On Tuesday, November 6, Americans will go to the polls to elect their President for the next four years. Faced with a choice between incumbent Democrat Obama and the Republican candidate, former governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, it may be difficult to predict point blank the two candidates’ separate visions of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. This is nothing new: absent a pivotal historical relationship (UK, Israel), severely antagonistic relationship (Iran, Cuba), or wartime combative relationship (Afghanistan, Iraq), the multitude of nations are never explicitly mentioned as campaign sound bites. Televised presidential debates over the past three weeks shed the most light on the candidates’ divergent views on the issue, particularly the most recent foreign policy-focused debate. In short, the divergence on foreign policy in general spans a narrow gap, and in regards to Turkey spans but a few feet. What this means for Turkey in the future is less clear.
A portrait of the United States’ future relationship with Turkey almost need not be divided into two by political camp. Both Romney and Obama specifically mentioned our bilateral alliance as a necessary partnership to promote regional stability in the Middle East, while articulating a clear retreat from the U.S.’s cumbersome presence in the region over the past decade. Less-than-anticipated economic growth and job creation domestically have failed to offset the rising costs of foreign operations, causing the debt to steadily climb to its current level of over $16 trillion. In no uncertain terms this election rests on which candidate Americans believe will most alleviate domestic economic issues. For nearly every question in the foreign policy debate the candidates spent half of their time weaving responses back to issues of the national economy, job creation, taxation policies, and similar derivatives. How many times did we hear Romney quote the statistic that Obama promised Americans a 4.5 % unemployment rate by 2012 and he came up 9 million jobs short?
This means that for the imminent concern of Syria, Turkey may have to go it alone if it anticipates escalating action against the Assad regime. Both candidates eschewed the idea of sending troops to Syria; albeit Romney’s response was a bit more equivocal. Neither candidate referenced possible joint military operations (ie NATO), compared the situation to that of Libya (where NATO troops were employed), or spoke of the strong European Union-U.S. partnership that traditionally collaborates on issues of humanitarian concern. In other venues commentators have used the comparison of Syria and Libya to highlight the much larger hurdles to dispute resolution and regime overthrow in Syria as opposed to in Libya, most obviously great differences in population and size of country’s military troops. Such comparison suggested at least a theoretical consideration of intervention. In the foreign policy debate, the question was never broached.
The recent tragic death of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was similarly treated not as concern in the sense of a military campaign’s aftermath but rather as a jab at the current administration’s alleged lackadaisical support of and communication with its employees. A conversation on the events in Libya could have taken a much different turn, focusing on the importance of providing support for countries in transition to rebuild and advance more democratic systems. Such rhetoric was not absent from debates four years ago in reference to Iraq. As cyclical trends go, America’s commitment to the greater welfare of all humanity through the active, military-led spread of democracy has peaked. There is no reason not to believe the signals of the last debate, which pointed to a new emphasis on prioritizing the national agenda.
A last point of interest for Turkey regards the commitment from both candidates to strengthen America’s relationship with Israel. Obama throughout the campaign has been accused of loosening the ties between America and Israel and, as Romney puts Obama on the defensive on this issue, Obama too has come out in strong support of showing clearer manifestations of American-Israeli cooperation. Obviously this has the possibility of straining American relations with Turkey to some degree. Although, closer ties with Israel on Middle Eastern policy matters may prompt the U.S. to put a premium on mediation between Turkey and Israel and lead to an alliance of three, at least for certain high priority matters such as Iran’s nuclear build-up.
All this is to say that the candidates’ positions do not indicate any foreseeable alliance re-set with Turkey, nor do they indicate a foreseeable alliance boost. The degree of the relationship’s advancement in the coming years will depend on both how much Turkey wants the partnership to grow and Turkey’s independent foreign and domestic decisions. A less hegemonic United States gives Turkey greater freedom to assert its own dominance in places like Syria aimed to promote international peace. Still, Turkey may not have the resources or the desire to pursue such a leadership role without some sort of cushion of support from Western nations. Turkey’s new constitution, if successfully implemented, also has the possibility of attracting U.S. attention as a model for transitional states in the region. America would gladly seek guidance for its own foreign advising and diplomatic actions from a country that can create a constitution peacefully balancing democratic values and more culturally embedded religious values. If Turkey continues to relax its standards for conducting business and advertises its safety and security to investors, an influx of foreign investment, significantly American foreign investment, would strengthen bilateral ties in the private sector and trickle up to the public sector. Attracting American foreign investment would also recirculate wealth to America’s domestic economy and boost the middle class, bringing us back to the most valued policy goal of both candidates.
My prediction that any growth of our bilateral relationship hinges on Turkey’s choice of action is in itself a statement of praise for Turkey. A country without respect on the international stage and relative cohesion on its domestic front could never hope to be in a position to dictate the terms of its relationship with the world’s only remaining superpower. The candidates’ virtual agreement on foreign policy in the Middle East, as it concerns Turkey, also allows Turkey to plan its strategy without much pause for tears or elation on November 7th. But perhaps the best expectation, if we are to take candidates’ promises to reel in the wide-reaching arms of U.S. military operations seriously, is the hope that Turkish public perception of the United States can only improve. The next four years will undoubtedly bring challenges and hardships, but the prospect of a stable and promising bilateral alliance looms large.
Juris Doctor Candidate, Yale Law School 2015
Fulbright Scholar, 2010-2012