Turkish-American “Strategic Partnership”: On the Way to Rejuvenation?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 45

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left) greets Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan (Photo: EPA)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Ankara on Saturday, the highest-level direct contact between the administration of President Barack Obama and the Turkish government so far, highlighted the value each side places on sustaining the Turkish-American partnership. In addition to her meetings with President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Clinton met with Foreign Minister Ali Babacan after which the two held a press briefing and made a joint statement about strengthening the bilateral relationship. Clinton also visited Ataturk’s mausoleum in Ankara and appeared on a popular show on the private NTV channel.

The joint declaration stated that the parties "reaffirmed the strong bonds of alliance, solidarity, and strategic partnership…as well as the commitment of both countries to the principles of peace, democracy, freedom, and prosperity enshrined in the Shared Vision and Structured Dialogue document agreed to in July 2006" (www.turkey.usembassy.gov, March 7).

Clinton had a chance to discuss a wide range of issues with Turkish officials including the Middle East peace process, Iraq, Afghanistan, energy security, the global financial crisis, terrorism, developments in the Balkans and the Caucasus, Turkey’s EU membership process, and the Cyprus problem. The continuing discussions on using Turkish territory as a possible route for US troops leaving Iraq reportedly occupied the major part of Clinton’s agenda during her private discussions with Erdogan and other Turkish officials (ANKA, March 8). In response to a question about Turkey’s possible role in the U.S. withdrawal plans, Clinton noted that the process was still in its initial phases and Washington would maintain discussions with Turkey on the subject. Babacan repeated his earlier remarks on the issue, emphasizing that talks at the technical level were already underway and that Turkey had a constructive approach to the subject (Anatolian News Agency, March 7).

Another major item discussed was Turkey’s contributions to resolving conflicts in the region. Clinton reiterated American appreciation of Turkey’s role with regard to the Palestine issue and the indirect talks between Syria and Israel. Both sides said that they would work together to achieve a comprehensive and sustainable peace in the region. Likewise, Clinton expressed her country’s support for the process of reconciliation between Turkey and Armenia that Ankara initiated. Clinton also noted that Washington found Gul’s visit to Iran this week important (Sabah, March 8). Although some Turkish sources speculated that Gul might have carried messages from Washington to Tehran (Hurriyet, March 9), this has yet to be confirmed officially.

Overall, statements from both sides stress that the two parties had useful discussions and found mutual ground on issues of common concern, which might herald a new era in Turkish-American relations. Achieving consensus on strategic matters aside, a major roadblock in Turkish-American relations has been the public animosity toward the United States and how to reverse the anti-Americanism that became strongly engrained in the Turkish body politic during the Bush years. Cognizant of these challenges, the American side did its best to appeal to the Turkish people, as reflected in Clinton’s appearance on a TV show targeting female viewers (EDM, March; www.ntvmsnbc.com, March 7).

Likewise, Clinton capitalized on Obama’s vision of change to emphasize that Turkish-American relations were entering a new phase. She announced that Obama would visit Turkey in a month. A White House official said that Obama’s trip "will be an important opportunity to visit a NATO ally and discuss shared challenges," adding, "It will also provide an opportunity to continue the president’s dialogue with the Muslim world" (www.cnn.com, March 7). It is not yet known, however, whether the speech Obama had promised to deliver in a Muslim capital during his first 100 days in office will be given in Ankara or in the capital of another Muslim country. Given the positive feelings of the Turkish people toward Obama’s election as president (EDM, November 7), the visit might indeed help improve the deteriorating American image in Turkey.

A similar move in public diplomacy concerns attempts to diversify bilateral relations on the societal level. The joint statement announced that a new program called "Young Turkey/Young America: A New Relationship for a New Age" would be launched. It would establish ties between emerging young leaders from both countries "to develop initiatives that will positively impact people’s lives and invest in future ties between the leadership of [the] two countries" (www.turkey.usembassy.gov, March 7).

The Turkish side was apparently satisfied with the trip. Speaking on the private NTV channel, Babacan said, "Turkish-American relations have entered a new phase … Our foreign policy priorities are completely in line with each other. In the new phase, the focus is on consultation and cooperation." Underlining Turkey’s willingness to work together with the United States as partners, Babacan added, "Clinton emphasized Turkey as a strategic partner. She accentuated this more powerfully than the previous administration, and the new administration is aware of Turkey’s importance." Nonetheless, Babacan debunked the overly optimistic expectations that Clinton’s visit indicated that Obama might not use the word "genocide’ in his Armenian Memorial Day address in April, This possibility was not completely off the table, he said (www.ntvmsnbc.com, March 8).

In the 1990s, under the Bill Clinton presidency, the Turkish-American relationship flourished in many areas and came to be called a strategic partnership. The Iraq War and ensuing developments turned "strategic partnership" into an oxymoron to describe Turkish-American relations. Despite efforts to save the relationship from further deterioration, disagreements between Ankara and Washington were difficult to bridge. The 2006 Shared Vision document, which the Babacan-Clinton joint statement referred to, for example, outlined a framework of close cooperation and structured dialogue to regulate bilateral relations. It was not put into practice, however, and relations hit a low point in 2007, when Washington criticized the Turkish government for its silence on anti-Americanism in the country and Ankara censured Washington’s inactivity toward PKK terrorism. This time, there appears to be a more solid basis for rejuvenating the partnership: strong references to the 2006 document after a long break are coupled with both sides’ carefully worded statements, which take each other’s sensitivities into account, and a determination to address problems through dialogue without playing blame games. With political will on both sides, it is not be wrong to assume that finally they may not only "talk the talk" but also "walk the walk."