01/03/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

U.S.-Turkish Relations: Modesty and Revitalization

Turkey has received widespread attention in 2011, as has the dramatic improvement in its relations with the United States. The volatility of U.S.-Turkish relations, which was demonstrated by the low of 2010 with the Mavi Marmara and UN Iran sanction incidents followed by the high of 2011, is a sign of weak institutional and structural alliance maintenance, not a proactive strategy on the part of Ankara and Washington. Given the historic challenges and opportunities facing both the United States and Turkey, now is the time to build on the incredible momentum in the U.S.-Turkish alliance to structurally harness Ankara's impressive rise and Washington's appreciation of a critical ally.

Beyond Ankara's notoriously active diplomacy, most of the attention and changes in 2011 have had more to do with external factors such as the Arab Awakening and the euro zone crisis than anything else. Turkey has emerged in the 21st century stronger than it has ever been in its modern history, going from a peripheral player to Europe's most dynamic actor and economy. While analysts are still arguing over a common framework for the phenomena sweeping the Mediterranean, commentators across the board have acknowledged that Turkey has been the unambiguous winner of the Arab Spring and European Fall.

Analysts in this series and elsewhere have argued about the "new" Turkish foreign policy, describing it as a "third wave" of Ankara seeking strategic reassurance by realignment with the West or being "strategically autonomous" rather than seeking deterrence or reassurance from any one traditional ally as in its past. Regardless of the debates, one common denominator permeates all the analysis of Ankara's foreign policy, which is a reflection of its political leaders: Turkey is brimming with a self-confidence that is unique to the modern republic.
In the midst of historic developments sweeping the Middle East in the spring of 2011, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has won three successive electoral victories, stood before the Turkish parliament to encourage the "Arab uprisings" in an area he referred to as "our neighborhood" repeatedly as he made the case for Turkey's regional leadership in former Ottoman domains. "Which country were they inspired by?" Erdoğan rhetorically asked at the time. He promptly answered his own question: "Turkey, of course, with its advanced democracy, mix of secularism, free elections, and economic dynamism."

Indeed, Turkey, with its combination of economic pragmatism and soft power appeal as a Muslim-majority secular democracy, has fared much better than a depressed and divided United States and Europe in global affairs in recent years. Shedding its former policies of disengagement in its neighborhood, Ankara has become an active participant in all of its regions over the last decade and, given its close geographic proximities to the "hotspots" of 2011, has become a central player. As a result, Turkey, and Erdoğan himself, have been transformed into a regional and now global leader in a way not seen since the days of the Ottoman Empire.

Yet, there is a subtext emerging in Western capitals about Ankara's moment in the international spotlight and its rise. The refrain that has been quietly circulating about Turkey's leadership is that they are rapidly crossing the line of self-confidence. The argument goes that while Turkey's abilities and capabilities have increased and are certainly unique and nonnegligible, they are also not overwhelming or indispensable. In seems that modesty goes a long way in international relations, particularly in an alliance as complicated as the U.S.-Turkish one.

The personal chemistry developed between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdoğan has not been shared uniformly by the Washington establishment. As a result, there are still misunderstandings and mixed feelings when listening to the confident new Turkish attitude and rhetoric. These feelings suddenly found public expression in the form of Vice President Joe Biden's impromptu response at the start of his remarks at this month's Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Istanbul. In response to yet another bullish address from the unlikeliest of sources, the mild-mannered cautious deputy prime minister of Turkey Ali Babacan, Biden reminded his hosts that the U.S. economy is "three times as large as the next-largest economy and larger than the next four combined." Despite finishing with a more positive tone and having by all-accounts a very successful visit, Biden's pointed remarks are a telling indication of growing frustration in Washington about the tone being taken in Ankara.

At the same time, the selection of Biden, who is well-known in Turkey for his less-than sympathetic views on issues cherished by Ankara, as the United States' messenger on a series of issues, including unconditionally ratifying its Western-backed normalization agreements with Armenia "in the months ahead" also struck an awkward tone.

Media accounts of Biden's visit reminded Turks of how back in 1999 as part of an official visit by Prime Minister Ecevit to Washington, then-Senator Biden lectured the Turkish delegation saying, "You need the United States whereas the U.S. doesn't need you. I know you are seeking loans. Solve the Cyprus Issue, do what is being demanded of you and we will help you. Otherwise you won't get anywhere." The irony today is how quickly roles and times have changed. While Washington whispers about Turkish arrogance, Ankara whispers about the United States' decline. In fact, it's not too far-fetched to imagine a Turkish leader saying something similar in the near future to Americans on the Afghanistan, Iraq, or Palestine issues. Given the prominence of Turkey and its leaders today, being sensitive to the messenger is as important as the message itself for the new Turkey.

Vice President Biden may be a singular case, but he is certainly not alone in being frustrated when listening to Turkey these days. Anatolian hospitality and modesty have been major assets to the AKP. Turkey has every right to be proud and self-confident of the strides it has made in the last decade, but striking the right tone counts for a lot in international politics. As Erdoğan himself reminded his AKP and the international community after his famous Davos incident, Ankara's policies today should differ from the "monşers" (translated and taken from the French to imply arrogant or pretentious leaders) of the past. Remembering this lesson in a new context is equally important given that often in politics, pride comes before the fall.

Ironically, Washington has itself partially to blame for Turkish leader's pride and self-confidence. Starting with the neo-conservative championing of the AKP and Turkey as a model for "moderate Islam" in the wake of 9/11, Washington has continually misread the mood in Ankara. While there have been few U.S. and Turkish administrations that have gotten along better than Obama and Erdoğan, Washington has done itself little service by enabling Turkish attitudes of omnipotence. Turkish boasts about Ankara's importance in Washington have been met with benign neglect or short-term tactical silence, which is unhealthy for the long-term national partnerships that go far beyond specific administrations.

Despite record levels of communication and travel between top leaders in Ankara and Washington, the societal and institutional connections are still in need of revitalization and strengthening. Senior Turkish officials have bragged that at the end of the day, listening to anyone other than President Obama is unhelpful particularly in a Washington that is so polarized and split along partisan lines. Yet this is precisely why a more responsible Turkey that shows the right dose and tone of self-confidence should be engaging in all aspects of the U.S. partnership, not just with the White House. Similarly, coordination and policy on Turkey continues to affect vital interests throughout Washington, which ideally must go beyond the administration to the Hill and society at large even if there is short-term turbulence.

At a moment in which Western leadership is being questioned, Turkey's newfound swagger and emergence as an international leader should be welcomed as signs of a more engaged and responsible partner in regional stability and long-term democratization. Washington should stop looking at Turkish foreign policy merely in terms of alignment or drift on specific tactical issues and focus instead on the long-term vision that these democratic allies share. The evolution of Turkish foreign policy beyond the lofty principles of "zero problems with neighbors" should therefore be realistically assessed and understood by Washington. The switch from "strategic depth," which has largely been accomplished in the last decade, to a "democratic depth" that focuses on the interlinkages between domestic and foreign challenges ahead will be critical for Ankara. Sharing mutual friendship and interests is important in international relations, but revitalizing the critical US-Turkish six-decades-old alliance that has primarily relied on converged geostrategic realities into a partnership of shared values and visions erring on the side of modesty in the midst of global and regional transformation is the best long-term outcome for both sides of the Atlantic.

Originally posted as part of GMF's On Turkey series.