In a comparatively recent interview for Financial

In a comparatively recent interview for Financial

Prof. Dr. Ahmet Kasım Han

Altınbaş University


Times Henry Kissinger who, despite all the criticism -probably not totally undeserved- towards him, remains as one of the last examples of reticent 19th century style Concert of Europe power politics statesman, remarked that we were “in a very, very grave period for the world”. Looking around the world, one finds it hard not to think that there is wisdom in the comment. This “grave period”, or this age of transition, is having its toll on almost all aspects of human activity, political, economic, social or otherwise. In a transitive period, crisis tend to become a daily ordeal, risks surge, escalation becomes a higher probability while leaders find themselves in situations where they frequently have to take “make it or break it” decisions. The “world as we know it” is exiting the stage, we have more visions of our ideals about the future than ideas about the depth and extent of challenges that await us – and possibly even less answers and solutions.


With any and all milieu of human activity assuming an increasingly transnational character, the international relations of the states became one area that is hard hit by the times. The multidimensional pressures on the world order, the sweeping transformation introduced by technological and political change. The impact is also felt on the relations of states, get them bi-lateral or multi-lateral. The relations between Republic of Turkey and the United State of America (US) are no exception. Actually, these relations have been established much earlier in history than most members of the respective peoples, and some decision-makers, of these two countries realize. The modern-day relations have certainly been forged under the treacherous circumstances of the Cold War, have been hard-pressed and endured the duress of international and bi-lateral crisis, have managed to remain essentially impervious in the face of the cracks scathed by diverging opinions and policies, even on some key matters of interest and, most importantly, have proven to be much more resilient than many do give them credit for. Throughout the 20th century the structural and geostrategic context provided by the shared values, interests and perceptions of threat (as defined by the time) held this otherwise notalways so festive relationship together, and even provided it with necessary boost after its troubled episodes. This does no more seem to be the case. As is growingly the case with all other existing interactions between various state and non-state agents of international relations, Turkish – US relations is becoming more complex, ambiguous and fluid.

To be sure the end of the Cold War came as an understandably welcomed development, at the least for most of those living in the West, organizationally represented mostly within the cohort of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the political and military alliance that was formed as the backbone of cooperation between western democracies against the perceived Soviet threat.

NATO was established in 1949 and Turkey became a member in 1952, following the Korean War that lasted from 1950 to 1953. The Turkish Brigade in Korea, codenamed North Star, was attached with the United States Army 25th Infantry Division and had lost 721 man, with an additional 168 reported as missing in action and 2111 wounded. As the Cold War came to an end Turkey was on the “winning” side with the other sixteen member states of the alliance. However, the history of Turkish – American relations go as far back as 1795. As the US gained its independence in 1783 it was pressed between the necessity of establishing trade relations with the rest of the world and the requirement to build a navy to secure this effort. One key destination for the trade activity was the Mediterranean, on the African cost of which (where today parts of Morocco, Algeria, Tunis and Libya lay) the Berber States ruled. Yet, as the young United State had accrued immense amount of foreign credit to finance its war of independence against the British Empire, it was not able to fund a standing armed force. Hence in 1785 the last ship of the Continental Navy, the frigate Alliance, was sold. Thus, “the navy disappeared, and the army dwindled to a mere 700 men”.


The Relations Between The Ottoman Empire and The US

From 1785 onwards, the Berber States, that owed allegiance to Ottoman Empire, started preying upon the American shipping, forcing the US to pay an annual tribute for twenty years by an agreement that was signed in 1795. Nevertheless, the truce did not hold for long as the corsair activity started to extend to the Atlantic. It was in no small part to these developments that the United States was forced to go on with the “Act to Provide Naval Armament” of 1794 and, in the words of Secretary of War Henry Knox the Navy of the United States was commenced a second time. One of the very first actions that the US Marine Corps saw was also during this era of the first Berber Wars. This is commemorated in the first sentence of the Marines' hymn that stands; “From the Halls of Montezuma, to the shores of Tripoli”.

In the coming decades the relations between the Ottoman Empire and the US has developed. According to historical records the first visits by US merchant ships to Ottoman ports of İstanbul and İzmir were realized in 1786 and 1797 respectively.

The first US fighting ship that has ever entered the Mediterranean, the frigate George Washington commanded by Captain William Bainbridge, has been somehow compelled to visit Istanbul by the Dey of Algiers. The first Turkish – US bilateral agreement was signed in May 1830 and it granted the United States the status of the “most favored nation” enabling the country to trade with the Empire on the best terms that were or would be granted to other nations.

