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Analysis

June 19, 2009

Russia, Europe, Iran: Three Grand Strategic


Summary: In his April visit
to Turkey, President Barack
Issues in U.S.-Turkish Relations
Obama used the term “model
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser*
partnership” to describe U.S.-
Turkish relations. This termi-
nology can be given content WASHINGTON — In the wake of significance; issues where the politi-
President Barack Obama’s very well cal, security, and economic aspects of
when partners contribute to received visit to Turkey, officials and Turkish and American policy come
managing grand strategic analysts have been uncharacteristi- together. Three “meta” issues—Rus-
challenges—issues central to cally optimistic about the outlook sia, Europe, and Iran—are capable of
the national interests of each for U.S.-Turkish relations. During transforming the environment and
a recent visit to Turkey, this author rationale for U.S.-Turkish cooperation
side.
found Turks at all levels to be remark- over the next few years.
ably positive about Obama and his
Three “meta” issues—Russia, early foreign policy initiatives. Turkey’s Dealing with Russia
Europe, and Iran—will pose key newly appointed Foreign Minister,
Ahmet Davutoğlu, has also concluded The Georgia crisis underscored the
tests for U.S.-Turkish cooperation
a successful visit to Washington. He is striking asymmetries in Turkish and
over the next few years. inclined to think in broad geopolitical American approaches to Russia. Tur-
terms, and has been at pains to under- key will be no more comfortable than
score Ankara’s continued attachment the United States with a resurgent and
to the West even as Turkish engage- assertive Russia. But the implications
ment around the Middle East and of a more competitive relationship
Eurasia continues to expand. with Russia are quite different when
seen from Washington and Ankara.
The improved atmosphere allows When the varied European perspec-
policymakers to consider next steps tives on Russia are added, the picture
and new priorities. The short list does becomes even more complex. At
not look very different from American base, Turkey will seek to decouple the
and Turkish perspectives: cooperation security relationship with Moscow
against the Kurdistan Workers Party from the elaborate web of energy and
(PKK); dealing with a near-nuclear commercial ties that have developed
Iran; new energy projects; regional across the Black Sea since the early
security cooperation in the Black Sea, 1990s. Russia is Turkey’s most impor-
South Asia, and the Middle East; Cy- tant individual economic partner, and
prus; and the broader issue of Turkey’s the relationship has a diverse com-
Offices
relations with the European Union mercial and official constituency on
Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris
and NATO. Recent analyses in the On both sides. The level of anxiety about
Turkey series have explored the pros- Russian policy is relatively low among
Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest
pects for collaboration in these areas. Turkey’s strategic elites. When it comes
www.gmfus.org This analysis looks ahead to a shorter to regional security policy in the Black
list of key issues with grand strategic Sea and the Caucasus, Ankara is likely to
*
Dr. Ian O. Lesser is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed
here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.
Analysis

