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.

Until the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon and State Department deflected criticisms raised mainly by the Greek and Armenian political lobbies regarding Turkey’s human-rights record, treatment of minorities and deficiencies in democracy. After the Soviet threat subsided, however, these issues became thorns in U.S.-Turkey relations. American interest in the status of Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate particularly alarmed Ankara. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the Turkish public came to believe that the United States was conspiring to separate parts of eastern and southeastern Turkey for a future Kurdish state, and to use the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to settle centuries-old scores with Islam.

Another sore point in this relationship was the change in American perception of Islamic movements. During the Cold War, Washington viewed Islamism as a valuable tool in the fight against Communism. American administrations even discouraged Turkey’s French-style laïcité for alienating pious Muslims. Though the United States became more receptive to Turkish secularism after the end of the Cold War and 9/11, many policymakers still welcomed the electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. They hoped that the AKP would disseminate a “moderate Islam” capable of advancing democracy. Needless to say, it did not live up to these expectations.

Washington has come to regret its initial support for the AKP and its criticisms of Turkish secularism. It has become increasingly frustrated at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party’s leader, for his strong anti-Western rhetoric. Not only has Erdoğan referred to the European Union as a “Christians’ club,” but he once called upon Muslim countries “to unite and defeat the successors of Lawrence of Arabia.” Washington has suspiciously viewed Erdoğan’s attempts to become a leading voice in the Muslim world, as he has reinforced the notion of a “clash of civilizations” by accusing the West of waging a modern anti-Muslim crusade.

American dislike of Erdoğan’s behavior is reminiscent of the British abhorrence of Abdülhamid II, who defended the rights of Muslims as their spiritual leader. These developments have relegated Turkey from a praiseworthy defender of Western civilization and democracy to an “other” representing Islam and autocracy. Conversely, according to Turkish public perception, the United States has become a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a superpower silently plotting to partition Turkey.


THE PARTIES to the Anglo-Ottoman and Turkish-American alliances illustrate how geographically distant states can become regional rivals. One reason why the Ottomans originally cooperated with Great Britain was London’s relative remoteness. Though Ottoman statesmen perceived Britain to be fickle, they recognized Whitehall’s limited interest in the Middle East. They bargained that Britain would honor Ottoman interests in its regional policy in return for political and strategic partnership. As it turned out, Britain had no desire to do so. Likewise, it refused to grant carte blanche to the Ottomans for their domestic policies.

Much to the infuriation of Istanbul, Britain often negotiated with regional powers harboring anti-Ottoman sentiments and local groups rejecting Istanbul’s central control. For instance, Britain did not support the Sublime Porte against Greek expansionism. Ottoman leaders found British gestures like gifting the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1864 extremely confrontational. British agents also provided assistance to leaders of disfranchised Ottoman communities. They sided with local leaders clamoring for autonomy or separation in Serbia, Wallachia and Moldavia. Britain brazenly advised Ottoman statesman to support non-Muslim minority privileges and autonomy in order to maintain control over those communities. Not surprisingly, the Ottomans did not appreciate this counsel.

Frustrated with the British after the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875–78, Ottoman policymakers abandoned “Perfidious Albion” in the wake of the settlement reached at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. British requests for further reforms in Macedonia and the so-called “Six Provinces” inhabited by the Armenians, thus, fell on deaf ears. In 1895, the British proposed a joint naval demonstration among the Great Powers to force the Sublime Porte to implement the provisions of an Armenian reform program. Luckily for the Ottomans, this never materialized. When the conservative Mürzsteg Agreement (1903) led by Russia and Austria-Hungary failed to produce tangible results, Britain assumed leadership of the Macedonian Question, much to the dismay of the Ottomans. By then, Sultan Abdühamid II had lost trust in Britain.

