Analysis of John Kerry’s Turkey Visit and Ankara-Washington Relations

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Reza Solat
Ph.D. Candidate of International Relations and Expert on Turkey Issues

The United States Secretary of State John Kerry has visited Turkey twice in less than two months announcing his goal as improvement of relations between Turkey and Israel. In fact, the strenuous effort made by [the US President] Barack Obama’s administration in this regard is indicative of the importance of the Middle East region in Washington’s foreign policy and the significance that the White House attaches to creating balance among its allies in this strategic region.

What gives added weight to Kerry’s visit to Turkey is the fact that during his recent visit to Israel, Barack Obama had asked [the Israeli prime minister] Benjamin Netanyahu in a meeting in Tel Aviv to apologize to Turkey for the killing of nine Turkish citizens onboard an aid flotilla which carried humanitarian assistance to the besieged Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. In fact, the US president’s move aimed to assuage [the Turkish Prime Minister Recep] Tayyip Erdogan by meeting his demands. By doing so, Washington actually tried to convince Erdogan once more to take steps to normalize the relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Therefore, in addition to paying attention to such variables as the normalization of ties between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey’s role in the ongoing crisis in Syria, this paper will also emphasis on the quality and type of Turkey’s demands within framework of international political system. It is noteworthy that Turkish strategists have been trying to promote their country’s foreign policy by taking advantage of crises which emerge in other countries. In line with this policy, the strategy followed by Erdogan’s government within the framework of international system, will seem more meaningful when it is considered through the basic principle of making the most of the voids created by crisis in other places. This policy allows Ankara to pursue realization of its own interests in alliance with big global powers. It is for this reason that during the past few years, Turkey has not only increased its effort to join the European Union, but has also enhanced its regional role in the Middle East. It seems that apart from reaping huge economic and technical benefits through attuning its policy to Washington, Ankara is also expecting the United States to assign a more active role in international developments to it. This issue will help the European allies of the United States to move to boost their relations with Turkey. This is why following the negative reaction that the European Union showed to proposed cancelation of visa requirement for Turkish nationals who travel to Europe – which prevented conclusion of a related agreement between two countries – Turkey has moved to take its relations with the United States and Israel to a new level. Even the Turkish prime minister, who had already described Zionism as “a crime against humanity,” noted that his remarks were the result of a misunderstanding. On the other hand, Turkey is of high geopolitical and geostrategic importance to both Israel and the United States and due to its close ties with Palestinian groups, Ankara can be of great help to Washington and Tel Aviv in this regard. Basically, the quality and level of Turkey’s relations with the United States can affect both the way that the European Union would choose to deal with Turkey, and also help Ankara to play a more active role in regulating regional crises.

The strategy pursued by Kerry in the Middle East matches older strategies which had been introduced by [the former US secretary of state] Henry Kissinger and have been applied to Turkey by the US foreign policy apparatus up to this day. It is noteworthy that Washington is doing its utmost to maintain a high level of cooperation between Ankara and Tel Aviv in line with its own security and intelligence operations in the region.

Since Turkish strategists have been trying during the past years to change the country from a simple source of support to a role model for other regional states, they have been critically slamming Israel in various fronts in order to maximize their objective and economic gains. It seems that this issue stems from idealistic policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party and has nothing to do with the realistic policies of the Turkish government. In fact, this issue has its roots in traditionally dual policies of Turkey. As such, Ankara’s criticism of Tel Aviv should be more attributed to personality traits of the country leaders than actual policies followed by the Turkish government. However, it seems that the main reasons behind continuous meetings between Turkish and American officials should be sought in both countries’ traditional policies which give foremost priority to building confidence before starting covert negotiations. Therefore, it would be too naïve to assume that the recent visit to Turkey by the US Secretary of State John Kerry was simply for the sake of reconciling Turkey with Israel. In other words, negotiations between Turkey and the United States are taking place within the framework of vast cooperation networks which exist between Ankara and Washington.

The United States has been always indignant with the Islamist policies, but not without a good reason. There is no doubt that through its support for Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, the United States has been trying to show that there is, at least, one party in the world which is Islamist or has Islamic roots, and can still be a lasting ally for the United States and a driving force behind stability in the entire region. The Justice and Development Party has already passed that threshold and this has raised Washington’s hope in the possibility of making similar deals with Islamist parties in other Islamic countries. Therefore, the policy followed by Obama administration is based on the promotion of the behavior of Turkish leaders as a role model. That model combines Islam, secularism, and democracy and is the joint prescription that Ankara and Washington are advising to all regional countries, especially the Arab states. In addition, common challenges facing the United States, Turkey, and the European Union – especially the issue of terrorist threats, the ongoing crisis in Syria, the Arab-Israeli crisis and instability in the Middle East – have made it essential for them to find a new ground for bolstering cooperation. In fact, to the same degree that Erdogan seeks to have good relations with Washington, the US government, in its effort to control the Islamic movements in the region, sees the Justice and Development Party as role model for moderate Islam. Therefore, Washington is trying to introduce Turkey’s ruling party as model for the entire Islamic world and also use it as a pretext to continue the United States’ war against all Islamic governments and organizations which have been designated as fundamentalist by the White House. There have been junctures in which relations between Turkey and the United States have become sour. For example, the lack of a suitable reaction to the actions of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) on the part of the United States as well as the US Congress measure in discussing a resolution on the alleged genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks actually prevented both countries from taking full advantage of their capacities for more effective cooperation for a while. However, despite all ups and downs, the United States has been trying to polish Turkey’s international image and present an attractive image of Ankara at international level. Washington has even gone as far as trying to reconcile Turkey with the European Union. Since Obama was elected as the US president, the approach taken to Turkey by the White House has not been merely focused on the geopolitical position of this country. On the contrary, the focus on such issues as Turkey’s soft power potentials and convincement of the public opinion in the Arab world [to adopt Turkey as their role model] has caused Turkey’s regional role to become more pronounced than ever before. However, it should not be forgotten that the American leaders are very skillful in engineering and manipulating the public opinion. This skill will prove of great help to Washington when it wants to convince the public opinion in the Arab world by raising severe criticism of Israel in its declared policies while working to promote Turkey’s model among the Arab states. This is of special importance since Erdogan has shown great enthusiasm in recent years to appear as a heroic supporter of democracy in the region by targeting harsh criticism at Israel, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the government of Syria. This is so because strategies followed by Ankara are based on identifying sensitive issues in the Islamic world and riding the tide of popular sentiments in the Arab world in order to maximize the degree of the realization of Ankara’s interests and establishing the country’s position in international political equations.

In view of the above facts, John Kerry’s recent visits to Turkey should be assessed in line with the general outlines of the US foreign policy in the region and its cooperation with Turkey. Washington believes that attunement of Turkey to the US policies in the Middle East region will prepare Ankara to better appreciate the United States’ role in the Middle East. On the other hand, Turkey’s leaders maintain that alignment with the strategic plans of the White House will promote their regional standing and in addition to securing their position in the region, will help them play a more active role at both regional and international levels.

Historical experience has proven that such traditional visits by the White House officials to Turkey soon after a new administration takes office are aimed to reduce to a minimum all basic differences that exist between the two sides and will facilitate the United States’ plans in the region. In addition, security and economic exchanges between Turkey and Israel show that even before Obama and Kerry embarked on their regional tours, both Erdogan and Netanyahu had been busy settling their disputes.

Key Words: John Kerry, Turkey, Ankara-Washington Relations, Barack Obama, Israel, Solat

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