7 December 2017
7 December 2017

Turkish-U.S. relations have become marked by tensions that do not befit relations between two states that share membership in a decades-old defense alliance, a strong commitment to combating international terrorism in all its guises, and efforts to maintain stability in the Greater Middle East. Most readers will be familiar with recent events as well as incidents over the past few years that have contributed to exacerbating the tensions and will have heard from politicians and pundits on both sides justifications for actions that the other side considers unfriendly or even hostile – those events and their meaning will not be the topic of this column, but rather it will address the way forward for Turkey and the U.S. and NATO, in response to voices raising the possibility of a “divorce” between the two NATO partners.

When relations between two partners, whether a legally recognized marriage or some business or financial arrangement, break down, a complete split between the parties may be in the best interest of both parties and their families, friends, relations, and associates. But going their separate ways is not a serious option for Turkey and the U.S. Each benefits greatly from regular interactions and collaboration; both would suffer in their efforts to address national security concerns without the cooperation of the other. Also, regardless of the recent nationalist voices being raised in many quarters, the world is and will be increasingly globalized. Two parties may be able to move out from their formerly shared house, but Turkey and the U.S. inhabit the same Global Village. We must first start from this premise – like most countries in this increasingly interconnected world, not least of all via the internet and social media, completely severing direct relations with another country does not end the relationship, only that it is mediated through a web of indirect connections instead of direct engagement. The two villagers could refuse to address each other directly, but their interactions with other villagers would result in continued indirect relations whether they desired it or not, and with a heightened chance for misunderstandings.

Accepting the above premise that indirect relations would survive any formal rupture of direct relations, one must ask: would it be to the benefit of the U.S. and Turkey to pursue the ending of their formal partnership as members of NATO? (This of course means Turkey leaving the Alliance; U.S. departure from NATO would be the death knell of the Alliance). What is there to be gained? While meetings of the NATO Permanent Representatives (Ambassadors to NATO) might become less contentious, would the U.S. and the remaining Allies benefit from having Turkey absent from such discussions? Turkey provides to NATO a voice and perspective quite different from the founding members. Like the post-1990 members of NATO, its perspective, derived from its particular history, culture, and geography, adds much to discussions that seek to enhance the security of the member states and their peoples. In personal and public affairs, openness to diverse backgrounds and perspectives improves the understanding and preparedness for facing difficulties. Likewise, NATO would be diminished if it lost Turkey’s unique voice and perspective. The question, of course, is: would that diminishment be greater than what would be gained by the reduction of tension within the Alliance? We cannot be sure, but certainly unless the tensions between Turkey the U.S. and other NATO members decline, there will be more voices calling for an end to Turkey’s membership in NATO.

On the Turkish side, its departure from NATO would not be of any discernible benefit other than enhancing Turkey’s ability to pursue courses of action without giving a thought to what NATO and the U.S. would have to say. But is that to a country’s benefit? Don’t all residents of the village benefit in taking into consideration the impact of their words and deeds on the other villagers? All of us likely have benefitted, whether in politics, business, or personal relations from speaking with friends and relations before embarking on a course of action. Ultimately decisions about the Turkish course of action remain with its national leaders, those responsible for the care and protection of all citizens of Turkey, but disastrous decisions are more likely to result from disdaining consultations with other nations, particularly ones in a long-standing alliance who bear no ill will for Turkey or its people. To withdraw from collaboration with partners who wish you success and safety and security for your people would be a grave mistake. We are all well aware how precipitous actions taken without prior consultations with our close friends and allies can lead to serious miscalculations.

For Turkey, there is also the question of its neighbors. If we extend the village metaphor, Turkey lives in a neighborhood in which some household suffer from domestic violence, which has and could continue to spill over and affect Turkey. Whether the issue is massive refugee flows from Iraq and Syria, violent extremists bombings inside Turkey, terrorists transiting the country, etc. Turkey would be in a weaker position if it had to face these threats without the support of the U.S. and NATO. The support in military assistance, intelligence and police cooperation, and diplomatic engagement that Turkey’s Allies provide in support of Turkey’s national security efforts are of immense value – Turkey would do itself a great disservice by cutting off the level of support it enjoys by membership in the Atlantic Alliance.

So what is the way forward? First, both sides, the leadership of the U.S. and of Turkey, have to make it clear that they recognize and value the contributions of the other and consider positive relations highly desirable. In the pure sense of the word, neither party “needs” the other, that is, each could survive asa a nation-state without the other. That said, the mutual benefits the relationship yields makes “highly desirable” almost equivalent to “necessary”. This acknowledgement of mutual benefit to be derived from positive relations must start at the top – and statements suggesting otherwise should not be made by the leadership of either country. Second, regular, confidential, engagements regarding ares of common concern – law enforcement, terrorism, economic development and growth, etc. – should be intensified at the working level and at the senior policy-making level. The better both sides know the other, the more likely they will value the other. Public discussion of formal meetings between Turkey and the U.S., whether on national security or other issues, should be limited to wholly true expressions of serious efforts to address contentious issues in a positive and mutually respectful spirit. Each must be sincere in its respect for the others’ point of view and address each other without calling into question the integrity of the other. Third, stop involving the “in-laws”, that is, stop using other nations as counterweights to bludgeon the other side. Turkey and the U.S. and other members of NATO need to work with each other directly – bringing in third nations as an attempt intimidate or make the other nervous are not helpful. The NATO family members are responsible for getting their household in order; bringing non-family members into the home will only undermine family harmony.

In sum, the past is the past, what has been done and said cannot be undone or unsaid. But, if both nations will recognize and acknowledge the mutual benefits from positive relations, if both will accept that the internal affairs of each are for each country to address according to its own laws and traditions, and if both will treat each other with mutual respect while avoiding the involvement of others nations to score points against the other, then Turkey and the U.S. can improve their relations to a level befitting Allies of over 60 years. Finally, a paraphrase of an observation on allies ascribed to Winston Churchill is worth remembering: when difficulties arise, the only thing worse than dealing with your allies is not having any.


Edward Stafford

Edward G. Stafford is a retired career Foreign Service Officer. He most recently served as Political-Military Affairs Counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara (2011-2014) and as adjunct professor of Civ-Mil Affairs at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, DC (2014-2016). Mr. Stafford has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, a post-Graduate Diploma in International Security Studies from the Romanian National Defense College, and a Master of Science in Strategic Intelligence from the U.S. National Defense Intelligence College (now NIU). In order of ability, Mr. Stafford’s foreign languages are Spanish, French, Romanian, Portuguese, and Turkish.

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