The Anglo-Ottoman relationship deteriorated further in 1882 after Britain became a “neighbor.” Unlike other powers in the Middle East, Britain envisaged a dramatically different future for the region. This vision sparked border disputes such as the Taba Crisis over the frontier between British-ruled Egypt and Ottoman Syria. Moreover, Britain exchanged contracts with and promised protection for local leaders in Arabia such as the sheikhs of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. The British ignored Istanbul’s protests, which argued that as Ottoman subjects, these regional leaders were unable to negotiate with foreign states or sign treaties. These intrusions prompted a bitter rivalry that rendered the cooperation of earlier periods practically impossible.

The United States enjoyed a highly positive reputation in the Middle East prior to 1945. This stemmed from its geographic distance and from its image as an anti-imperial power that supported democratic participation in areas under its control such as the Philippines. Many local intellectuals favored an American mandate in Turkey after 1918 and advocated for similar arrangements in other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Syria.

When Turkey found itself under imminent Soviet threat after World War II, it had no choice but to cooperate with the United States, the only state powerful enough to defend it. Many Turkish policymakers thought that America’s geographic distance and marginal involvement in prior regional conflicts would help them establish a beneficial partnership. They hoped that Washington would see the Middle East through Turkish eyes and offer unrestricted support. They also anticipated that the United States would allow Turkey to crush any internal threat for the sake of defending the territorial integrity of the “easternmost bastion of Western democracy.”

Twentieth-century America and nineteenth-century Britain are, admittedly, not interchangeable. But as global powers they achieved their foreign-policy objectives similarly. Like London, Washington was aware of Ankara’s concerns and attempted to appease it insofar as Turkish actions did not hurt American interests. And like Britain, the United States did not design its regional policies in strict accordance with Turkish interests.

President Lyndon B. Johnson jolted Turkish policymakers when he sent them a letter in June 1964, stating bluntly that Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus was impermissible under the provisions of the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. With respect to Turkish military activity, Johnson wrote, “the United States cannot agree to the use of any United States supplied military equipment.” Just two years after a secret swap deal to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for removing Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba, the “Johnson letter” deeply shook Ankara’s trust and dealt a shattering blow to its willingness to follow American advice. Though Johnson succeeded in preventing a Turkish intervention in Cyprus at the eleventh hour, President Richard Nixon failed to do the same in 1974.

Turkey’s Cyprus intervention spoke volumes about the change in its relationship with the United States. In spite of Nixon’s warnings of a military embargo, Ankara opted for military action. And though Washington still imposed an embargo, the U.S.-Turkey alliance persisted, albeit with difficulty. In reality, Turkish statesmen barely entertained the idea of leaving NATO. Doing so would have weakened Turkey’s military capabilities considerably. Few American policymakers in Washington would risk losing Turkey either. Ankara learned that being an ally of the United States did not guarantee unbridled freedom in conducting its regional affairs. Washington, likewise, realized that providing a security umbrella would not sufficiently keep Turkey under control.

Indeed, the Soviet threat held together an uneasy alliance between a regional and a global power. After the Cold War, managing this cooperation has become even more difficult because of growing mistrust. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a situation similar to the British penetration of the Middle East in the second half of the nineteenth century. The United States had become a regional rival power, threatening Turkey’s vital interests and territorial integrity. Frustrated at this development, the Turkish Grand National Assembly rejected a motion granting bases to American troops in their invasion of Iraq. This rejection did not stem from an inherent anti-American sentiment. Rather, it was a response to a deep-seated belief that Washington had ulterior motives. Similarly, Turkey has become apprehensive of American ties to local Kurdish actors in Iraq and Syria. These connections have fueled the perception that the United States wishes to create a new map of the Middle East. No map, not even a Russian-drawn one, would be more antithetical to Turkey than an American chart.

Because the United States and Turkey are becoming regional rivals, the potential for dispute has increased tremendously. As a growing power, Turkey has begun developing a vision for the Middle East that does not align entirely with that of Washington’s. Accusing Turkey of pursuing overambitious “neo-Ottomanist” policies, Washington has started to regard Turkey as an unreliable actor that threatens other regional powers.