightly) to be part and parcel of a terrorist
organization that has waged war against Ankara since 1984. The
strategic relationship has now been reduced to American access
to Incirlik Air Base, from which the United States and its
allies conduct operations against the Islamic State. From time
to time, the Turks have threatened to rescind permission to use
the facility for this purpose.
The very fact that it has become relatively easy for each
country to work with the other’s adversary suggests that the
strain in U.S.-Turkey ties is less about Erdogan’s worldview or
former President Barack Obama’s retrenchment but about the way
international politics is ordered a quarter century after the
Since the “war of the visas” began, journalists have been
asking whether the spat between the United States and Turkey
will escalate. There is no way of knowing, of course, though
much depends on Erdogan’s domestic political calculations.
Given the reservoir of anti-Americanism in Turkey, any Turkish
leader derives political benefits from conflict with the United
But the larger question is: How does the United States manage
Turkey’s shift from strategic partner to a relationship that
recognizes Turkey’s importance as both a onetime partner and an
If American policymakers continue to view Turkey through the
Cold War lens, they will continue to get nowhere. Already,
American diplomats are fruitlessly invoking U.S. and Turkish
shared values, while American citizens and U.S. government
employees are jailed
It’s time to recognize that the world has changed — and so has
the U.S.-Turkey relationship.