Those who discuss the state of U.S.-Turkey relations today often assume that there once was a golden age in the relationship, which was later lost and can be revived.
This was never the case. The cooperation between the United States and Turkey was always very important for both sides due to shared interests on a significant number of issues, but also high maintenance due to cultural differences and perception gaps. These difficulties were somewhat easier to manage during the Cold War era as Turkey found it agreeable to conduct a foreign policy that was subject to U.S. guidance in return for reassurance against Soviet aggression. Even under those circumstances, the relationship was tested several times through crises such as the Johnson Letter, U.S. Arms Embargo to Turkey or the Opium Crisis.
The end of the Cold War changed the dynamics of the relationship fundamentally. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of separatist terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), there was a transformation of threat perception in Turkey. Moreover, with the Gulf War in 1991, Ankara began to develop suspicions about U.S. intentions in Turkey’s southern neighborhood. Turkey became particularly worried that the U.S. had a long term plan to establish a Kurdish state carving territories from Iraq, Iran, Syria and even Turkey! Turkey’s half-hearted support to the United States during the Gulf War also sewed seeds of doubt in the United States about whether Turkey would be a reliable ally in the future. This mutual distrust intensified during the Iraq War when the Turkish Parliament rejected a resolution that would allow U.S. soldiers to invade Iraq through Turkey and the U.S. implemented a strategy that resulted with Kurdish autonomy in Northern Iraq.
Fast-forward to 2018, what is left is a transactional relationship based on shared interests on some issues, potential for shared interests on other issues, but also mutual distrust and grievances. The U.S.-Turkey relationship is also more vulnerable than ever. What has changed? First, there is no longer a strategic framework for the relationship. Second, there are no longer strong institutional and individual stakeholders on both sides that would help steer the relationship through dangerous waters. Third, we are living in an age of populism which means that anti-Americanism in Turkey and growing dislike of Turkey’s leadership in the United States matter a lot. Last but not the least, there is no longer strategic thinking in Washington and Turkey is in a regime survival mode which means that long term interests are irrelevant for either side. Nevertheless, there is still a long term, and in the future events are likely to force both countries to think and act more strategically which could lead to a closer cooperation between the United States and Turkey.