After WikiLeaks, U.S.-Turkish Relations in Need of Catharsis, Not Recriminations

Relations between the U.S. and Turkey have always been dynamic and reflective of the historical moment in time. As the release of classified U.S. government cables by WikiLeaks has most recently demonstrated, turbulence in U.S.-Turkey relations should be expected in the short-term and ignored only at both countries' peril. The readjustments in the half-century old U.S.-Turkish alliance chronicled through the State Department documents leaked thus far are critical for the long-term health for one of the transatlantic community's most dynamic and important partnerships, particularly at this moment in time as they have reached a tipping point. U.S. diplomats' skepticism about Turkey's dependability as a transatlantic partner and warnings about the leadership in Ankara should be taken seriously, but it would be foolish to write-off the strategic role that Turkey has played and continues to play in a critically important region. If U.S.-Turkish relations are going to weather this latest storm, it will need to involve sustained political leadership on both sides of the Atlantic and a cooperative approach to adapting this historic alliance to the needs of a new Turkey and a transformed America.

The information contained in the leaks have centered on unflattering portrayals of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as being an authoritarian and corrupt Islamist who is surrounded by a closeted Muslim fraternity of advisors where he is worshiped as the Sultan or "Tribune of Anatolia." Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is similarly described as a dangerous "Neo Ottomanist" Muslim philosopher who has little to no understanding of politics beyond Ankara. Unfortunately, these latest revelations come at precisely the worst possible time in U.S.-Turkish relations that are already reeling from a deficit of trust and severe differences in approach, strategy, and tone on everything from Iran and Israel to NATO missile defense. Secretary of State Clinton's first meeting after the release was with Davutoglu who pointedly welcomed a WikiLeaks in Ankara as a chance to show that Turkish foreign policy does not engage in "double-speak." Erdogan, meanwhile, shrugged off most of the cables, but reacted strongly to personal accusations of corruptions involving alleged Swiss bank accounts which he threatened to sue former US diplomats over. The political points scored by Erdogan and Davutoglu over an apologetic and embarrassed Washington have registered with their Anatolian conservative constituencies that are now lashing out at their opposition both domestically and internationally.

With WikiLeaks as a new backdrop to the already contentious debates about Turkey's place in the transatlantic partnership, which were in the headlines less than two weeks ago at the Lisbon Summit, Ankara and Washington seem to be publicly downplaying tensions. Given the political calendars in both America and Turkey, which just saw a Republican majority swept into Congress in Washington and a national election less than seven months away in Ankara, this is a prudent move given the strong domestic winds pushing against the alliance in both capitals.

Washington has been particularly unhappy with Ankara's responses to Jerusalem and Tehran, which has in turn fed the perception of an "axis shift" that sees the re-orientation of Turkish foreign policy eastward as a zero-sum game that is costing the country its traditional Western vocation. Unfortunately for these critics, the rise of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party and its conservative nationalist Muslim worldview as the dominant and unrivaled force in Turkish politics is a fact of life given divided domestic opposition and a stalled E.U. process. Rather than seeing further democratization and reform in Turkey, Washington now sees a final nail being placed in the coffin of the military and secular elites that once protected American interests. Adjusting to the new Turkey that not only does not march to America's drum, but creates its own diplomatic rhythm with the likes of Brazil, China, and Iran, takes time. However, the advantages of keeping Turkey actively engaged with America and the transatlantic community is mutually beneficial.

Misreading Turkey today will bolster the very internal forces the West fears. It will give credence to the false claims that Turkey can never be part of the West and allow darker forces within the country to move Turkey's foreign policy in an even more extreme direction. It risks demonizing Turkey precisely at a moment in which Washington should be actively coordinating with Ankara. There is genuine cause for concern with Turkey and the U.S.-Turkish relationship has reached a critical tipping point, but all is not lost, even in the wake of the WikiLeaks.

The silver lining from the WikiLeaks is that, like it or not, all of Washington's cards are publicly on the table with Ankara. Hopefully this opportunity is not lost on simply a half-hearted apology, but rather a much needed catharsis in U.S.-Turkish relations that involves a more transparent and candid assessment of each partner's aims and policies that can be publicly affirmed. The degree to which America and Turkey's interests still converge more than they diverge in the long-term is an open question. Turkey may not be the model partner that America had hoped for, however neither is America the omnipotent global superpower that it has been revered and reviled to be throughout most of Turkish history. The sooner both partners come to terms with the new realities of their relationship, the better.

Part of the On Turkey series of the German Marshall Fund

Dr. Joshua W. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University, where his brief on U.S.-Turkey can be found. He is also a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.