As the war between Russia and Ukraine grinds on and as the need to maintain a united front against Moscow grows, Turkey and the United States are seeking to put their long-troubled relationship on a better path. The new U.S.-Turkey Strategic Mechanism, announced in early April 2022, is a promising (but tentative) step forward.
The mechanism grew out of an understanding reached between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden during their meeting on the margins of the October 2021 G20 summit in Rome. Though the idea is said to belong to Biden, the U.S. readout after the meeting lacked any reference to the mechanism, whereas it was the highlight of the Turkish narrative. This difference in emphasis initially triggered rumors that the United States might be dragging its feet.
After the initiative was announced, U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Marisa Lago visited Turkey to explore opportunities in commercial relations and to discuss how Turkey’s Russia-dependent energy mix could be diversified. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu will travel to the United States to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on May 18 in the first cabinet-level bilateral visit between the two countries since the Biden administration took office. The initial plans had been to have this meeting in Washington, DC, but the venue has been moved to New York, and the program has been curtailed, reportedly at the behest of the United States and probably in reaction to the conviction of Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala. While the process hasn’t been derailed, this experience serves as a reminder that the mechanism is vulnerable to different dynamics. Its sustainability and potential to have a positive impact depend on Ankara and Washington making the right choices to facilitate and not undermine policy convergences.
Turkish and American sources talk of the Strategic Mechanism as a structured platform in which all matters can be discussed, with an emphasis on advancing practical bilateral cooperation. The level of ambition that Ankara and Washington will set for the mechanism is yet to be seen and will be important, particularly in view of the failure of some past attempts. The two governments established working groups in 2018 to resolve disputes on consular affairs, Syria policy, and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, but these efforts failed to deliver results and were quickly forgotten. The United States had been reluctant to go forward with the idea at the time, and the lesson from that experience is that, unless the parties have a shared sense of understanding of and joint commitment to the process, its chances of success are slim.
If the Strategic Mechanism is to avoid the fate of the 2018 working groups, Washington and Ankara will need to invest seriously in the process and display real political ownership; agree on clear, shared, and diverse objectives; and simultaneously work to resolve or at least minimize their bilateral disputes.
Demonstrating Political Ownership
The mechanism will be dead on arrival unless there is shared commitment in Ankara and Washington. Geopolitical considerations are currently driving this commitment in both countries. Russia’s brazen war in Ukraine and the global divide of systemic rivalry have affected how Turkey and the United States view each other. These events have changed their calculus in favor of closer relations and, in turn, have nurtured the idea of such a mechanism.
For Turkey, balancing Russia has consistently been a consideration. From Ankara’s perspective, the reality is that its security, deterrence, and economic livelihood are bolstered by its membership in NATO, its alliance with the United States, and its albeit shaky inclusion nowadays in the family of liberal democracies. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy is in dire straits as the country’s 2023 parliamentary and presidential elections loom on the horizon, forcing the government into looking for international success stories. The United States, on the other hand, is grappling with the fact that Turkey is a significant geopolitical middle power in its immediate region and beyond. Having Turkey as an ally has started to matter more again. In short, realpolitik calculations are at play for both sides.
For the purposes of optics and practicality, the Strategic Mechanism would benefit from being designed and seen as something more than a bureaucratic exercise. For this to happen, it needs a meaningful political embrace from both sides. Underscoring the mechanism’s importance with a meeting between the two countries’ presidents would give it a big boost. It is no secret that the Biden administration has been cold-shouldering Turkey. This has been evident in the choice Biden and his senior team have made to limit their interactions with their Turkish counterparts, something that Erdoğan has publicly lamented.
U.S. officials have already spoken of the possibility of such a meeting on the mechanism, and Turkey would certainly welcome the idea. The two presidents have only met twice so far since Biden took office, with both encounters on the margins of international meetings. The same arrangement could be made, for example, during the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting in New York in September 2022. The direct involvement of Erdoğan and Biden would give the mechanism good optics, add impetus to the initiative, and (maybe even more importantly) perhaps restrain potential spoilers on either side.
