Turkey, US rushing towards an irreparable rupture

Erdogan wants a free hand to do as he pleases, with impunity, even as he seeks to retain international legitimacy.
Sunday 19/08/2018
Turkish flag (L) European Union’s flag (C) and US flag float at the financial and business district Maslak in Istanbul. (AFP)
Changing realities. Turkish flag (L) European Union’s flag (C) and US flag float at the financial and business district Maslak in Istanbul. (AFP)

Here’s a tweet sent by US President Donald Trump late on August 16: “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years. They are now holding our wonderful Christian Pastor, who I must now ask to represent our Country as a great patriot hostage. We will pay nothing for the release of an innocent man, but we are cutting back on Turkey!”

The tweet is loud and it sheds light on several layers of reality. First, it shows how feudal international politics has become. Second, it is a reminder that the great conservative political thinker Samuel Huntington was right when he wrote about the clash of civilisations. In 1993, the prophetic vision was shunned by many pundits but it has become a reality with growing tribalism around religious and cultural divides.

Consider Trump’s tweet. It singles out a Christian pastor. Andrew Brunson, the American evangelical pastor, is portrayed as the sole victim in a country where he and tens of thousands are jailed on bogus charges. Trump’s selectiveness on the basis of religion makes it worthwhile to revisit Huntington’s thesis.

The third reality exposed by that tweet is the seemingly narrower conflict between Turkey and the United States, two key allies within NATO. There is no doubt, the historic relationship is set for a tug-of-war with neither Trump nor his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, willing to let go.

Both leaders are behaving like rogue adventurers, independent of advice, the rules of traditional statesmanship and even of administrative coherence. In terms of long-term effects, the inevitable rupture, which might also be irreparable, will define so much more than the relationship between the United States and Turkey. It will trigger a chain reaction, especially as Turkey is the weakest link in the NATO-based security chain.

As the latest surveys indicate, nearly 80% of Turks asked said they held anti-American views. The conflict revolving around the American pastor has helped bring anti-Americanism to the surface in a way that has not been seen before. And the soul-searching among observers has accelerated.

“Does Turkey, today, still belong in NATO?” asked Michael Rubin, in the Washington Post.

Rubin, a former Pentagon official with the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think-tank, offers a blunt answer, pointing to Erdogan’s proposed purchase of the S-400 air defence system from Russia: “Those counselling a softer line point out that Erdogan’s strategy is, in part, transactional. This is true but that is all the more reason to second guess Turkey’s role in collective defence. After all, when a crisis erupts, NATO members must rally together, not engage in bidding wars with Washington and Moscow over who deserves its loyalty.

“Indeed, the real danger to NATO is not that Turkey will withdraw or pivot to Russia but rather that it remains inside. Because NATO decisions are consensual, Turkey can play the proverbial Trojan Horse to filibuster any action when crises loom. It is true there is no clear mechanism to expel NATO members but NATO’s survival nonetheless requires purging Turkey. The West should call Erdogan’s bluff.”

Realists in Washington are receptive to the idea of the end of an era.

“It should be clear by now that there is no strategic relationship. Turkey and the United States have different interests and priorities,” wrote Steven Cook, an analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.

The tensions, he added, were “the result of a changing world in which Washington and Ankara no longer share a common threat. Perhaps the controversy over Pastor Brunson and the way the Turkish government has responded to the lira crisis will be a clarifying moment, highlighting what should be clear by now: Turkey is no longer an ally or partner.”

Gone are the pretence and wishful thinking. It is time to face facts. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party was long the West’s only hope that political Islam and democracy are compatible. That expectation has been crushed by Erdogan. That era of hope is over. While most of the blame must go to Erdogan and his cronies, some should be laid at the door of the European Union.

Erdogan’s slow-motion civilian coup — the spectacular power grab orchestrated since 2014 — has created a new regime architecture. It is no longer on the same page as the West on key issues. Erdogan wants a free hand to do as he pleases, with impunity, even as he seeks to retain international legitimacy. This means he will never cease to be a chameleon, now seeking a rapprochement with the European Union, later spoiling for a fight.

Erdogan’s actions definitely help Trump, who seems to want to demolish the old world order, reducing it to such multipolarity that global tribalism thrives. Democracies will be the victims.

The future? As the saying goes: When elephants fight, ants die.