The agreement, which was in essence a capitulation granted to the US, included a secret article that enabled the Ottoman Empire to buy warships that were made in the United States at best prices, on par with the price charged to the US government itself, as well as technical assistance by American engineers and know-how transfer. This marked one of the only two instances on record that the US Congress was presented an agreement including a secret clause. Nevertheless, this clause was not ratified by the US Congress despite repeated efforts by the Administration of President Andrew Jackson. This was the case mainly as a result of members of the US Congress not being willing to be seen by the British as partnering with a nation whose navy has just been burned by a fleet participated by the latter in Navarino in 1827. The American side mostly did not want to provide Britain with a pretext for renewed aggression after the War of 1812 between those two nations.

Yet, the first American military sale to the Ottoman Empire came in the form of a naval vessels and know-how transfer related to the building of these vessels. Right after the 1830 agreement, seeing an opportunity in Ottoman Empire's quest for a modern naval force, a somehow defamed and grieving, but well experienced naval architect Henry Eckford, brought a corvette that he built to İstanbul, in his private capacity. This vessel christened United States was acquired by Sultan Mahmut II, who misinterpreted the arrival of Eckford and the ship as a make-up gesture orchestrated by President Jackson. The 26 gun corvette was renamed Mesir-i Ferah and joined the ranks of the new Ottoman Navy. Following the event, a new shipyard according to Eckford's specifications was constructed on the Golden Horn and he was employed by the Sultan. He also brought his fellow engineer Foster Rhodes and American workers with him. Upon his sudden death in 1832 in İstanbul, the job was carried on by Rhodes, who constructed ten more highly successful ships for the Ottoman Navy. The techniques and know-how such gathered has been put to good use by the Ottoman Empire and by the time of Sultan Abdülaziz the Ottoman Navy became one of the most formidable naval forces.

Expectedly in the aftermath of the 1830 agreement the trade relations between the parties also expanded, albeit slowly. While in 1816 only 8 American flagged ships had ported at İzmir, in 1830 this number had reached to 32. Whereas merely two of the 6286 ships that has passed Dardanelles in 1843 was sailing under the American flag, following the Crimean War of 1853-1856, there had been an American ship berthed in İstanbul port every week. As the 19th century came to a close, the Ottoman Empire's share in US exports were around 1.7 %. When it came to imports the figüre represented almost 1 % of the total international trade of the United States. On the other hand, the share of goods that were exported to the US by the Ottoman Empire has represented 23 % of total exports of the Empire.


The Relations Between The US and the Young and Independent Republic of Turkey

The Turkish victory at the end of the Turkish War of Independence of 1919 – 1923 and the ensuing Treaty of Lausanne (1923) not only marked the final treaty ending the World War I, and the end of the Ottoman Empire, but it also witnessed the annulment of all capitulations. Alongside the European powers who has developed a habit of devouring the economic resources of the Ottoman Empire through such preferential agreements this was not well received by the US, too. After all, by their nature, these arrangements created relations based on dependence, and has provided the receiving end, in this case Europe, as well as the United States, control and dominated over the Ottoman Empire. The young and independent Republic of Turkey was in no position to extend such one-sided favors to foreign states and was determined to resolutely guard its freedom, sovereignty and national interests. This time the US Congress failed to ratify the Treaty of Lausanne. However, as with the others, the Turkish triumph did not leave much choice but to accept the circumstances.

The 1929 Turkish – American Convention of Trade and Navigation brought a comparatively increased activity in trade relations. In 1939 a new Convention was agreed by the parties. As has been mentioned following the end of the Second World War, the relations have taken a turn towards being almost exclusively centered on security and strategic issues and priorities.


Course of Relations

Looking at the landscape of the history of relations outlined above, it is easily observable how surprisingly little has changed in the basic framework, context and, remarkably, main themes of Turkish – American relations. It is also hard to miss the vast opportunity for structural progress and change in these relations. Today, almost after two and a half centuries has passed the fundamental issues and themes regarding bilateral relations are still viciously rotating around similar matters. While the debate surrounding Turkey's bid to obtain a surface-to-air missile asset has some, not unimportant, reminding tones of the hapless secret clause of the 1830 Agreement, where Turkey was again trying to close a gap in its defenses facing existential threats; Turkey's bid for an autonomous foreign and security policy in the post-Cold War, post 9/11, post-coup, post Arab Spring and post Syrian Civil War environment and the US reactions to it has overtones reminiscent of the US Congress' decision not to ratify the Treaty of Lausanne in 1927. However, with the abundance of events, that are all nothing short of momentous in their own right, obligating the use of the prefix “post” to qualify them, a sea change in the relations is to be expected, and probably, inevitable. Sadly, at this point, almost the only permanent factor in the historical continuum of Turkish - US relations seem to be the meager volume and impact trade does have in the relations –with Turkey's share in US imports constituting a meager 0,4 %, representing a 50 % decrease compared to the 19th century end of siècle figure. As things stand, one cannot help but remember the adage attributed to Albert Einstein on insanity – that it is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different outcomes. All in all this might well have been a proper definition for infectivity too and perhaps, concentrating on the trade aspect of relations might enable us with the ability to break the present vicious cycle by providing us the opportunity to constructively pave a structurally sound way out of the present frictions and stalemate.


