The US-Turkey relationship has always had ups and downs, but the two countries have several shared interests that should keep the relationship solid at its core, especially after Turkey goes to the polls.
As millions of Turks head to the polls this weekend, in what is easily the most significant elections since the establishment of the republic, US policymakers need to start thinking now about how the election, regardless of the outcome, can serve as a fresh start in US-Turkish relations.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's call for early elections on June 24 caught many in the US by surprise—although it should not have. The announcement came at a time when the Afrin operation in northern Syria was coming to a successful and speedy close.
The stakes are high. The transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system of government—an issue that was won with a slim margin through a referendum last year—will likely be complete after this election.
For US policymakers, opinions and commentary about the upcoming elections in Turkey are clouded by the poor state of the bilateral relationship between Washington DC and Ankara.
Many Americans think that an Erdogan victory in the presidential election and an AK Party victory in the parliamentary elections are foregone conclusions. These views are reinforced by an informal echo chamber about Turkey that has developed in Washington DC over the past few years.
However, as with most things in Turkey, the reality is more complicated. Turkey has a vibrant and active civil society, and as long as the elections remain free and fair anything could happen.
Regardless of the outcome of the unpredictable election, the US cannot allow the outcome of the elections to stop any improvement in the relationship with Turkey.
US-Turkish relations have been known to ebb and flow over the years and it is no secret that over the past several years US and Turkish relations have been at an all-time low. However, the bilateral relationship is too important for it to matter who is sitting in the White House or the Cumhurbaskanligi Kulliyesi. So while the outcome of this weekend’s elections are important, they cannot become the sole driver of future US-Turkish relations.
Turkey is an important ally for the US and has been for decades. US policy makers need to take a more circumspect and strategic view of Turkey and develop a policy to deal with the Turkey it has (a vibrant and important ally facing many domestic challenges at home regarding governance—like most democracies around the world) and not the Turkey it wants (a perfect Jeffersonian democracy).
Turkey has been an important NATO member since the earliest days of the Cold War when it joined in 1952. During the Cold War it was one of only two countries (the other being Norway) that shared a land border with the Soviet Union and served as the southern anchor of Europe’s defense.
The Turks have deployed thousands of troops to Afghanistan and have commanded the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) twice since 2002. Turkey continues to maintain more than 560 troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission, making it the 7th largest troop contributor of 39 nations.
The Turks have also contributed to a number of peacekeeping missions in the Balkans, continue to maintain almost 400 troops in Kosovo, and have participated in counterpiracy and counterterrorism missions off the Horn of Africa. They also deployed planes, frigates, and submarines during the NATO-led operation in Libya. Turkey’s 510,000-strong active-duty military is NATO’s second largest after that of the United States.
Turkey is also host to US tactical nuclear weapons that form an important part of NATO's nuclear deterrence capability. Turkey is home to an X-Band radar crucial for NATO's missile defense and Ankara has contributed to NATO's rapid reaction capabilities and joint initiatives such as Baltic Air Policing.
Turkey is also vitally important to Europe’s, and therefore NATO’s, energy security as the recent launch of the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline reminds us. Turkey serves as the gateway to the resource-rich Caucasus and Caspian Basin and controls the Bosphorus, one of the most important shipping straits in the world.
Like all relationships, the US-Turkey bilateral relationship requires hard work on both sides. America’s relationship with Turkey is complex. Regardless, of the outcome of this weekend’s elections this is unlikely to change anytime soon.
Many of the actions taken since the failed coup, especially when it comes to the arrests sits uncomfortably with many in Washington DC.
But while these concerns need to be addressed with Ankara, it should be done so in a way that advances broader US geo-political interest in the region. The US and NATO need Turkey today for the same reasons it did during the Cold War. Like it or not, this is the geopolitical reality and it is time policymakers acknowledge this.
The US should try using the outcome of the elections as an opportunity to rebuild what has been for decades, a strong and vibrant bilateral relationship with Turkey.
It is in America’s interests to do so.
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