by Naman Gurudatha
It has been nearly 100 years since the establishment of formal US-Turkey Relations in 1927, which signified the start of a complex and contentious relationship. Diplomatic correspondence between the two nations has always been complicated, having been influenced by a multitude of strategic and geopolitical interests. As Turkey’s location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia has given it a unique position in the world, so too has its relationship with the US been shaped by a variety of factors, from the shared history of NATO membership to disagreements over Syria and human rights issues. However, to combat the leery Russian influence in the region and ensure the stability and security of the Middle East, it is now more imperative than ever that the US fortifies its relationship with Turkey by maximizing the economic benefits, strategy, and military in its correspondence.
The origins of US-Turkey relations date back to the early 20th century when Turkey was still a part of the Ottoman Empire. During this period, the US recognized the Ottoman Empire as an strategic and influential ally in the Middle East, and worked to maintain healthy relations with the Ottomans. However, this relationship dissolved when the US entered World War I in support of the Allies, who were in opposition to the Ottoman aligned Central Powers. Following the war, the Ottoman empire was disbanded, and Turkey, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, became its own sovereign nation. In 1934, the United States formally recognized the new Turkish Government and signed a Treaty of Friendship, and during World War II, despite being neutral, the Turks provided support to the allies, ultimately joining the United Nations in 1945 and NATO in 1952.
However, US-Turkey relations have recently been strained due to tensions that emerged from the Syrian civil conflict. Turkey has been a vocal opponent of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and has supported various opposition groups in the conflict. The main source of tension has been the US alliance with the Kurdish People’s Defense Unit (YPG), whom Turkey sees as a terrorist group because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group fighting for Kurdish autonomy in Turkey. In 2018, the US and Turkey reached a crisis point when Turkey launched a military operation in northern Syria to target the YPG. The US condemned the operation, which it saw as an attack on its Kurdish allies.
These tensions continued in 2019, when Turkey purchased a Russian missile defense system, the S-400, which the US saw as a threat to its own military technology and NATO’s defense system and consequently removed Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet program and imposed economic sanctions. However, in 2020, the two countries reached a ceasefire agreement in northern Syria, and the US lifted some of its sanctions on Turkey. Despite the divisiveness that the S-400 issue prompted, the US indicated that it intends to ensure more effective and meaningful cooperation with the NATO ally, which can be achieved through more reliance on economic, strategic, and militaristic mechanisms.
In order to maximize the economic benefits with Turkey, the US should work to strengthen bilateral trade ties and reduce trade barriers. In 2019, the US and Turkey launched a new economic dialogue to expand trade and investment, and this initiative should be continued such that trade is open, fair, and transparent – as close as it can be to free. Moreover, the US must ensure that the Russian influence in the region is mitigated and not allow further trade between Turkey and Russia. If Russia is able to build upon its 2019 S-400 jet trade with the Turkish government, then the US risks losing its best mechanism to combat terrorism and much of its influence in the Middle East. In 2020, the United States was Turkey’s second-largest export market, with US imports from Turkey totaling over $8 billion. Turkey is the 19th largest economy in the world, with a middle class that is expected to double this year, and this presents opportunities for the US to export consumer goods and invest in Turkey’s growing infrastructure and energy sectors. Furthermore, the US is also a significant source of foreign direct investment for Turkey, with US investments in the country totaling over $15 billion in 2020. Some of Turkey’s exports to the US include textiles, furniture, electronics, and rare metals – essential to US consumer electronics and goods. Therefore, the US should work with Turkey to promote investment in key sectors such as energy, infrastructure, and technology and utilize the potential that it has in these sectors.
Turkey’s location yields tremendous strategic benefits to the United States in terms of the ability to project power and influence in the Middle East and the broader region. Turkey provides access to military assets and serves as a crucial link between Europe and the Middle East, and this partnership has been vital to the fight against terrorism and maintaining regional stability. For instance, Turkey has been an influential contributor to the US-led coalition against the Islamic State, and due to its status as a large muslim population, it is an important partner in combating extremism and preserving the religion. Additionally, the United States has nearly 2,000 American soldiers stationed at 2 military bases in Turkey. Turkey is also a significant contributor to NATO’s defense spending, with the country having the second largest army in NATO ranking among the top 10 countries in defense spending in NATO. In order to deter terrorism in the region and protect American troops, the US must rely on the strategic and crucial assets in Turkey, along with its cultural influence.
Another way that the US could make its relationship more meaningful with Turkey is by enhancing their military cooperativeness. The US and Turkey could increase their use of joint military exercises and training, which can increase the effectiveness of both countries’ militaries in a range of scenarios. For example, the annual Anatolian Eagle Exercise, which involves the Turkish and US Air Force along with other NATO allies, provides an opportunity to improve tactical air and ground operations, as well as joint command and control. Turkey has also been a key participant in NATO-led missions in Afghanistan and the Balkans, and the US has sold nearly $20 billion worth of arms to Turkey since 2005. Closer cooperation between the military and intelligence agencies could increase the effectiveness of counterterrorism in the region and contribute to global safety.
By maximizing military, strategy, and economic benefits with Turkey, the US also builds bridges with the Islamic world. Turkey is a majority-Muslim country with a rich cultural heritage and vibrant civil society, and this is a profound opportunity to promote greater understanding between the West and the Middle-East. This, along with the US’ vast monetary reliance on Turkey’s products, demonstrate why the relationship is worthwhile. If the US were to disregard these obligations, the consequential side-effects would be far more ruinous than any “cold turkey.”
Congressional Research Service. (2023, February 15). Turkey: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief. Congressional Research Service Reports on the Middle East and the Arab World. Retrieved from https://sgp.fas.org/crs/mideast/
Council on Foreign Relations. (n.d.). Neither Friend Nor Foe: The Future of U.S.-Turkey Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/report/future-u.s.-turkey
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U.S. Department of State. (2023, January 9). U.S. Relations With Turkey (Türkiye). Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-turkey/#:~:text=Turkey%20is%20a%20key%20NATO,to%20the%20Euro%2DAtlantic%20community.&text=Turkey%20is%20an%20important%20U.S.%20security%20partner