Born in Lexington, MA, Dr. Matthew S. Cohen received his BA degree from Brandeis University with a double major in Politics and Sociology. He earned an A.L.M degree in from the Government department at Harvard University. He graduated from Harvard University with a master’s thesis on Turkish-European Union relations. Dr. Matthew Cohen obtained his PhD in Political Science in February 2018 from Northeastern University. He is currently teaching at Merrimack College as Assistant Professor of Practice. He has published extensively on emerging security threats, cyber-security, and Turkish-Israeli relations.
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Dr. Matthew hi, I would like to start with a question on coronavirus crisis. How is the situation in the United States right now? U.S. President Donald Trump praises his government’s efforts for transforming the U.S. as the country that makes most tests, but at the same time U.S. is leading the world in terms of infected people and total deaths according to official statistics. How Americans perceive this crisis and has normalization already begun?
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen: Hi Dr. Örmeci, thank you for speaking with me. With the current global crisis your question is obviously of great importance. While there are signs that in many areas of the U.S. new cases are holding steady or declining, there are many other areas where infection rates are still high or are increasing. Since the start of this crisis, things have not been going well. As you noted, America has the highest number of infections and deaths in the world. We are also not really leading the world in testing in any meaningful way as we still badly lack adequate access to tests, despite President Trump’s claims. Further compounding the pain, the economy has collapsed, and we have the highest rate of unemployment since the Great Depression. There are many people in America who believe that the main reason the U.S. has faired so poorly is that we have a massive leadership deficit. They correctly note a number of problems: the President at first dismissed the idea the virus would make it to America and tried to convince people it was not particularly dangerous, has spent his time attacking the media and political opponents instead of focusing on the crisis, has spread incorrect information on the virus, its origins, and potential cures, and refuses to engage in the behaviors, such as wearing a mask and keeping some distance from others, that public health officials strongly recommend.
At the same time, there are some who are strongly supportive of his handling of the crisis. They argue this outbreak was inevitable and that he has done as well as could be expected. They note that he made use of the Defense Authorization Act to require industry to produce more safety equipment and has ordered a speeding up of the vaccine development process.
Disturbingly, there are many people in America who believe some combination of the following conspiracy theories: death and infection rates are false and simply fabricated to make Trump look bad, that the virus is no more dangerous than the flu, and that China produced and spread the disease to kill people in the West. These are patently false and are thankfully not the dominant beliefs. However, we have seen groups of people protesting stay at home orders and business closings. Some have even brought weapons into State Houses, and Michigan stunningly felt it needed to suspend its legislative session in the face of these protests and threats of violence. While that is extreme and not representative of most Americans calling for an immediate reopening of the country, it illustrates the danger, and division, America currently finds itself in.
In general, polling appears to show that Americans are dissatisfied with the Trump administration’s response to the crisis, a feeling I share for the reasons I noted above. However, there is a widening divide in America, as there is, sadly, on virtually everything else right now regarding the reasons why America is struggling to deal with the pandemic and its fall-out.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Do you think coronavirus crisis will have an impact on the 59th U.S. Presidential election in November 2020? Could there be any delay or a fall in terms of turnout rate? In terms of two official candidates (Donald Trump vs. Joe Biden), who do you think will have more chance to get elected?
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen: I strongly suspect that it will have a substantial impact, but in exactly what way is too early to tell. I do not think a delay will occur in the election. That would be blatantly unconstitutional, and Trump has already said he opposes doing so, though he often changes his positions. The turnout rate is harder to predict. Turnout rates in the Wisconsin primary remained high despite the virus, but it seems likely there are people who will not want to take the chance. The biggest key to turnout, I think, is whether or not vote by mail is allowed. Trump has been opposing this move, while Democrats are supportive of it.
In terms of who will win, as I noted, most Americans are dissatisfied with Trump’s response to the virus, which one would suspect would harm his chances. More important, based on historical precedence, will likely be the state of the economy. If it stays the way it is now, it should harm his reelection bid. However, I am not certain either of these factors will affect enough votes to really impact the election results. His supporters are not going to change their minds due to this, and polling shows that to be true.
At the moment, I suspect Trump will once again badly lose the popular vote, but he may be able to secure enough electoral college votes to win. I am not confident of that outcome, however, as we are too far away from the election, and too many other things can happen between now and then. Much depends on events, especially economic trends, right before the election.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Hopefully we’ll be publishing soon a new edited book on Turkish-American relations. You wrote an original chapter for this book focusing on the role of Israel in Turkish-American relations? How can we assess the role of Israel and Israeli lobby in Turkish-American relations? Do you think a normalization process with Israel could increase Ankara’s influence in Washington D.C.?
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen: I am excited for the book to come out, and I thank you for your hard work putting it together! Turkey has never really had much of a lobby in America. Up until Turkey largely severed relations with Israel, pro-Israel groups often served as the most effective groups pushing for Turkey’s interests in America. Part of the reason Turkey does not have a strong lobby of its own, but pro-Israel groups do, is because of the demographics of America. There are roughly 7 million American Jews and they are overwhelming in favor of strong U.S.-Israeli ties. By contrast, there are only roughly 500,000 Americans of Turkish background. In addition, America has a large number of evangelical Christians who are also overwhelmingly strong supporters of Israel.
