Realists Should Expect America and Turkey to Stick Together

Barack Obama welcomes Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Oval Office. Flickr/The White House

Ideological differences don’t beat mutual interests.

Since the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, some analysts have speculated that its ties with the West will be severed. This speculation comes at a time when Turks suspect U.S. involvement in the coup and when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has accused the West of supporting the coup. It also coincides with exhortations by commentators for the West to rethink, reassess or cut ties with Ankara. Such accusations and rhetoric call the future of Turkish-Western relations into question.

Within the field of international relations, realists assume that conflicts and alliances between states are determined and shaped by material measures of power, including geostrategic location, geographic depth, population size, economic vigor and military technology. Liberals, on the other hand, believe that inter-state relations are influenced by value-based or normative considerations, such as the extent that governments are democratic or authoritarian, and respect and uphold international institutions, laws, norms and values.

Amid recent tensions before and after the failed coup, Turkish–Western relations have become strained over the liberals’ value-based concerns. However, these relations will likely remain intact for the foreseeable future due to the realists’ material factors in the geopolitical, military and economic realms.

Since the failed coup attempt, Turkey and the West have squabbled over normative issues. The Turkish government has demanded that the United States extradite the Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gülen, who has been living on his Pennsylvania estate in self-imposed exile since 1999. While secular officers may have led the coup, Ankara insists that Gülen stand trial for allegedly staging and orchestrating a coup that threatened to illegally and unconstitutionally overthrow a democratically elected government. In the process, the Turkish government has been unable to understand why the democratic West would deny such a request.

Before agreeing to extradite Gülen, the United States has demanded that Ankara comply with the principles of due process and the rule of law by submitting concrete evidence that corroborates his guilt or complicity in the coup. In the meantime, the United States and EU have condemned the post-coup purges and alleged torture that have taken place against thousands of suspected Gülen sympathizers and followers in the government, bureaucracy, military, police, judiciary, media and academia—the so-called parallel state. The EU has also censured the temporary suspension of the European Convention on Human Rights by the Turkish government so it could declare a three-month state of emergency and potentially impose the death penalty against suspected coup plotters and participants.

Prior to the coup, Turkish–Western tensions had already surfaced and intensified over Ankara’s authoritarian tendencies, including its repression of the Gezi Park protests and Erdoğan’s implicit designs to amend the constitution, change the political system to a presidential one, and concentrate executive powers into his hands. These designs are predicated on the AKP’s ability to secure a two-thirds parliamentary majority in future elections. Western nations and international organizations, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have intensely scrutinized and maintained high expectations and standards for Turkey—a country that exceptionally established one of the Middle East’s first pluralist, parliamentary democracies in 1950, joined NATO and the Baghdad Pact or CENTO in the 1950s and has sought EU accession since 1987.