US's roles in Turkey's Critical Periods

To be sure Turkish – US Relations has never been the proverbial “walk in the park” for any of the parties. The Cold War relations did indubitably present their fair share of challenges to the relations. The first such overt crisis in bilateral relations and the one that undermined Turkey's trust for US nuclear umbrella against the “imminent” Soviet threat was experienced during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At the time the United States had withdrawn 15 NATO commanded Jupiter PGM 19 medium range ballistic missiles, known now as “the other missiles of October”, deployed in İzmir's Çiğli air force base without Turkey's consent as part of the bargain reached with the Soviets on the withdrawal of their missiles in Cuba. Further blows to Turkey's relations with the United States include: the Johnson letter of 1964, threatening Turkey to be left out in the “cold” if the Russians decision to interfere against Turkey in case the latter chose to intervene in Cyprus, on behalf of Turkish Cypriot community, against Greek Cypriot atrocities; the opium crisis of 1974, where the United States pressured Turkey to stop cultivation of opium poppies in the country that were harvested for medical opiates; the arms embargo of 1974 following Turkey's military intervention in Cyprus based on its rights as a guarantor state as per Zurich Agreement of February 1959 against a coup attempt of Greek ultra-nationalists sponsored by the Greek junta of the time; the no-fly zone arrangements (1991 – 1996 and partly 1997 – 2003) in Iraq following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait 1990 and the subsequent Gulf War (1990-91) that many in Turkey suspect had an important role in bolstering the terrorist organization PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party). In addition to that, and probably far worse in terms of their impact is the presumed role of the United States regarding the military coups in Turkey in 1960, 1971 and 1980. Indeed, all these events played a part in nibbling on the mutual trust and to an extent responsible for the present state of relations.

The international system is transforming in terms of its structure. With the end of the Cold War it has shifted from a bi-polar structure to a unipolar-moment. Now, it is passing through what seems to be an emergent “devolutive” multimultipolarity. It is also changing in terms of, what one might call its character – from a Westphalian system to a yet ambiguous set of principles and frameworks that will continue to be defining the contexts, priorities and processes. This is a development that would probably extend into the decades to come. For the state-actors of international relations, such metamorphosis and the inevitable childhood troubles of transition makes it extremely hard to find solace in grand bargains and widespread consensuses on political issues. It imposes certain compartmentalization and transactionality upon actors as grand politico-military alliances are harder to forge and common values and interests to base such larger political unanimities are harder to reach. However, this modality of compartmentalized transactional relations surely does not come without their costs. When the political superstructures and values and ideas are no longer able to supersede divergent identities and differing interests they succumb, crumbling under the weight of pressures such a transition brings. It becomes harder to responsibly carry the burdens of partnership fundamentally because the underlying structure and surrounding framework becomes fragile to carry the weight of policies and associations necessitated by such collective grand agendas. When building, and more importantly, maintaining, common ground is so hard, creating interdependencies – not onesided dependencies – might present a key. It is also imperative that such interdependencies should be based on a strong enough argument that can provide structural fortitude and can sustain the aforementioned factors. The politicomilitary structure of Turkish – American relations is evidently not buoyant enough neither to meet the challenges of the day, nor astute enough to preserve the resilience of the said relations.

Already dented by events like the rejection of 2003, March 1st motion by the Turkish Grand National Assembly that largely strained ties of the Turkish and American establishments; the July 4th, 2003 Hood Event when, in Sulaymaniyah in Northern Iraq, US forces, with the help of their local collaborators apprehended and interrogated Turkish special forces soldiers and in the face of deep disagreements regarding: the future of Syria, as well as their choice of allies in this country and elsewhere post-Arab Spring; the Turkish decision to buy S-400 missile systems from Russia and the issue of the delivery of F-35 Lightning II aircraft to be the next generation fighter of the Turkish Air Force, the Turkish public opinion is at a point where, at least according to one study published in 2018, 81,9 % of Turkish citizens feel the United States as the primary threat to Turkey's security. The role of the turn the relations took after the attempted coup in 2016, over mutual disappointments on the reactions and rhetoric chosen by the decision-makers, has been profound in this deterioration.