Setting Shared Objectives
U.S.-Turkey relations have deteriorated seriously since the early 2000s, starting with differences over the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. The tenor of bilateral ties has mostly been on a downward trajectory since. An accumulated host of disagreements have kept a damper on the relationship, including on topics like Syria policy, Washington’s half-hearted reaction to the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, the unfettered ability of the Gulen movement (which Ankara holds accountable for this failed attempt) to still function in the United States, Ankara’s decision to purchase Russia’s S-400 air defense system and ensuing U.S. sanctions, and the overall unhappiness in Washington with the incremental dismantling of democratic governance in Turkey.
A byproduct of the regression in U.S.-Turkey relations has been a decrease in bilateral exchanges, which is slowly eroding valuable human networks and taking a toll on the culture of cooperation between the two countries. The Strategic Mechanism can reverse this trend by breaking the numbing effect that disagreements have had on U.S.-Turkey ties. But for this to happen, Washington and Ankara will need to set clear, mutually agreed-on objectives and diversify their objectives to avoid simply trying to address the well-worn agenda of existing disputes.
The 2018 working groups exemplified the damaging effects of failing to achieve these goals. This time, the idea behind the Strategic Mechanism is different. Stimulating an agenda of practical cooperation, without ruling out the possibility of discussing disagreements, is a good way to strike a balance.
Ukraine will be a natural topic of discussion within the mechanism. This should be more than an act of ritualistic exchange and should instead focus on concrete deliverables, including for the post-conflict stage. The future Euroatlantic security architecture and Russia’s role therein and bilateral U.S.-Turkey collaboration in rebuilding and rehabilitating war-torn Ukraine are two themes that come to mind. Meanwhile, the departure of U.S. firms from Russia and the need for at least some of them to relocate their investments and production lines, as well as the realization about the importance of reliable supply chains, create new dynamics where Turkey can bring added value. Given that the United States has become Turkey’s second-largest gas supplier after Russia and that bilateral U.S.-Turkey trade posted a 30 percent increase last year to reach record highs, energy and trade are two other promising areas of cooperation that the Strategic Mechanism can help consolidate.
The list can be extended. Turkey’s ambitious outreach to Africa and its growing footprint on the continent, as well as its renewed efforts to mend fences with Armenia, present further opportunities of convergence with the United States. And despite some serious differences over Syria policy, Turkish and U.S. officials need to continue exploring options for facilitating a political settlement that would allow for the voluntary return of Syrian refugees to their home country.
If Ankara and Washington can advance cooperation in some of these areas, that would qualitatively improve a U.S.-Turkey partnership that has traditionally been set in a straitjacket of sometimes divergent security and defense interests. The Strategic Mechanism can help broaden this relationship and make it more resilient. The proposal’s added value would lie in introducing structure and continuity to different strands of engagement between the two countries and in its potential to swiftly elevate ripe schemes to political decisionmakers for their endorsement. In short, if the objectives are set right, the Strategic Mechanism could hasten both the incubation and implementation of useful ideas.
Reducing the Poisoning Effects of Disagreements
If the Strategic Mechanism is to help Turkey and the United States engage more deeply and enhance practical cooperation, something will have to be done in tandem to mitigate the poisoning effects of bilateral disagreements. This is where things get more complicated, and there is a mismatch between Ankara and Washington in terms of not only policy substance but also methods of diplomatic negotiations.
First, while Russia’s war on Ukraine and its generally aggressive posturing, as well as related geopolitical dynamics, have created a convergence between Ankara and Washington, there is also the risk that both sides may believe their own hand has been strengthened at the expense of the other. In fairness, they both have valid reasons to think so. Turkey is inclined to focus on and overstate the value of its geopolitical stock, which has clearly appreciated in the wake of the crisis, while the United States would prefer to stress the need for an awakening in Ankara on the risks associated with entanglement with and exposure to Russia. Blinken alluded to U.S. expectations in general terms while testifying before Congress in late April, when he spoke of the strategic opportunities that U.S. officials see in the ways various countries are rethinking the now more evident risks associated with dependencies on Russia. Both Turkey and the United States should be careful not to overplay their hands at this time of opportunity. If Turkey and Washington are to resolve, or at least mitigate, the negative effects of their differences, their point of departure cannot be that each side feels it has the upper hand and can now impose its will on the other. They will both need to compromise.
