Culture, Epistemology and Foreign Policy: An Alternative Reading of U.S.-Turkish Relations Within the Context of the Middle East

By Dr. H. Akın Ünver | 17 september 2010


Turkish-American relations have always been defined as a ‘strategic partnership’. Almost without exception, decision-makers and diplomats at the highest levels point to a particular ‘importance of the strategic partnership’ or ‘relationship’ whenever they try to define bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States. Surprisingly at the public level, we take this definition for far too granted, without really asking what exactly a strategic partnership is, and how it is translated into policy practice.


‘Strategic partnership’ is in fact a business term, which defines a case in which two companies integrate and/or co-ordinate one or more components of their enterprises in order to maximize profit in a short- or medium-term investment. Falling short of a full merger or acquisition, the defining element of a strategic partnership is this particular investment goal and undertaking without which such partnership wouldn’t take place. In other words, strategic partnerships form in the face of a perceived profit or in order to pass a particular, anticipated threshold, and fall apart when the expected profit is received. In many ways, the common goal that had initiated the U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership was the Cold War and countering a common, perceived Soviet threat. This later evolved into cooperation during successive Gulf, Kosovo and Afghanistan wars, but came to a halt during the earlier phases of the war in Iraq. When the third component (i.e. common goal) of a strategic partnership is no longer there, the partnership falls apart like a tripod losing one of its legs, and like many other strategic partnerships, without the ‘third leg’, we are witnessing an episodic downgrade in Turkish-American relations.

With some exceptions, the most recently prevalent argument within the American scholarship on U.S.-Turkish relations is that these relations are undergoing a period of structural stagnation. Some arguments even propose that Turkey is leaving ‘the West’ and ‘turning towards the East’ (rarely offering a proper operational definition of what these cardinal directions culturally imply) and that Turkish-American relations are no longer a relationship of cooperation, but one of rivalry. Such analyses, with varying degrees of validity, propose that Turkish foreign policy is becoming increasingly Islamized in a radical fashion, as Turkey seeks to develop closer and more advertized relations with Iran, Syria and Hamas, rather than with more moderate Muslim countries such as Egypt, Jordan or Lebanon. Interestingly, ‘the West’ (again, whatever concrete and operational policy definition this may entail) is also divided in providing explanations as to why Turkey is ‘lost’; while the United States frequently blames the European Union for refusing membership to Turkey because of ‘short-sighted, electoral concerns’, the European Union (most recently Manuel Barosso) had identified that Turkey’s so-called ‘axial shift’ took place due to a clumsily initiated, protracted Iraq war and the wider regional instability it brought (1)


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