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.


A BILATERAL partnership between a global and a regional power generally results in imbalance and little reciprocity. The former deeply influences, and even intervenes in, the domestic policies of the latter. For instance, while the British could influence in Ottoman politics, policymakers in Istanbul, who had no say in response, had to work with those winning British elections.

The Anglo-Ottoman partnership produced a pro-British faction within the Ottoman civil bureaucracy and military apparatus. Becoming a member of this faction offered bureaucrats and top brass pathways for upward mobility. Soon, Whitehall handpicked its Ottoman counterparts. At the height of the Anglo-Ottoman cooperation, British ambassador Sir Stratford Cunning, nicknamed “Little Sultan” by the Ottoman public, could hire or fire grand viziers. The British embassy gained so much power in Ottoman domestic politics that its dragomans started discussing delicate matters with Ottoman ministers, even conveying messages directly to the sultan.

Over time, these levels of British involvement in Ottoman politics did not strengthen mutual cooperation. Britain’s desire to work with yes-men in Istanbul created an outcry, even among bureaucrats who supported cordial relations with London but wished to act independently and on equal footing. When Sultan Abdülhamid II rose to power, he snubbed Ottoman statesmen who had developed dual allegiances. He occasionally instructed the Ottoman press to chastise British policies. In response, the British, now accustomed to working with their self-selected cronies, further supported pro-British bureaucrats.

During the 1890s, British ambassadors hosted field marshals, former cabinet ministers and high-ranking officials who envisioned instituting “a more liberal system of government” in Istanbul. These individuals requested British assistance in orchestrating subversive initiatives against the regime. They even proposed, “In the event of the deposition of the sultan, it should be the care of the British ambassador that a minor should be chosen to succeed him.”

In 1902, liberal Ottoman bureaucrats approached the British Foreign Office and requested support for a coup attempt. Sir Thomas Sanderson, the permanent undersecretary, vaguely promised naval cover. This episode illustrated an apparent British commitment to regime change, even in a friendly country. In 1908, even after the Young Turk Revolution reinstated the Constitution of 1876, the British continued to interfere in Ottoman politics. The new leaders in Istanbul accused Britain of inciting uprisings and counterrevolutions. Though Istanbul was not in a position to react, partisan British involvement in Ottoman domestic affairs considerably damaged the Anglo-Ottoman partnership.

With respect to the U.S.-Turkey relationship, all major Turkish political parties as well as the civil and military bureaucracy enthusiastically supported Turkey’s admission into NATO. A wide spectrum of groups, including religious ones, became pro-American, with the exception of the long-suppressed left-wing intellectuals. For a short time, Americans did even not have to take sides in Turkish domestic politics.

This situation changed when anti-Americanism and leftist movements gathered momentum after the 1968 Vietnam War protests. While no major Turkish political party actually entertained the idea of changing allegiances, critics no longer bit their tongues. American statesmen feared the prospect of working with groups who criticized American policies. The United States consequently began distinguishing friends and foes in Turkey. For instance, there was a strong belief in Turkey during the 1970s that Washington preferred right-wing conservatives to left-wing political organizations that promoted closer relations with Non-Aligned countries. Likewise, many believed that America tacitly approved the 1980 military coup. In the last decade, rumors have arisen claiming that the United States has been backing a pro-NATO element within the Turkish military to hedge against the so-called “Eurasians,” who champion rapprochement with Russia and Iran.

After an initial honeymoon, the United States has become critical of the AKP, especially after 2010. American diplomats have behaved as an opposition party in Turkey, and spokespersons of the State Department and Pentagon have explicitly criticized policies implemented by the AKP. Turkish statesmen, even the president, have accused Washington of interfering with Turkish politics by aiding the opposition and Kurdish separatists. American support for Syrian Kurds in the battle against the so-called Islamic State has further strained relations with Turkey, which fears this support may incite internal strife. Moreover, Washington has strongly criticized Ankara’s policy vis-à-vis Syria. The Obama administration viewed Turkish support to some Sunni groups as aiding anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism. In return, Turkey has claimed that the United States has overtly supported the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party in northern Syria that Turkey considers as dangerous as the Islamic State. U.S.-Turkey relations reached a fever pitch following the July 15 coup attempt. Policymakers in Ankara, including President Erdoğan, accused the United States of supporting mutineers and sheltering Fethullah Gülen, an expatriate Muslim cleric suspected to be the mastermind of the undertaking.