In fact, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Turkey – US relations have undergone a significant transformation. The change of culture following the Cold War in the Pentagon coincided with a period in which a new generation of officers was raised to command positions in the US Armed Forces. This new generation of officers does not attach Turkey the level of strategic importance that was attributed by the Pentagon's Cold War generation. The experience of the rejection of the motion of March 2003, rightly or wrongly disrupted their organizational memory on, “Turkey's geopolitical and strategic importance”. The “big brothers” who set the tone of foreign and security policy during the Trump Administration are mainly US Central Command (CENTCOM) veterans of the Iraq War, with field experience gained in Fallujah and elsewhere, and not in Korea. Their views, interpretations and sympathies on Turkey's strategic importance, priorities and interests are also shaped by these experiences. Then again, a number of belt way decisionmakers have taken a directly alienated, if not hostile, position against Turkey. Effective on this outcome is an observable impact of the lobbying activities of anti-Turkey groups, including but limited to the FETÖ organization that Turkey holds directly responsible for the coup attempt of 2016, whose leader still resides in the United States. Accordingly, some in Washington's decision-making circles seem to assess the relations as disconcerted beyond repair, thinking that there is a fundamental divergence of values between the parties, going beyond a transient disagreement of interests.

Yet some are predisposed to question the credibility of Turkey as an ally, while others are inclined to inquire the value of an alliance relationship with Turkey either because of systemic changes or changing policies and politics. Finally, one might argue that the United States, is lacking in big picture strategists. People who, in Henry Kissinger's words, are concerned with key problems of order in world politics. Hence, it suffers a drought on strategic thinking. It might also be noted that the Trump effect, the discordant outlook of the administration, and the domestic pressures that it seemingly finds hard to cope in a prudent manner, undermines the ability of the US to come up with coherent strategies addressing global issue and relations. This leads key agendas and relations getting run by daily inputs and concerns. In this regard, it should go without saying that Twitter feed politics definitely does not help. It should be said that on the other side of the aisle, in Turkey, there is deep mistrust and discontent. There also is a mirror image situation. Turkish decision-makers, ironically basing their assumptions also on the structural changes in world politics, tend to question the value, gains and the rational of the alliance with the US.

Starting Point : Improving Bilateral Trade

In this respect, it is no secret that the bilateral relations of the two countries have come too close to a breaking-point during the court case related to the espionage and terror related charges brought against American evangelical preacher Andrew Brunson. At the time, leaving the anticipatable liking of the public for hyperbole aside, during the most of the second half of 2018, it seemed justified to invoke such concepts as “grievance”, “trainwreck”, “salvage” etc. in defining Turkish – US relations. However, it might easily be argued that the relations between these two partners and allies have been visibly deteriorating since the starting of the Syrian Civil War and the perceived American reactions, lack of empathy, cooperation and support following 15th of July 2016 coup attempt, that cost Turkey the lives of about 250 people, leaving an additional 2.193 wounded, functioned as an accelerator on the Turkish side. It is a fact that during most of their modern history the security and strategic issues have formed the backbone of the Turkish – US relations. Nevertheless, the above defined new environment and Dynamics is not lending these factors a conducive environment for an easy fix that could be based on old dynamics, processes and patterns. As it stands, it probably is high time to reinvent these relations, that still remain critically and strategically important in order for alleviating the troubles of and challenges to future of the global order. Improving bilateral trade might just provide us with a starting point if not the opportunity itself.

Improving trade relations by keeping their respective markets open to the goods and services of each other; by granting favorable regulatory environments to businesses; by improving mutually hurting tariffs, duties and taxes; by identifying key areas of investment and trade cooperation; encouraging the formation of joint ventures and co-investment projects in both their countries and Turkey's regions; by cooperating in the development of large-scale projects, including but not limited to a possible collaboration on energy projects in the Eastern Mediterranean basin, the two countries might easily improve their relations on a mutually beneficial track. The opportunities seem lucrative and the upside potential is credibly huge.

It is Needed to Say New Things

One thing is clear, the reconstruction and renewal of relations between Turkey and the United States should be based on the regeneration and invigoration of structural ties that are strong enough to carry the relations of these two heavy weights, both of whom are members of the G-20. To this end, in this day and age, relying simply on politicomilitary relations simply will not do the trick.

The new phase of Turkish – US relations requires more independent, civil society networks, based on mutual interests, with governments assuming the mantle of facilitators, and an infra-structure that is based on economic ties. As a matter of fact, the parties have walked the politico-military road in their relations with mixed success so far and those issues are surely still critical for the future of bilateral relations and could possibly not be let to their own devices. However, the relations can equally surely benefit from a boost in bilateral trade relations. That is exactly the road not taken and exploited to the full extent of its potential in the two countries relations. Probably it is high time to learn from the wisdom of the 13th Century Muslim Saint and Anatolian mystic Mevlânâ Celâleddîn-i Rûmî: “Everything about yesterday has gone with yesterday. Today, it is needed to say new things”.