U.S. President Barack Obama and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, at the White House, May 2013.
JASON REED / REUTERS

Over the past year, it has become almost routine to argue that Ankara’s behavior is increasingly at odds with Western values. And it is: at home, the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has cracked down on the press and sanctioned illegal tactics against political opponents. Abroad, it has supported radical fighters in Syria that the United States has sought to keep at arm’s length. 

What these criticisms miss, however, is that the U.S.-Turkish alliance was never based on U.S. or Turkish values, Western or otherwise. Turkey did not join NATO because of a deep-seated desire to become a part of the West, and the United States did not welcome Turkey into the alliance out of a principled commitment to Turkish democracy. Indeed, since its Cold War origins, the United States' alliance with Turkey has been based on shared goals, not shared ideals.

Americans would sound more convincing if they recognized just how little concern Washington showed for Turkish democracy in the early years of its relationship with Ankara.

The United States and Turkey came together out of a shared desire to resist what both saw as a looming Soviet threat. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the common cause that united the two countries disappeared, allowing their sometimes divergent interests to surface. Ironically, Turkey now seems to be the country hewing more closely to the alliance's old Cold War line. The U.S. statesmen who welcomed Turkey into NATO in 1952 might be surprised to hear today's critics question its membership in the alliance for leaving left-wing guerillas to fight ISIS alone, or for responding too forcefully to Russian provocations.

There are plenty of principled and practical reasons to condemn Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies. Turkey may have been reckless in responding to Russia, and its enthusiasm for radical groups in Syria has already proved dangerous. But discussing these points of disagreement in less moralistic terms would make it easier to focus on the many goals that Ankara and Washington still share, principally preventing the spread of violence in the region. And if the increasingly undemocratic behavior of Turkey’s government offers a more suitable subject for moralizing, Americans would sound more convincing if they recognized just how little concern Washington showed for Turkish democracy in the early years of its relationship with Ankara. 

People run from water cannons and tear gas during a protest commemorating Berkin Elvan in Istanbul, June 2015. The Erdogan government has cracked down on the press and sanctioned illegal tactics against polit
People run from water cannons and tear gas during a protest commemorating Berkin Elvan, a teenager fatally injured in a 2013 antigovernment protest, in Istanbul, June 2015. 
Huseyin Aldemir / REUTERS

STRONGMEN OF THE RIGHT SORT

In 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman made the case for U.S. economic and military support for Greece and Turkey in a speech that launched the Truman Doctrine. Strikingly, his repeated (if qualified) references to Greek democracy had no counterpart in his discussion of Turkey. And indeed, many Truman administration officials viewed Turkish President Ismet Inonu as a “strongman of the right sort"—an undemocratic leader whose behavior had been better than that of European dictators over the previous decade and who could be counted on to help contain the Soviet Union.

If the U.S. government ever tried to make aid for Turkey dependent on democratization during the initial years of the Cold War, evidence of the effort has not turned up in the State Department’s records. One of the few recorded conversations on the subject that does appear in the U.S. National Archives took place in 1948: a member of the U.S. military mission to Turkey asked the head of Turkey’s National Security Service, Naci Akalin, about “remarks by some of the Turkish opposition members that the United States would realize that Turkey is . . . not democratic and . . . withdraw U.S. aid.” “Naci’s response,” the U.S. representative reported, “was to laugh and say that since aid is still coming in, the U.S. evidently is convinced that Turkey is democratic.”

Two years later, in a remarkable act of statesmanship, Inonu held free elections, lost, and voluntarily gave up power. U.S. officials were as surprised by this as most Turkish voters, and along with Turkey’s newly elected leaders, Washington quickly and enthusiastically embraced the country’s democratic identity as a fundamental element of the U.S.-Turkish partnership. Nevertheless, when Turkey’s new leaders began to lose interest in democracy toward the end of the 1950s, the partnership with the United States continued apace, as it did over the course of four military coups during the next 50 years. Shared values were a benefit, but not a necessity: leaders in both countries were more concerned with the Soviet Union.

Much as democracy became central to the U.S.-Turkish alliance only after Turkey became democratic, NATO membership appeared to become a defining element of Turkey’s Western identity only after Turkey had already joined the alliance. After Turkey’s 1952 accession to NATO, Turkish and U.S. officials cited the moment as the culmination of Ataturk’s dream, the ultimate proof that Turkey had been accepted as a Western and European country. But at the tumultuous advent of the Cold War, strategic realities were far more important to Turkey's NATO accession than grand narratives of Turkish identity. Indeed, when U.S. officials proposed a North Atlantic alliance uniting the countries of northwestern Europe, they initially envisioned a separate alliance—perhaps focused on the Middle East or the Mediterranean—that would include Turkey and a number of other states. Turkish leaders sought to join NATO because they realized that whichever U.S. alliance contained France and the United Kingdom was the one Washington would be most committed to defend. When the alliance moved to accept Italy (not a North Atlantic country), NATO lost its initial geographic logic, and Turkish statesmen redoubled their efforts to join. As NATO started to seem like the only game in town, many U.S. officials began to worry that refusing Turkey NATO membership would send the wrong message to Ankara and Moscow alike—namely, that the United States was not really committed to its defense. 

A ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, marking the anniversary of his death, Ankara, November 2014. After Turkey’s 1952 accession to NATO, Turkish and U.S. officials mistakenly cited the moment as the culmination of Ataturk’s aspirations.
A ceremony at the mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, marking the anniversary of his death, in Ankara, November 2014.
Umit Bektas / REUTERS

LET'S BE FRANK

With the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States and Turkey lost the anticommunist cause that united them. But some of the tensions that have recently emerged in the alliance nonetheless echo those that existed during the Cold War. Consider Ankara's reluctance, in 2009 and 2010, to join intensified Western sanctions against Iran, where Turkey has extensive business interests. Some U.S. critics expressed shock that Turkey would try to maintain good relations with an oppressive theocracy just because its government happened to control abundant energy resources. But beneath the outrage lay a more structural source of tension: Ankara had every reason to be concerned about a nuclear-armed neighbor, but it could afford to be more blasé about the threat because it knew it would remain protected by NATO’s nuclear umbrella. The frustration of U.S. officials at the time would have been familiar to those of an earlier generation, who worried that the security provided by NATO membership had left Turkey free to pursue its conflict with Greece over Cyprus at NATO's expense.

Strategic realities were far more important to Turkey's NATO accession than grand narratives of Turkish identity.

Indeed, U.S.-Turkish relations have never been entirely smooth, and if the United States has a long list of reasons why Turkey has been a problematic ally, Turkish diplomats have an equally long list of complaints about the United States. In repeatedly claiming that Kurdish terrorists were morally equivalent to ISIS, for example, Erdogan appeared troublingly blind to ISIS’ exceptional barbarism. Yet it should also be clear why Turkey is upset by Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, whose Kurdish allies in Turkey are killing Turkish soldiers in an ongoing civil conflict.

Amid continuing concerns that the violence from Syria’s civil war is spreading into Turkey, NATO will remain a crucial guarantor of the country's stability. But truly putting the risk of spillover to rest will require effective U.S.-Turkish cooperation toward a diplomatic solution in Syria. For that cooperation to succeed, U.S. and Turkish policymakers alike need a candid understanding of the roots and history of their countries' relationship.

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