Obama Presidency: a New Era in Turkish-American Relations?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 214

Many Turks joined the worldwide rejoicing over the Democrats’ victory and Barack Obama’s election as the next president of the United States. The Turkish public is sympathetic to Obama’s call for change as they find parallels in his story to Turkey’s experience with the reformist wave brought about by the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) landslide electoral victory in 2002.

President Abdullah Gul, in a letter to President-elect Obama, reflected this positive mood in Turkey: “Your message of change and hope is one that meets the expectations of our day. It is a message that Turkey embraces” (www.cankaya.gov.tr, November 5). Similarly, by emphasizing Obama’s background, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan presented Obama’s victory as evidence of the American political system’s democratic credentials (www.cnnturk.com, November 5). Obama’s vision on pressing issues of American politics aside, his promises of reorienting America’s role in the world instilled hope for a new direction in American foreign policy, hence reinvigorating the Turkish American relations in the wake of the Bush administration.

Growing anti-Americanism in Turkey, caused by the current administration’s unpopular policies, has been one of the factors adversely affecting Turkish-American relations. Several studies have found that the Turkish people harbored unfavorable views about the United States and preferred the Democrat Obama over Republican John McCain (Pew Global Attitudes Survey, June 12; www.pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/260.pdf). Given the positive image of Obama among the Turkish people, analysts expect him to take important steps toward saving the United States’ image in Turkey and helping to revitalize the relationship (Turkish Daily News, November 6).

When the candidates’ views on specific issues of concern to Turkey were compared, however, many within the Turkish policy community tended to favor McCain. Given his refusal to pledge to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide against the Armenians (in contrast to Obama’s commitment to support Armenian claims) and his familiarity with and appreciation of Turkey’s strategic importance to U.S. interests, McCain had appeared to be the more favorable choice (Today’s Zaman, February 21). Similarly, the widespread belief that Obama’s position on certain issues might damage Turkey’s interests led many Turkish-Americans to support McCain despite their overall preference for Obama (Newsweek, November 1).

In his campaign Obama partly overcame some of Turkey’s concerns, and grew more sensitive to the strategic value of Turkish-American relations. His new draft agenda for partnership with Europe had a section entitled “Restoring the Strategic Partnership with Turkey.” Having emphasized the negative legacy of the Bush administration, Obama has promised to “lead a diplomatic effort to bring together Turkish and Iraqi Kurdish leaders and negotiate a comprehensive agreement that deals with the PKK threat, guarantees Turkey’s territorial integrity,… [and supports Turkey’s] efforts to join the European Union.” Obama appeared to satisfy Turkey’s concerns on the issues of Cyprus and nuclear proliferation in Iran (www.barackobama.com/pdf/fact_sheet_europe_final.pdf).

The specifics of Obama’s foreign policy have not yet materialized; hence, they are full of uncertainties for Turkey. Obama’s broad goals, such as supporting global peacemaking efforts, buttressing regional allies, and refocusing on energy security in regions surrounding Turkey, are definitely welcome to Turkey and partly explain the Turkish leaders’ warm congratulations. Moving away from militarization of U.S. policies in favor of diplomacy, for instance, resonates well with Turkey’s new role as a regional peacemaker. Now that Turkey will be on the UN Security Council, cooperation between the two countries in this area will be increasingly important. Erdogan therefore expressed his hope that Barack Obama would contribute to international peace, particularly in the Middle East. Erdogan reiterated his belief that the two countries would maintain strategic relations. Erdogan is due to visit the United States on November 15 and reportedly plans to meet Obama during that trip (Taraf, November 6). The Turkish business community, which has started to feel the effects of the global financial crisis, is also positive about Obama’s election. They believe Obama is better placed to solve the financial crisis (Dunya, November 6).

Nonetheless, it remains to be seen how the Obama-Biden ticket’s previously announced plans about such issues as the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and possible partition of the country and its controversial statements about Cyprus will affect Turkish-American relations (see “Yeni Amerikan Baskani Obama ve Turk Amerikan Iliskileri,ASAM Bakis, No.8, November 2008; www.asam.org.tr/temp/temp1181.pdf). Obama’s persistent and unequivocal commitment to the Armenian interpretation of the events of 1915 and the Karabakh conflict remain the main roadblock to improving Turkish-American relations under the new administration (www.obama.com). Just days before the election the Obama-Biden campaign reaffirmed its pledge to recognize the events of 1915 as genocide (ANCA, Press Release, www.anca.org/press_releases/press_releases.php?prid=1620). Many Turkish foreign affairs experts believe that mismanagement of the “G” word issue might not only strain relations but also negatively affect ongoing efforts for reconciliation between Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey (www.cnnturk.com, November 5).

Erdogan was optimistic about avoiding such a head-on collision. He hopes that the promises made on the Armenian theme by Obama the candidate will remain election rhetoric for Obama the President. He believes that Obama will tone down these arguments when he assumes office, because there is a dimension of Turkish-American relations dictated by strategic reality that will not be altered by a change in the White House (Star, November 5). The Turkish leader had demonstrated a similar optimism about the moderating effect of holding office with regard to Obama’s reported reference to Turkey as an “occupier” in Cyprus. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan maintained, however, that this was part of campaign politics and once elected Obama would adjust his position (Zaman, October 20).

As the AKP leaders’ own experience in power has shown, political office comes with certain responsibilities and definitely has a transformative impact on political leaders. The party believes that “common sense” might well prevail and that Obama will step back from some of his election rhetoric, which might help avoid tension in bilateral relations. What the AKP’s own experience also shows, however, is that reformists’ return to former practices can entail certain costs. If Obama goes down a similar path, following the dictates of “strategic reality,” he will fail to meet worldwide expectations for drastic changes in American foreign policy, including in Turkish-American relations.