While it is difficult to comment on the degree of U.S. involvement in Turkish politics, alleged American interference has exacerbated yet another major fault line in the partnership.


THE U.S.-TURKEY alliance resembles the dysfunction of post-1907 Anglo-Ottoman relations. But this comparison also reveals opportunities to salvage the partnership. Will the parties be able to resolve their disputes and revitalize their alliance? Will the United States abandon Turkey and work with other actors in the region in its stead? Will Turkey turn its coat and seek alliance elsewhere?

With respect to the first question, the British and Ottoman delegates sketched out a major settlement resolving their differing visions for the Middle East in 1913 and 1914. The Anglo-Turkish Convention of June 1914, ratified by the Ottoman sultan, seemingly addressed all outstanding disputes, ranging from the British sphere of influence in Arabia and autonomous regions like Kuwait to the status of the rebellious leader Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the future king of Saudi Arabia. Yet, this settlement did not prevent Ottoman policymakers from signing an alliance with Germany two months later, immediately prior to the start of World War I. Therefore, while the United States and Turkey may resolve their existing disputes, their alliance may still collapse amid a major global crisis.

Next, will the United States make another country other than Turkey (or Israel) the focal point of U.S. interests in the Middle East? In 1896, fourteen years after Britain occupied Egypt, Lord Salisbury deprioritized preserving the status quo in favor of making Egypt the center of British policy in the region. Similarly, the United States may prefer a less independent and more obedient power to base its interests in the region. For instance, it may work closely with a Kurdish entity, especially after its growing interactions with Kurdish groups in the battle against the Islamic State. Ultimately, this depends on the shape of the Middle East after the conclusion of numerous crises occurring in the region. If the conflict in Syria persists indefinitely, however, then there is also a risk of the United States and Turkey drifting apart, especially if both countries support different substate entities in the conflict.

Ottoman statesmen and the founders of modern Turkey struck alliances with Russian leaders. They did so in desperation after the liberal powers turned against them. For example, the Russian and Ottoman empires signed the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi in 1833 after the British cabinet voted against sending the Royal Navy to the aid of the Ottomans during a war with the rebellious governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha. Lord Palmerston, secretary of state for foreign affairs at the time, later maintained, “No British cabinet at any period of the history of England ever made so great a mistake in regard to foreign affairs.” The Ottoman sultan, remarking that “a drowning man will clutch a serpent,” approached Saint Petersburg in desperation. Similarly, when the British backed the Greeks waging a proxy war against Turkish nationalists in 1921, the founders of modern Turkey signed a “treaty of brotherhood” with Bolshevik Russia.

The lesson for the United States is clear: unless Turkey feels desperate, it will not ally with non-Western powers, including Russia. Some Turkish politicians are today feeling desperate and have favored rapprochement with Russia, Iran and China. Erdoğan, in 2013, publicly expressed interest in transitioning from a Dialogue Partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to a full member. But even if Turkey changes sides, it will not last long unless its traditional allies abandon it permanently, which would be extremely unlikely.

The U.S.-Turkey alliance, originally forged because of a common external threat, has become exceedingly fragile since the fall of the Soviet Union. Both states criticize each other rather than sweep aside their differences. More troublingly, they harbor mutual mistrust, which colors their perceptions of each other. While it is difficult to predict the future of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, it has clearly suffered from severe alliance fatigue and needs extensive restoration. Resuscitating the relationship will demand investment and concessions from both parties.

M. Şükrü Hanioğlu is the Garrett Professor in Foreign Affairs at Princeton University’s Near Eastern Studies Department. His recent books include A Brief History of the Late Ottoman Empire and Atatürk: An Intellectual Biography.

Image: The sun sets behind Istanbul, Turkey. Wikimedia Commons