Istanbul, Turkey -- The bedrock of the US-Turkish relationship has always been a shared strategic vision that was forged shoulder-to-shoulder in the crucible of the Korean War and the height of the Cold War. Having successfully weathered the Soviet threat together and reinvented the relationship in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Ankara and Washington were destined to work together. Now in the Middle East post-"Arab Spring" government-to-government relations have never been as close, yet the overall health of the US-Turkish relationship has not improved. What explains this paradox is not the number of visiting delegations or phone calls exchanged between public officials, but rather the fact that the world has fundamentally changed while the US-Turkish relationship has remained static in the 21st century. It's no longer simply enough to have excellent government-to-government relations, it must be matched by people-to-people and next generation leadership.
The timing has never been more critical as Turkey's neighborhood seems to be imploding and it faces internal challenges that it has never faced before while America's global leadership is being challenged in every possible arena and its citizens look to retrench much like it did after World War One, whose centennial both nations are commemorating. However as Turkey prepares to celebrate its centennial in 2023 and America marks 150 years since its Civil War, both nations have never needed each other more. Yet the sum total of the US-Turkish collective partnership does not exceed its individual parts, mostly because both sides have been trying to go back to the past as opposed to the future.
Policymakers in Ankara and Washington often complain about misperceptions on both sides of the Atlantic, yet often domestic politics and inter-capital rather than intra-alliance factors are to blame. For example, educational institutions in Turkey require students to take US politics courses and teach in English while their counterparts in America lack contemporary Turkish studies or even basic Turkish language programs. Similarly, Turkey sends more students to America than any other European country while there are only a paltry number of American students in Turkey by comparison. Economically speaking also the discrepancies between Turkish exports to American imports and the overall trade relationship leads to imbalances that should be discussed as part of governmental agreements such as the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership that is in everyone's long-term interests, but currently leaves more questions than provides answers to the business community. Even culturally the stigma of there being "no friend of a Turk except a Turk himself" and the American way being THE way creates a sense of exceptionalism that hinders and pervades both countries.
The bottom-line is that the next generation of US-Turkish leaders can't rely solely on their governments to manage a relationship this important to the long-term future of their respective countries. Public Turkish pronouncements about finding new partnerships with China or Russia or America's pivot to Asia ring hollow given the realities for the foreseeable future. Once again America and Turkey are doomed to partnership; therefore we might as well leverage the best of both sides. In this aspect the private sector has a crucial role to play in investing wisely to incentivize this critical partnership at every level.
People-to-people exchanges are among the easiest yet most effective ways to nurture the US-Turkish relationship. For this very reason the Young Society Leaders of the American Turkish Society was created to first identify and then foster the next generation of US-Turkish leadership to be part of this micro-level change that we hope can have a macro impact over the long-term. Having just held our inaugural summit where we discussed the archeological, cultural, economic, educational, entrepreneurial, historical, and political aspects of the US-Turkish relationship a refreshing energy and sense of optimism prevailed despite being in the midst of an otherwise pessimistic moment in history for both countries.
Elections never bring out the best in democracies, therefore western headlines; when they do include Turkey, sensationalize many of the challenges within Turkey without accentuating the everyday opportunities that lie beneath the surface. Similarly Turkish public opinion is reinforced by conspiracy theories about what America is trying to do with rather than for Turkey. Partnership is born of mutual benefits and synergies that do not exist independent of the other. Therefore refusing to fall into the simplistic narratives of Turks that know everything about America through Hollywood movies and ignorant Americans who only think of Turkey on Thanksgiving, the Young Society Leaders stand for the long-term potential in the US-Turkish relationship that rivals any partnership in modern history. US-Turkey may not be as culturally grounded as the US-British, economically robust as the US-German, or as strategic as the US-Israeli relationships, but it represents the future of international relations given the promise and room for growth in each of these areas.
As Turkey's neighborhood is once again being redrawn like it once was during the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey today stands out as one of the most dynamic yet stable states in its region along with the United States that has grown into its global leadership role. While Ankara and Washington will not see eye-to-eye on all things, Istanbul and New York, Izmir and Chicago, Adana and Houston, Antalya and Los Angeles along with many other areas of Turkey and the United States have many more global citizens that will benefit from closer people-to-people cooperation that must begin today by taking ownership of this relationship that can no longer be simply left to our governments.
Dr. Joshua W. Walker is an inaugural Young Society Leader of the American-Turkish Society.