Commentary | February 03, 2011

In D.C., Turkey Takes the Spotlight

Turkey’s growing foreign policy clout is clearly registering in Washington. The Turkish embassy is very active, and leading think tanks hold debates on everything from Turkey’s long-term goals to its relations with Israel. When Turkey’s influential Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ahmet Davutoglu, visited DC, an at-capacity crowd came to see him speak about Global Order at Georgetown University. Turkey’s economy is booming at an 8% annual rate, second only to China among the world’s largest economies. Turkish leaders say their goal is to be within the top ten by 2023, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. As a NATO member, Turkey is a U.S. military ally, and it allows the U.S. Air Force to use the Incirlik air base for transporting non-lethal cargo to Iraq. Turkey has also taken new diplomatic initiatives in the past year, working with Brazil on a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran and brokering talks with Syria. But from the incident with the Mavi Marmara aid ship to Gaza to its “no” vote on Iran sanctions in the UN Security Council last June, Turkey has increasingly challenged U.S. foreign policy positions. So it is not surprising that Turkey’s new assertiveness has created new tensions in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.  

The Obama Administration must figure out how to balance a healthy relationship with Turkey with its other global relationships, including with Israel. Obama visited Turkey on his first presidential overseas trip and he has friendly relations with Prime Minister Erdogan (they speak frequently by phone). Turkey’s continued economic growth makes it an attractive destination for U.S. businesses. These days, the Administration appears to be engaging Turkey by speaking a common language: trade. The Administration has developed 20-odd mutually-beneficial initiatives, including the Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation, an annual cabinet-level strategic dialogue to discuss new ways to enhance commercial cooperation. There are currently three bilateral mechanisms (Trade and Investment Framework Agreement, Economic Partnership Commission, Energy Working Group), co-chaired by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke on the American side and Zafer Caglayan, Foreign Trade Minister, and Ali Babacan, Deputy Prime Minister, on the Turkish side. Other Initiatives are led by the DOE, State Department, and other agencies (see sidebar).  

Congress’s relationship with Turkey is also complicated. Two of Turkey’s neighbors, Israel and Armenia, have powerful presences on the Hill. Turkey, on the other hand, has not prioritized relations with Congress. So it is not surprising that the Mavi Marmara incident prompted a cacophonous reaction from the Hill, with some lawmakers criticizing Turkey for “growing closer in relations to Iran and more antagonistic towards the state of Israel.” Some lawmakers threatened to switch votes in favor of the Armenian Resolution (H.Res.252), which recognized the mass killing of Armenians from 1915 to 1923 as genocide. After Turkey’s “no” vote on Iran at the UN Security Council, Congress suspended negotiations for arms sales to Turkey. California Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Howard Berman, both influential voices on the Armenian Issue, have constituencies comprised of two of the largest Armenian communities in the country. It is possible that this issue may fare differently under a Republican majority. On January 7, Turkish Parliament Speaker Mehmet Ali Sahin sent a message of congratulations to newly-elected House Speaker Boehner. For the 112th Congress’s storyline, the chapter on U.S. Congress-Turkish relations has yet to be written.  

In October, EWI sent a leadership group to Turkey, Northern Iraq, and Israel, which met with senior leaders and scholars in Ankara, Erbil, and Tel Aviv on topics ranging from U.S.- Turkish relations to Turkey’s ten-year vision, the Kurdish question, and relations with Israel. Stemming from those consultations, EWI DC currently works with the Administration, the Hill, the Turkish Embassy, and several think tanks on U.S.- Turkish relations. EWI will continue to help strengthen this important partnership.