Make Turkish-American Relations Great Again: Advice for the Trump Administration


As Donald Trump becomes president this Friday, relations between Turkey and the United States are worse off than they have ever been. The coup attempt in July instantly led to a crack in Turkish-American relations, even pushing numerous analysts in both countries to either prepare for or to accelerate the process of a “rupture” between the two longtime NATO allies. Turkish-American relations have had their ups and downs — they have certainly never been perfect — but the risk of a full break up has never been this real. As president, Donald Trump will have three options: cut Turkey loose, take the risk of losing Ankara through negligence, or make Turkish-American relations good (if not necessarily “great”) again.

If the Trump administration chooses to consider the final option, I have some advice for Donald Trump and his incoming administration on how to fix U.S.-Turkish relations.

Don’t squander public relations capital early

As the mainstream media in the United States was turning against Donald Trump, the reverse was happening in Turkey. In fact, based on my reading of Turkish media — both opposition and pro-government — it is clear that a considerable majority of the Turkish people were ecstatic over Trump’s victory. This can be explained by three factors.

First, in the eyes of many Turks, Hillary Clinton was associated with both the Obama administration and the Washington foreign policy establishment, both of which are blamed for the souring of Turkish-American relations. The Trump brand, by contrast, offered an unspoiled alternative that could make Turkish-American relations great again.

Second, Hillary Clinton openly mentioned that she would be willing to “arm the Kurds,” which appeared to Turks as a signal of either (at best) ignorance of the basics of the Kurdish question, or (at worst) malign U.S. intentions. Turks usually assume the worst when it comes to foreigners’ intentions. Many believed Clinton was bent on arming the PKK, the Marxist terrorist group known as the Kurdistan Workers Party that has been fighting the Turkish state for almost four decades.

Third, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) voiced implicit support for Trump prior to the electionsEspecially for AKP supporters, Trump appears much more of a “people’s person” (in the Turkish context this means “closer to the common folk”) than Hillary Clinton ever did. For many Turks, being seen as a “people’s person” as opposed to a distant elitist is a positive attribute.

Therefore, when Donald Trump assumes office, he will be riding on a tremendous public relations capital vis-à-vis Turkish domestic politics. The very first thing that Trump must do is avoid wasting this public relations capital. A few gestures, in the Turkish context, would go a long way. In other words, Trump can play on the capital he enjoys right now to continue charming Turkish people. The downside of Trump’s current popularity is that expectations are very high, which means he can waste his capital very fast with the wrong moves.

Don’t underestimate the political trauma from the coup attempt

For Turks, the coup attempt was like a surprise nuclear attack that exploded the fabric of political reality, the fallout from which has been gradually transforming all aspects of life ever since. The mutation of Turkish politics will most certainly continue, and its next shape is not yet clear.

What can the new president do about this? At the very least, not what many outlets in the Western media have been doing for months. From The New York Times to The Guardian, numerous media outlets largely ignored the trauma of the blast — the coup attempt — and only focused on the political fallout — the political repression that followed. Such an approach only infuriates the Turkish government and many Turks. First, they feel that the West, broadly defined, ignores the fact that the people of Turkey for the first time in their history stood up against a military (and by definition non-democratic) intervention, sacrificing hundreds of civilian lives to prevent it. Second, this approach makes many Turks suspect that the West is rather unhappy that the coup attempt failed, further fueling the rise anti-Western discourse across the country.

Trump can easily alleviate such concerns by showing that he cares as well as truly understands what the coup attempt meant for most Turks, what kind of a trauma it was, and what Turkish people did to prevent it. With his current public relations capital, such a cost-free gesture would instantly warm up the relations, if not all by itself mend them altogether.

Recognize that “Turks” of 2017 will be a politically divided bunch

Turkey has undergone extreme political polarization in the last decade. In fact, the Turkish political landscape is today marked more by “unipolarization,” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP occupying the role of the unipole by having roughly 50 percent of the Turkish voters on its side. In addition to Erdogan’s unipole, there are roughly three more “mini-poles:” 1) the Republican People’s Party (CHP), supported by those who usually self-define as ultra-seculars; 2) the Nationalist People’s Party (MHP), whose members are comprised of ultra-nationalists; and 3) the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a left-leaning pro-Kurdish political contingency. These mini-poles have many differences among them that prevents their effective balancing against Erdogan.

This portrait may appear rather complicated, but even this categorization, without further elaboration, would be over-simplification. The moral of the story:  Apart from a very few issues, people of Turkey are divided among themselves and rarely agree on anything. Furthermore, each party constantly tries to manipulate domestic or global public opinion to make others look bad.

