Can the US and Turkey avoid a messy split?

A transactional relationship is increasingly seen as the only solution for the future of US-Turkish relations. As the relationship lost its values-based spirit and diplomatic crises wore both sides down, a business-like deal emerged as a last ditch attempt to keep the relationship alive. Yet, since even transactional relations have significant flaws, Washington and Ankara should prepare for a messy divorce.

The past decade has seen an unprecedented decline in US-Turkish relations from a model of strategic partnership to the level of “so-called allies”. America’s partnership with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria, Turkey’s relationship with radical groups and its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, and democratic backsliding in Turkey are just some of the issues that have damaged the relationship.

On top of that, the deep anti-American and anti-Western sentiments that transcend different political divides in Turkish politics, revisionism in Turkish foreign policy, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opportunistic understanding of diplomacy have not only undermined the confidence of both parties, but also the perception of shared values.

Given this bleak picture, a transactional relationship appears to be the only viable option to manage issues that still require cooperation from both sides. As Washington aims to allocate its resources to great power competition and expand its alliances, reaching an agreement with Turkey, albeit on a limited basis, has a number of advantages. Moreover, Erdogan’s short-sighted opportunism seems quite suited to such an interest-based understanding. Yet the characteristics of U.S.-Turkish relations and their bilateral expectations complicate a transactional turn in the relationship. Instead of a trade-type trade-off of interests, policymakers in Washington must be prepared to fight hard for all American interests vis-a-vis Ankara.

Can transactional relationships work?

Transactional relationships have mostly been associated with authoritarian populists like former President Donald Trump and Erdogan. Instead of pursuing grand, long-term strategies with defined goals and principles, these leaders prefer give-and-take relationships primarily based on short-term economic interests, rendering values, shared goals, or bilateral commitments obsolete. In this regard, Turkey’s relationship with Europe is a typical example of such a transactional relationship. Although values ​​and principles played a key role when joining the European Union (EU) was a serious goal for Ankara, relations between Turkey and the EU have evolved into an interest-based relationship in which the parties respect each other’s red lines. Ankara’s systematic human rights abuses and Erdogan’s authoritarianism still draw criticism from European leaders, but Turkey-EU trade, European investment in Turkey, the Turkish diaspora in Europe, geographical proximity and cooperation to stop the flow of refugees maintain relations. In this regard, the economic and social characteristics of the relationship helped the parties to reach an agreement, while the most important challenge was a geopolitical conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean.

However, US-Turkish relations have a different dynamic. First, they rely more on geopolitical calculations and less on economic interests, which makes compromise much more difficult, if not impossible. Disagreements over Syrian politics, the US-YPG partnership, Turkey’s military operations against the Kurds, and Erdogan’s flirtation with Putin are mostly about core national interests, security perceptions, and grand political strategies. If Turkey maintains its aggressive interventionism and the United States remains in the region, these conflicts will further escalate and complicate negotiations. Moreover, as the problems between Washington and Ankara have increased quantitatively and qualitatively, a transactional relationship has become complicated. Although economic sanctions can do great harm to Turkey’s weak economy, they are unlikely to guarantee a change in Turkey’s strategic direction.

The geopolitical and strategic nature of US-Turkish relations also complicates the compartmentalization of the relationship. The issues most prone to compromise – Halkbank’s involvement in evading Iranian sanctions, the S-400 and F-16 fighter jet deals, and the incarceration of US citizens in Turkey – are mostly extensions of broader strategic conflicts. The parties consider all these problems to be in the same basket, which makes them all interconnected and therefore more difficult to solve. As seen recently, Ankara has raised the issue of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Gulenists as Sweden and Finland pursue NATO membership.

Another difficulty for a transactional relationship is the expectations both parties have of each other. Despite the difficulties in relations, neither Washington nor Ankara seem ready for a split. The Biden administration still expects Turkey to turn away from Russia and back to NATO. “We have an interest in trying to keep Turkey anchored to the West,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last year. Indeed, the war in Ukraine has shown that a Turkish “charm offensive” can still be very influential in improving Ankara’s image and reversing the course of its relations with the United States.

In return, Ankara expects its strategic autonomy, regional influence and global role to be recognized and accepted by the United States. Yet Ankara still cannot digest America, which “bypasses” Turkey’s geopolitical importance by replacing the Incirlik air base with Greece or by associating itself with the Kurds in northern Syria. As long as these strategic expectations dominate the nature of US-Turkish relations, it will remain difficult to establish a compromise agreement.

Moreover, Erdogan’s hot-tempered and undiplomatic character is a constant threat that can blow up a business-like exchange of interests. Governance is useful for establishing understanding, especially when values ​​and strategic interests do not align. Yet acts like beating American citizens during an official visit to Washington or insulting their counterparts by calling them “Nazi remnants and fascists” could increase the challenge of reaching a diplomatic compromise.

On the other hand, transactional relations are not a completely new phenomenon in the context of US-Turkish relations. The relationship has always had a strong transactional character, especially after the Cold War. Conflicting values ​​and ideals have never been a serious obstacle between Washington and Ankara. As Cihan Tugal has eloquently put it, the United States and other NATO countries have long been accustomed to turning a blind eye to Turkey’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses, especially against the Kurds. In addition, the communication channels have always been open in order to maintain the functioning of relations and negotiations. However, despite all this, the relationship has remained dysfunctional in recent years.

US-Turkish relations are more like an endless, messy divorce in which even trivial matters can cause fights. But at the same time, it is also not possible for Washington and Ankara to follow completely separate paths. As the Ukrainian crisis has shown once again, Turkey is not a country to be ruled out. Turkey will remain an attractive option to balance Russian and Iranian influence in the region. Moreover, thanks to Ankara’s foreign policy activism, Erdogan will do much to attract international attention. Instead, US policymakers must be prepared to fight for their interests vis-à-vis Ankara.

In fact, this adversarial relationship is not exclusive to US-Turkish relations. Russian-Turkish relations have seen a more positive trend despite the deep geopolitical discord between Ankara and Moscow. Yet Russia and Turkey have also gone through significant crises and conflicts, even reaching almost the point of war. Likewise, President Trump, who somehow managed to establish a working relationship with Erdogan, did not hesitate to confront the Turkish leader.

A transactional relationship is not a magic formula. The nature, expectations, and styles of leadership in U.S.-Turkish relations will keep the strain on the relationship, which will continue to be strained and sometimes blow up. Accepting belligerent relations with Turkey and being willing to confront Erdogan might be necessary to effectively form a transactional relationship.

Mr. Hasim Tekines worked in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He now writes regularly on Turkey and Middle East politics.

Picture: Reuters.

Sharon P. Juarez