prove a cautious and conservative partner for the West—and a The general atmosphere of gloom in EU-Turkey relations
very sovereignty conscious one. Notwithstanding centuries of has been reinforced by developments on the economic and
geopolitical competition (and marked cultural anxiety about political fronts. The deepening economic crisis in Europe
Turkey on the Russian side), Turks are likely to worry more —including Turkey—is widely assumed to have a dampen-
about the potential for internal instability and spillovers of ing effect on Europe’s already weakened enthusiasm for
political violence from other quarters around the Black Sea enlargement. As the most significant candidate for member-
than about the prospect of Russian aggression per se. ship on the horizon, Turkey will be most affected by shifting
European perceptions about costs and benefits. More
Even if Western relations with Russia remain stable, Turkey disturbing, the recent European parliamentary elections have
will be a leading stakeholder in Russia policy, including strengthened the position of conservative parties across the
aspects of NATO strategy where Russia is a central concern. continent, many opposed to Turkish membership. Move-
Almost certainly, Ankara will prefer a very slow approach to ments on the extreme right have also gained, and these can
NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. In the absence be expected to take a very negative, identity driven line on
of a strong alliance consensus on the issue, Turkey may Turkey. Turkey’s EU candidacy may be a 10-15 year project,
well prefer to avoid the issue of further NATO enlargement but it risks becoming the victim of near-term political
around the Black Sea. Turks are already skeptical of the expediency in key European states. Sweden, a strong
credibility of NATO security guarantees on their borders. supporter of Ankara’s EU bid, will face considerable
There will be little enthusiasm for new Article V commit- challenges in making the case for Turkey during its up-
ments, especially if these risk provoking a Russian response coming European presidency.
in Turkey’s backyard. To be sure, Turkey had a similarly
ambivalent approach to the first round of NATO enlarge- Sweden will not be alone. Obama has clearly restated
ment, and Turkish strategists eventually came to accept that American support for Turkey’s EU candidacy. American
a wider alliance brought stability benefits. But this time arguments on this score have not changed very much since
around, the debate with Ankara could be more contentious. the 1990s. U.S. advocacy continues to turn on broad geopo-
On questions of nuclear strategy and arms control, and the litical notions about the importance of anchoring Turkey to
future of the CFE (Conventional Forces in Europe) Treaty, the West and the symbolism of bringing a Muslim country
Turkish and American perspectives may be closer. The good into the European Union. As French and German resis-
news is that Turkey’s “Eurasianists,” who had pressed for tance to Washington’s argumentation on these points makes
closer ties to Moscow as a strategic alternative to NATO, clear, grand strategic arguments about Turkey and Europe
have been pushed further to the margins in Turkish politics. are no longer enough. U.S. policymakers will need to think
more imaginatively about the logic of Turkish membership
as a trilateral, transatlantic proposition. Turkey’s practical
The end of European certainties contributions to transatlantic interests, from regional
stability to energy security, may be a better line of approach
Turkey’s European project becomes more complicated and in discussions with increasingly hesitant European partners.
troubled by the day. Growing European ambivalence, and
outright opposition to the idea of full membership for If Turkey’s EU project continues to lose momentum, this
Turkey in Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, interacts with mounting does not necessarily clear the way for closer relations with
skepticism about the process in Turkey to produce an Washington. The United States and Europe offer Turkey
atmosphere of pessimism and malaise. Turkey’s own quite different things in grand strategic terms. For Turkey,
impetus for reform has slowed. Near-term deadlines for relations with the United States and Europe are complimen-
movement on Cyprus loom, and in the worst case, failure tary, but not fungible. Moreover, a Turkey driven back to a
to open Turkish ports to Cypriot shipping could result in a more sovereignty-conscious, nationalist posture (along with
formal suspension of Turkey’s candidacy. The European others in Europe) is also likely to be a more difficult part-
Commission is unlikely to recommend suspension, not least ner for the United States. In this environment, it would be
since a suspension could be difficult or even impossible to surprising if Turkey’s foreign policy leadership did not
reverse under current conditions.

2
Analysis

continue to move in the direction of a portfolio approach to intervened with Tehran in the case of the recently released Ira-
the country’s international engagement, as a hedge against nian-American journalist Roxana Saberi). But Iran is not Syria.
uncertainties emanating from Europe. But this approach Relations with Iran are far more consequential for American
could also impose opportunity costs if Turkey’s new and European security, and there will be greater reluctance to
attention to global partnerships diverts attention from outsource engagement with Iran. A key question for Washing-
completing Turkey’s convergence with Europe. ton is whether the Turkish government, with its more com-
fortable relationship with Tehran, is willing and able to deliver
Iran: Confrontation, détente, or revolution? tough messages to the Iranian leadership on the nuclear issue,
democracy, and human rights.
Turkey is a leading stakeholder in the internal and external
evolution of Iran. The contested results in Iran’s recent In his April visit to Turkey, Obama used the term “model
presidential election highlight what is at stake. A reformist partnership” to describe U.S.-Turkish relations. This terminol-
victory would have greatly simplified the politics of American ogy can be given content when partners contribute to manag-
and European dialogue with Iran, and might well have changed ing grand strategic challenges—issues central to the national
the outlook for Iranian external behavior. The prospect of a interests of each side. In very different ways (and sooner rather
nuclear capable Iran might still pose unacceptable risks, but than later), Russia, the future of Turkey-EU relations, and Iran
without President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory will pose key tests of this proposition.
rhetoric, Iranian intentions would appear in a different light
when viewed from the United States, Israel, Europe, and Turkey. Dr. Ian O. Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF

Turkish strategists remain relatively relaxed over the prospect Dr. Lesser is a GMF senior transatlantic fellow in Washington, DC,
of a nuclear Iran, despite the country’s direct exposure to where he focuses on Mediterranean affairs, Turkey, and international
Iranian ballistic missiles. But over the longer term, a nuclear security issues. Prior to joining GMF, he was vice president of the
armed, even a near-nuclear Iran, is certainly not in Turkey’s Pacific Council on international policy, and spent over a decade at the
interest. Ankara’s close economic and political ties to Iran, and RAND Corporation. From 1994-1995, Dr. Lesser was a member of the
an understandable desire to avoid new conflicts in Turkey’s U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning staff.
neighborhood, make Turkey a leading potential beneficiary
About the GMF
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most likely—Turkey could face new tests in the relationship to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North
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reelection suggest the potential for an extended confrontation has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade,
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to say where this might lead. But a new revolutionary period in
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