The “Kurds” are not a monolithic group in Turkey or anywhere in the greater region

Modern Turkey is one of the four countries — in addition to Syria, Iraq, and Iran — in which Kurdish minorities reside. While it has become common practice to invoke the term “the Kurds” to refer to a homogenous and unitary group of people, the Kurds have long been politically divided among themselves for historical and geopolitical reasons. America’s ignorance of these divisions and its support of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) — the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party — has severely antagonized the Turkish people and their government.

Western leaders and analysts have looked upon the Kurds of the region with no small amount of sympathy lately, in large part because this very Kurdish force — the YPG — has been highly effective against the so-called Islamic State (with a lot of help from the U.S. Air Force). But as various forces begin to close on the Islamic State capital of Raqqa, Western policy is beginning to founder on some of its contradictions.

Donald Trump’s presidency, one way or another, will witness the next big rapture in the so-called “Kurdish issue.” The proportion of ethnic Kurds in Turkey is a hotly debated topic, but it is usually accepted that the number lies somewhere between 10 percent and 17 percent.

One acronym Trump will hear over and over again from the Turkish state as well as from his own advisors will be “PKK” — the Kurdistan Workers Party. While its propagandists like to brand PKK as an organization speaks for Kurds across the region, the PKK is not a synonym for the Kurds. It is a Marxist group formally recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union. The PKK has carried out countless attacks on Turkish security forces as well as on Turkish and Kurdish civilians, including suicide bombings. Human rights groups also hold the group responsible for using child soldiers in both rural as well as and urban operations. In addition, not all or even most of the Kurdish citizens of Turkey support PKK. In fact, the AKP has always had a strong base of support amongst Turkey’s Kurds.

Why are these facts important? The violent conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state was resumed recently, with the PKK launching numerous terrorist attacks in urban centers. Anti-PKK (not necessarily anti-Kurdish) sentiments in Turkey are running high, with very good reason. Using “PKK” and “the Kurds” interchangeably will serve PKK propaganda and infuriate many Turks. It would put Donald Trump in a position similar to that of Hillary Clinton in their eyes — universally disliked.

Western representations of the Kurdish issue are usually defined in terms of a narrative about how “Turkey fights and hates the Kurds,” which is again empirically misleading and offensive in the eyes of many Turks. Not only did the Turkish government come a long way in the last decade in terms of recognizing the rights of its long-oppressed Kurdish minority, but Turkey is now a close ally of northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government.

Gulen is not who he claims to be, and he is universally hated in Turkey

Fethullah Gulen is known to Turkish citizens of all kinds for decades, but remains a long-time mystery to the Westerners. He became the staple of global media after the Turkish government instantly blamed him as the mastermind behind the coup attempt of July. Gulen, who fled Turkey during the late 1990s in fear of persecution at the hands of then-ultra-secular Turkish Armed Forces, claims that he is a peaceful preacher striving for interfaith dialogue. Residing in rural Pennsylvania, Gulen is reportedly overseeing a global network of schools and businesses,  including hundreds in the United States. That Gulen resides in the United States and was granted “special” treatment to secure a green card further fuels existing anti-American sentiments in Turkey, straining Turkish-American relations. President Obama dodged the ball over “Gulen-gate,” but Donald Trump will most likely have to deal with its repercussions.

While the Turkish government has yet to present conclusive evidence that establishes Gulen as the mastermind behind the coup attempt, he can hardly be defined as a “peaceful preacher.” Furthermore, Gulen is hated by Turkish citizens from all walks of life save for the followers of his own cult. In Turkey, it is universally accepted that so-called “Gulenists” infiltrated state institutions to pursue their parochial and Islamist agenda, mostly thanks to their one-time alliance with Erdogan. Gulenists manipulated courts and utilized measures such as blackmail to target and pacify those they perceived as a threat — especially the secular segments of the state elites, including the military. Consequently, both secular-leaning Turks and conservatives alike despise them.

So, what can the new president do about Gulen-gate? At the very least, Donald Trump should avoid being perceived as defending Gulen. Turkey’s notorious conspiracy theory factories — also known as the Turkish mainstream media — would use such support to verify allegations that Gulen is in fact an agent of the U.S. government.

Extraditing Gulen, or at least placing pressure on his network in the United States by launching investigations into its operations, would make Donald Trump a rock star in the eyes of most Turks. Of course, such an option might entail legal and moral ramifications, unless Turkey makes a stronger case for Gulen’s culpability in the coup attempt. A more moderate option for Trump would be to pass the ball to the U.S. courts and distance himself from Gulen-gate as much as possible, while also making sure that he does not appear to be defending Gulen. This strategy would not gain Trump credit in the eyes of Turkey but would be optimal for damage control.