Pro-Israel groups took on the role of lobbying for Turkey because Turkey was one of the few Muslim majority nations that had any relations with Israel. These groups helped Turkey to secure military and civilian technology and pushed back against laws that Turkey deemed detrimental to its interests. This is no longer the case, however, and since President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan severed relations with Israel back when he was Prime Minister, American policy-makers’ views of Turkey appear to have taken a downturn. The decline in American decision-makers’ views of Turkey has happened for a number of reasons. There are two key, and interconnected, reasons related to your question. The first is Turkey’s loss of a lobby supporting it, which harms its ability to defend or promote its interests. The second is that Turkey’s willingness to work with Israel was seen as a marker of Turkey’s commitment to U.S. interests. So, when Turkey cut ties it not only lost a lobby, but many American policy-makers saw it as a sign Turkey was no longer really supportive of American interests either.
It is my strong hope that the three great nations of Turkey, Israel, and the U.S. will all improve relations with each other as I believe it is highly beneficial to all three parties, and the entire world, as I argue in part in my article in the book. Regaining lobbying strength in America is one of the potential major gains for Turkey. I do think that if normalization occurs, after a few years, at most, pro-Israel groups would return to lobbying on behalf of Turkey. Turkey and Israel were never allies, of course, and they do not have to become so. A real and meaningful normalization of relations back to a point similar to what existed before President Erdoğan broke off relations would be enough. The question is whether there is the desire or will in any of the three nations to really improve relations. At the moment I do not see that the leaders of any of the three nations have that desire.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: How Turkish democracy is perceived in the U.S.? Do you think there is an opposition to Turkish Presidentialism in the U.S.?
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen: This is a fascinating question, particularly given that the U.S. itself has one of the few Presidential systems among the major democracies. Fairly or not, the quality of Turkish democracy has always been suspect to U.S. policy-makers. The move towards a Presidential system has generally further harmed perceptions of the quality of Turkish democracy. Most appear to view recent strengthening of the presidential role in Turkey as an attempt by President Erdoğan to undermine Turkey’s democratic checks and balances. They note that he was not going to be able to run for Prime Minister again, so instead he changed the rules of the game. The fear among these policy-makers is that Erdoğan aims to find ways to stay in power for as long as he wants, regardless of the law and that how he is doing so has a great deal in common with what President Putin in Russia, an inarguably nondemocratic country, has done to maintain power. At the same time, there is a group of policy-makers who either support the move or do not care. This appears to include President Trump, who called to congratulate Erdoğan on his victory. As I note in my chapter in the book, Trump and Erdoğan share some similarities which make this personal support not all that surprising. Further, both the U.S. and Turkey have seen a notable rise in populism and nationalism over the past decade. This is a trend around the world, and countries that had long stood for traditional liberal values and internationalism have turned more towards centralized types of leadership and governance in their internal affairs and greater isolationism in their foreign affairs.
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Could you tell us which Turkish academics and experts are influential in the United States especially in terms of Turkish-American relations?
Dr. Matthew S. Cohen: There are many outstanding academics and experts in Turkey, the U.S., and elsewhere who have shaped how the U.S. views Turkey and therefore the course of Turkish-American relations. Really there are too many Turkish experts to name here, so in my answer, I want to highlight a few who are both influential broadly and whose work had a major impact on me. I do not necessarily agree with the conclusions of the people I am discussing here, but in each case they helped to shape my understanding of Turkey and my thinking regarding it.
Two of the best-known and most influential Turkish experts in America are Soner Cagaptay, who is at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Mehmet Özkan. Both of them have written central works on a wide range of topics related to Turkey, including Turkish-American relations. Their works are ones that experts in America frequently rely on. Ali Çarkoğlu’s (Koç University) works are also of particular importance to the field. And, Dr. Örmeci, I believe that your work is already growing in importance and will continue to do so!
It is also important to mention Ahmet Davutoğlu. Before he was a politician, he was an academic. His works are widely studied and known among Americans interested in Turkish policy. While he did not focus on Turkish-American relations, his work on politics, culture, and international relations are integral, particularly given that he had the opportunity to try to put his ideas into practice, which is something I think most political scientists dream of!
In my case, the first book I ever read on Turkey was by Şerif Mardin, who, unfortunately, passed away in 2017. While he was a sociologist and not a political scientist, I have frequently cited his work. His books and insights helped spark my interest in Turkey. I would also be highly remiss if I did not mention Cemal Kafadar. While he is an expert primarily on the Ottoman Empire, the lessons he teaches are timeless. He oversaw my Masters Thesis and I am eternally grateful to him for that.
The scholars and experts I am highlighting are certainly not the only ones of importance, and this is far from a complete list of the ones who influenced me, or others, but each of them is of major importance in this field. I owe each of them, including you, a debt of gratitude for their hard work and crucial insights.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me and I look forward to working with you further in the future!
Dr. Ozan Örmeci: Thank you for this interview and good luck in your studies.
Interview: Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