Friends with(out) benefits? The US-Turkey relationship put to the test at the NATO Summit


In the age of Tinder, a so-called friend with benefits is defined not so much by the friendship between the partners, but by the fact that they get all the benefits of a romantic relationship without having to be in one. But the relationship between Ankara and Washington, which has cooled off considerably in recent years, has evolved into a partnership in which both sides regularly and openly express doubt as to whether it even is a partnership and whether there are any benefits to it at all.


Their historic friendship with benefits, which was built on the balance of power of the Cold War, is unquestionably over. Ankara had high hopes that the relationship would start to blossom at the NATO Summit, if not into a love match, then at least back into the realpolitik marriage of convenience it once was. Turkish pundits were therefore quick after the Summit to proclaim it a success. But are the hopes for a medium term realignment between the two states realistic?

The American relationship with Turkey has always been, and still is, primarily a military partnership. Prompted by the Soviet threat as a front-line state, Turkey joined NATO, contrary to its initial hopes of remaining independent. As far as the USA was concerned, Turkey, along with Israel and Saudi Arabia, was one of three important pillars in the Middle East. As the threat from the USSR abated, so too did the influence of the military on the Turkish State and as the foreign policy challenges in the Middle East changed, the basis for the Turkish-American alliance disappeared.

Although the initial good relationship with President Obama cooled off, particularly over the American course of action in the Syria war and the Turkish government’s attempts to blame the USA for the attempted coup of 2016, it warmed up again during President Trump’s term of office. His admiration for strong men like Erdoğan, his hopes of withdrawing troops from Syria and his suspected-but-never-proven economic interests in Turkey paved the way for a US policy that looked the other way while Turkish domestic policy grew more authoritarian. On Syria, Trump’s attitude fluctuated considerably and he set about averting disgruntlement in the Senate and Congress and therefore avoiding related sanctions against Turkey. The Turkish opposition joked about “son-in-law diplomacy”, in which the sons-in-law, Jared Kushner and then-Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, made agreements behind the scenes, the precise benefits of which for the American side were occasionally somewhat difficult to pin down. Very often, Turkey got what Erdoğan wanted. There was considerable consternation in Ankara when Trump lost the election last November. Simply the fact that the election results would bring about a change from purely personalised foreign policy to a strengthening of institutions goes against the way Erdoğan himself does politics. It would take several days for the Turkish President to recover himself sufficiently to congratulate Joe Biden on his election victory. This disinclination goes both ways, however; it was late April before Biden got round to his first telephone conversation with the Turkish president. On Monday, the two Presidents met face-to-face for the first time.

They had  plenty to talk about: Turkey’s often somewhat adventurous intervention policy, America’s refusal to deport the preacher Fethullah Gülen, suspected by Ankara of masterminding the failed coup, America’s supplying armaments to the Syrian offshoot of the PKK, YPG/J, Turkey’s circumvention of the American sanctions against Iran and, of course, Turkey’s increasing domestic authoritarianism. The Turkish side was particularly keen not to discuss the last item on this list and Turkish commentators and government politicians are doing all in their power to leave it out of discussions on what has led to Washington’s dissatisfaction. As far as Turkey is concerned, discussions should cover foreign policy issues only – what worked before must surely work again.

A return to the tried-and-tested is very much in the interests of the Biden administration, but the coordinates of Turkish foreign policy alone are hardly likely to allow this. But Turkey’s calculations have not been plucked from thin air: the country’s geostrategic importance, with the second-largest army in NATO and as a traditional bulwark on the south-eastern flank of the Alliance, has been known more than once to prompt both the USA and the EU to limit discussions to the security policy aspects of the partnership and turn a blind eye to human rights violations and anti-democratic developments in the country, or even to embolden the government. Times have changed.

Even in the Pentagon, traditionally the greatest advocate of the indispensability of the Turkish-US partnership, Turkey has been unable to shake off its image as a potentially dangerous lone wolf that could, in the worst-case scenario, constitute a genuine threat to American troops, since the war in North Syria. It lost its goodwill in Congress several years ago: across all parties, elected representatives in the Senate and Congress are in favour of hitting Turkey with sanctions. And this is not simply down to security policy considerations: when, on Erdoğan’s last state visit, his bodyguards beat up pro-Kurdish demonstrators at Dupont Circle, that was not simply the last straw for many representatives, it also showed that Turkish domestic and foreign policy are very closely interlinked

For that reason alone, it is unlikely that Biden will give in to pressure from Ankara to ignore its authoritarian domestic policy. His recognition of the Armenian genocide in April was not simply breaking with his predecessors’ line, it was a clear warning shot fired over Ankara’s bows. When Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Turkey in May, she appeared before cameras wearing a face mask featuring the expression “The Istanbul Convention is ours” in Turkish, a slogan of the Turkish women’s movement to protest against the country’s withdrawal from the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women, announced by the Turkish government for July. US Secretary of State Blinken made it equally clear that he feels neither that Turkey is behaving like an ally nor that the US can continue to ignore the disastrous human rights situation in the country. The question, therefore, is whether Ankara’s refusal to change any aspect of its domestic policy will have consequences.