Recognize Erdogan’s popularity in domestic politics

Erdogan’s domestic enemies detest him and do their best to contribute to the narrative that he is a typical Middle Eastern dictator. It is true that Erdogan goes to lengths to control and manipulate the flow of information and political opinion in Turkey. It is also true that almost half of the population dislikes Erdogan and many fear him. However, as far as public support is concerned, he can easily claim the full support of the other half of the population.

In this context, calling Erdogan a dictator only makes his followers feel angry, simply because such an interpretation portrays them as mindless hordes. They also become susceptible to the AKP-fed narrative that foreign powers are constantly conspiring against Erdogan and Turkey.

Put simply, while Erdogan is a populist par excellence, managing U.S.-Turkey relations accordingly will require understanding the origins and potential consequences of Erdogan’s popularity.

Don’t worry about Erdogan’s or Turkey’s anti-Americanism.

As is well-known by now, the coup attempt triggered a wave of virulent anti-Americanism in Turkey. Countless analysts have interpreted as the beginning of a new age in which Turkey’s “new” anti-Americanism is destined to push Turkey away from the United States.

As I argued elsewhere, Turkey’s anti-Americanism is neither new nor specific to AKP’s conservative/Islamist followers. Anti-Americanism in Turkey is a leftist and Soviet-inspired invention from the 1960s and remains prevalent among not only Erdogan’s conservative followers but also even more so among its secular adherents. Unless political leadership decides to weaponize it, anti-Americanism all by itself will not automatically lead to the deterioration of U.S.-Turkish relations.

When presented with an outrageous quote from a pro-Erdogan media outlet that blames the United States for all the troubles of Turkey, Donald Trump need not take it as a personal insult or the beginnings of a rupture in relations. Blaming the United States or the West for the ills of Turkey — regardless of logic and facts — is both a recreational activity and a core component of political tradition in Turkey. Unless there are real issues at stake, such assertions will not alone spoil the relations.

Erdogan especially might appear harsh, blunt, uncompromising, bombastic, and even erratic. However, his past record suggests that he is in fact a master survivalist, a pragmatist par excellence. He makes many strategic mistakes and often stokes anti-American narratives, but his concern for political survival and pragmatism usually is preeminent.

Donald Trump should recognize that anyone who would claim that Erdogan is an irrational fanatic is either misreading the nature of Turkish politics or trying to push an agenda. Erdogan will always talk the talk, but he can be reasoned with when it comes to the path he will be walking.

Counter-argument: Why should the United States even try to mend relations?

Of course, one can easily argue that there is nothing left worth fixing and that Washington should consider bringing this friendship to an end and, perhaps, even ejecting Turkey from NATO. This line of thinking suggests that Erdogan’s Turkey has become more of a liability than a valuable partner and ally — both morally and geopolitically.

Yet this argument is, on balance, over-simplistic and either overestimates the ease of finding substitutes for Turkey or underestimates the risk that will emanate from a breakup. Turkey is not irreplaceable, especially when it comes to the hard benefits it provides to the United States, such as Incirlik base in southern Turkey and the geostrategic value of its Black Sea coastline and control over the Turkish Straits. One can easily argue, for example, that the United States should close shop in Incirlik and move its operations to an alternative and more hospitable location in the region. While this argument has merit, it is also built on overly optimistic assumptions. While the United States can easily find more hospitable outlets in the region, perhaps in Kurdish-dominated areas beyond Turkey’s borders, such locations will hardly offer infinitely more stability and security for U.S. operations. There are no ideal partners in this part of the world.

More importantly, breaking up with Turkey will create new risks and challenges for the United States. First, a breakdown in relations would formalize and accelerate Turkey’s slide away from the West. Embedding Turkey within the West has been an almost century-long endeavor. Second, a post-breakup Turkey will feel alienated and insecure, which will push Ankara to seek new alliances and capabilities. Russia and perhaps even Iran will be waiting on the sidelines. While some might scoff at the possibility, expelling Turkey from NATO could even result in Ankara launching a nuclear weapons program.

Trump will enter office at a pivotal moment in the history of Turkish-American relations.  He is in a unique position to turn things around or at least mitigate the fall-out of what might be an inexorable breakup. It remains to be seen if Donald Trump will make American great again, but he will most certainly have an opportunity to make Turkish-American relations good — if not instantly great — again.


Burak Kadercan is an Assistant Professor of Strategy and Policy at the United States Naval War College. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.