Is America's Alliance with Turkey Doomed?

April 15, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: TurkeyMiddle EastAmerica

Is America's Alliance with Turkey Doomed?

The historic breakdown in Anglo-Ottoman relations is a useful model for evaluating today’s troubled alliance between the United States and Turkey.

SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1869, the pro-Western former Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister Keçecizâde Mehmed Fuad Pasha commented, “It appeared preferable that . . . we should relinquish several of our provinces rather than see England abandon us.” In response to this commitment, the British made the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire against Russian aggression a key pillar of their foreign policy.

Yet, in spite of the significance that Istanbul and London attached to their alliance in the 1850s, both sides were determined to eradicate each other by 1914. As Prime Minister Herbert Asquith put it, Britain was “determined to ring the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but in Asia as well.” In response, the Ottoman government described the British as “the greatest enemy” of not only the sultan’s empire but also of Islam itself.

The startling breakdown in Anglo-Ottoman relations might serve as a useful model for policymakers to evaluate the troubled alliance between the United States and Turkey. The sixty-year period between the Crimean War of 1853–56 and the July Crisis of 1914 resembles the era that opened with the admission of Turkey into NATO in 1952 and appears to be ending today. As the Anglo-Ottoman case warns, alliances formed in response to an external threat between powers that view each other as cultural “others” may deteriorate after the threat diminishes. Suffering from such alliance fatigue, erstwhile partners become clashing rivals.


THE ANGLO-RUSSIAN Great Game, waged across the vast lands stretching from Europe to Central Asia during the nineteenth century, rendered the Ottoman Empire an invaluable strategic asset in the eyes of British policymakers. Although the British public frowned upon the Ottoman Turks’ “peculiar Oriental ways,” and regarded them as “uncivilized Mohammedan barbarians” for their treatment of Christian subjects, Whitehall recognized that they could serve as a bulwark against Russia.


The Ottomans, likewise, recognized the value of having Britain as an ally given the looming threats posed by their neighbors, Russia and Austria. Though the Ottomans previously regarded the British as an untrustworthy non-Muslim power, the cooperation was a win-win venture, and the two powers agreed to partner economically and militarily. The strategic collaboration between them reached its zenith in 1853 when, along with other allies, they successfully waged war against Russia in Crimea.

America’s relative indifference to the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic was reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck’s famous remark that European Turkey “was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” The United States and the Ottoman Empire fought World War I on opposite sides, but did not clash with each other. Moreover, while President Woodrow Wilson discussed the future of the Ottoman Empire in his Fourteen Points, the United States did not actively participate in its partition. In 1922–23, Washington merely sent observers to the Conference of Lausanne, which produced the final peace treaty between the victors of World War I and Turkey. Though these observers helped Turkey reject British demands on Mosul oil through the Turkish Petroleum Company—an enterprise that was Turkish in name only—American involvement in Turkish affairs ended there. The United States secured the interests of American oil companies while frustrating British plans to cartelize Middle Eastern oil. Beyond this, Turkey was not worth the bones of a single American GI.

Though Turkey was a remote power representing an inherently different culture, exchanges between the nation’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt reveal that, by the late 1930s, Washington viewed Ankara’s example as a model for the region. Early on in the Cold War, the United States moved to expand its relationship with Turkey. President Harry Truman reckoned that a friendly Turkey would be a strategic asset capable of containing the Soviet expansion into the Middle East, keeping the Soviet Black Sea fleet at bay and providing military bases whence to attack the Soviet Union. Turkey could additionally safeguard American interests in a region gaining in importance thanks to its rich oil reserves. Ankara similarly stood to benefit from U.S. protection. Threatened by Joseph Stalin, who condescendingly demanded the return of two provinces in Eastern Anatolia to their “motherland” and requested “joint” control over the straits, Turkey desperately sought help from America. After Turkey joined NATO in 1952, a relationship similar to the Anglo-Ottoman partnership developed.

Notwithstanding differences of setting, the backgrounds of the Anglo-Ottoman and American-Turkish partnerships are so alike that one may consider the latter as a continuation of the former. We can evaluate the current alliance fatigue and future of U.S.-Turkey relations by comparing them with those of the Anglo-Ottoman partnership. Five commonalities come into relief: selling the partnership, enduring cultural differences, becoming regional rivals, asymmetric relations and unsolicited domestic interventions.


BOTH THE Anglo-Ottoman and Turkish-American relationships succumbed to alliance fatigue. Each party had difficulty selling the merits of the partnership to the public. This was partly due to specific political events, but also because of enduring cultural differences previously ignored for the sake of sustaining the strategic alliances.