Second, while it is wise to spare the Strategic Mechanism of the burden of pointedly focusing on bilateral disagreements, assuming these matters can simply be set aside would be a mistake. The poisonous seeping effects of the problems weighing down the relationship do not afford the luxury of time. That is the underlying risk associated with seemingly practical solutions like embracing transactionalism, attempting compartmentalization, and focusing on low-hanging fruit while leaving problems on the back burner. Such an attempt would mean sleepwalking toward a future in which current problems will probably become more ossified and solutions will be harder to find. Despite such risks, Washington seems more inclined to wait things out, mostly because of its reluctance to engage in a process that is limited to rehashing arguments that have already been made to no effect. Turkey, on the other hand, seems ready to continue the debate, no matter what. The gap that needs to be bridged here involves identifying new common ground to move on. That is the incentive both sides need, and in Washington’s case, it is seen as a prerequisite. But the onus to create these conditions cannot fall on one side alone. It must be a mutual endeavor.
Two priorities are the S-400 conundrum and differences in Syria. On the first point, while Turkey tested the Russian-acquired system in late 2020 as part of the acquisition process, Ankara has chosen not to bring the system online yet. The Turkish government should hold this posture. It should concurrently stop amplifying the message that it retains the right to acquire additional systems from Russia and refrain from posturing through such statements. Political and operational realities emerging from the war in Ukraine should already have put an end to the debate over the expediency of adding Russian weapons systems to Turkey’s defense inventory. Many useful ideas on how to overcome the S-400 problem have already been put forward, and any solution will need to involve a workable formula to meet or work around the requirement in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act calling for Turkey’s nonpossession of the system as a condition for sanctions to be lifted. Progress on this and also on Turkey’s request to purchase forty state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jets and eighty modernization kits for its existing aircraft would mark a significant breakthrough in bilateral relations and would have positive ripple effects. There are encouraging signs that the F-16 issue may slowly be evolving in the right direction.
It will be equally important to find a way forward in Syria. The perception that the United States continues to supply Kurdish elements that Ankara believes are associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a separatist militant group that targets Turkey and that is listed as a terrorist organization in the United States and the EU, is taking a heavy toll on Turkish sentiments toward the United States. The harm this is doing to bilateral relations cannot be overstated. While the United States may have internally normalized this state of affairs, the same cannot be expected of Turkey. Nor would that expectation correspond to the repeated assurances the United States has given Turkey in the past. When U.S. officials chose to begin this engagement in Syria, they reassured Turkey repeatedly that the arrangement was temporary, transactional, and tactical— geared solely to fighting the threat of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. This would be the right moment for the United States to start considering how to wind down its engagement with these Kurdish elements in Syria and for Turkey to come forward with practical solutions that address overriding U.S. security interests in Syria on the threat posed by the Islamic State, though there is little visible appetite in Washington to do so now.
Another relevant factor is the state of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. This will have a bearing on the type of engagement Turkey and the United States can achieve through the Strategic Mechanism and beyond. The view that Turkey is backsliding on its human rights and rule of law standards is a fundamental problem. It is severely undermining Ankara’s image and interests, including on the economic front in terms of the country’s perceived investment climate. Turkey’s quest to establish a solid international reputation cannot be achieved when the Turkish government, for instance, disregards its obligations under international law and under its own constitution to uphold decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. As Turkey speaks of a new era in its foreign policy and tries to portray itself in a positive light as a responsible and reliable international actor, it cannot concurrently tighten the screws internally on the Turkish people’s freedoms and human rights or flout its relevant responsibilities. This is particularly true as the temptation grows to define the global order by delineating between democratic states and nondemocratic ones. Turkey’s aspirations and actions should correspond to those befitting truly democratic states. This would strengthen Turkey’s hand in every respect and augment its ability to make the most of the Strategic Mechanism with the United States.
The Glass Is Half Full
The U.S.-Turkey Strategic Mechanism is no silver bullet, and one should not expect any miracles. Rebuilding trust between Ankara and Washington and changing accumulated negative perceptions will take patience and concrete action. By consolidating different strands of bilateral engagement under shared political ownership, the Strategic Mechanism can be a useful force multiplier. Despite skeptics on both sides and against all odds, the glass is half full in U.S.-Turkey relations: if used wisely and in conjunction with the right policy choices, the Strategic Mechanism can help bolster this momentum.