But if there will be consequences, they will probably be indirect only. Blinken has made it clear, that preserving Turkey’s however loose connection to the West is still a priority,. Unlike Trump, he will not sheath the sword of the sanctions threat, but whether he will use it is another matter. Certainly, Biden will remind Erdogan from time to time that even symbolic acts, such as releasing the civil society patron Osman Kavala would generate much goodwill, but like the Europeans, for now, he is not expected to underpin this with sanctions or positive incentives.

In the medium term, the damage to Turkey lies elsewhere: Ankara’s policy of chopping and changing between ad hoc alliances with different partners means that anybody in Washington still making a pro-Turkey case is further isolated. Increasingly, the country is becoming a partner that causes much eye-rolling or at best shoulder-shrugging in Washington. The downgrading of one of the central allies in the region to “kind of important, but not really worth the effort” is likely to damage not just Turkish armaments policy, but also its dream of a place around the superpowers’ table. It is some time since the security policy focus shifted to Greece and Cyprus as the major military partners in the region.

As for the fact that President Erdogan is under pressure over domestic policy and therefore has little room for manoeuvre, and there is a predominant foreign-policy dogma of a new multi-polar world order, Turkey has very little of substance to offer the Americans. Even in Ankara, nobody can give a convincing answer to the question of why Turkey should be a major ally. Nor is there any convincing answer to the fact that the Turkish government is selling precisely the same thing to its own population, i.e. that they can do without an alliance of this kind and the country would be better off with a mix of “splendid isolation” and rapidly changing alliances. The anti-American rhetoric of recent years used by the government to stir up the population also plays its part.

Ankara’s consistent argument is its geopolitical location and it has tried in recent months to bring this back into play. The argument that Turkey is the best partner to contain Russia has lost credibility in view of the country’s increased security and economic policy connections with Moscow. Admittedly, Ankara did an excellent job of selling armed drones to Ukraine and the Baltics, immediately earning itself a tourism boycott from Moscow, and is trying to accommodate the USA by means of close co-operation in the Black Sea region, but this is unlikely to be enough to base the alliance on. Ankara’s strategy of playing its Western allies and Russia off against each other can only work as long as nobody calls its bluff, as this would show its hand to be devastatingly empty. US strategy of seeing foreign policy through the lens of the global clash with China does not make cooperation with Ankara any more likely to be successful. As the USA moves its focus to Asia, its corresponding strategy is to recruit regional states as security guarantors. The highhandedness of Turkish foreign policy and its increasing tendency in recent years to move closer to China makes Turkey a less than ideal candidate.

Even so, it would not be in Washington’s interests to push Turkey too far into a corner. The aim seems to be reducing its own reliance on a difficult partner and to bind Ankara to the Western alliance, however loosely. Afghanistan is a good example: the peace conference initially planned with the Taliban was offered to Turkey to host one of the few concrete outcomes of the NATO Summit is that Turkey is planning to increase its military presence in Afghanistan and is soon to take responsibility for securing and operating Kabul airport. This is very much in Ankara’s interests, as a prominent role in NATO is always a useful counterpoint if Russia starts to get too antagonistic.

In the key issues of a peace process with the PKK or the S-400 system, on the other hand, little movement was made. As regards Cyprus and the Eastern Mediterranean, there is unlikely to be more than a temporary detente. President Erdogan has publicly pledged that Turkey will not shrink from its positions – probably because he knows that none of the options on the table up to now are satisfactory to the USA and all other proposals would run him into imbroglios with Russia or his partners in the nationalistic MHP.

The basic problems will not be overcome while Erdogan is in office and Turkey will not be able to take a key role in the inter-system competition proclaimed by the US administration. This is firstly because it does not want to and secondly because it has one foot in the authoritarian camp. The fact that its risky foreign policy power plays make it a partner the US would rather do without will have medium-term consequences. For the time being, it is likely that the pair will cling to their loveless relationship, simply because – and that brings us back to Tinder - there is simply no one better available right now.


This article was first published in German on