Turkish-American relations are currently witnessing their deepest crisis. Even in 1975 when the U.S. put an arms embargo on Turkey, Ankara had some supporters in Washington. Then President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger opposed the embargo and did their best to convince the Senate and Congress to change the decision. Four decades later, in 2015, relations were tested by a new crisis, but this time Ankara had no friend in Washington. Starting in 2013, the current crisis has not only lasted comparatively long, but has gradually worsened into a possible breakup. What makes this crisis so deep, durable, and progressive in its worsening? Such a puzzle deserves meticulous study. Kemal Kirişci’s book is a timely and highly contribution whose purpose is to explain the recent crisis between Turkey and the U.S.-led order.
The book starts with a description of the “growing instability” the transatlantic alliance has experienced on “multiple fronts” for a long time. Borrowing from G. John Ikenberry, Kirişci defines the U.S.-led order as an “international liberal order,” and puts forward that this order is encountering “challenges from within, as both the United States and the EU [European Union] [have] experienced economic difficulties, and challenges from outside powers, especially China and Russia, which sought an alternative order” (p. 4). According to Kirişci, this structural dynamic has played an important role in the recent shifts both in Turkish domestic politics, as Turkish democracy began to recede and its economic dynamism started to fade, and in Turkish foreign policy, as noted in its security rapprochement with Russia (p. 4). Although the structural crisis of the international liberal order made Turkey’s crisis with the U.S. possible, the same crisis is also the source of possibility for a reset in Turkish-American relations. For Kirişci, “ensuring Turkey’s cooperation and support will be critical” in countering “Russia’s growing assertiveness,” and in managing to solve security issues in the Middle East (pp. 7, 14, 22).
The book aims to explain the factors driving “the deterioration in Turkey’s ties with its traditional allies” (p. 14). Unlike previous crises, in the current era Turkey has profoundly questioned its security commitments with the West and has made high-technology military agreements with Russia. For example, it signed an accord for Moscow to supply Ankara with S-400 surface-to-air missile batteries. And Turkey started to work with Russia in response to the Syrian crisis, in which the U.S. and Russia continue to vie for influence. As a NATO member, why does Turkey look to Russia as a source of stability and protection? For Kirişci, the answer is simple. Turkey’s deviation from international liberal order is the outcome of its change in ‘identity.’ Kirişci argues that the Justice and Development Party transformed after the 2011 elections. On the one hand, prominent advocates of liberal policies lost their positions both in the party and in national governments (p. 15). On the other, the remaining elite within the party capitalized on the notion of the umma, the broader Muslim community, and accordingly problematized Turkey’s identification with the West (pp. 15-16). Although Kirişci cites the war in Syria as “a key turning point” in Turkey’s deteriorating relations with the West (p. 72), he notes that it is Erdoğan who made Turkey surrender its Western orientation in favor of a pivot to the east. It was not security issues that pushed Turkey and the West further apart; rather, Turkey’s drift from “the values that have long constituted the international liberal order” (p. 122). As long as actors who disassociate Turkey from Western values and oppress “the secular, Western-oriented segments of the society” remain in the power, there is no “hope for any improvement in the near future” (pp. 121-122, and see also 149).
Kirşci mentions the possibility of Turkey’s return to the liberal international order because “Erdoğan does have a long track of record of pragmatism and a demonstrated ability to make U-turns” (p. 187). However, this scenario does not look likely (p. 188). For Kirişci, to expect Erdoğan to overcome his “ideological preferences” (p. 191) seems somewhat unrealistic (p. 188). The most likely scenario, therefore, is “a state of constant tension” with the West and its liberal international order. The only exit from this tension is the emergence of “a reformist movement” favoring closer relations with the EU within the Justice and Development Party (p. 192). This is so simply because a leader rising to power in Turkey from any of the opposition parties looks unlikely. However, there is an alternative way of reading Kirişci’s book. The EU’s reluctance to truly embrace Turkey and the U.S.’ failure to mitigate Turkey’s security concerns are two important dynamics pushing Turkey away from the West (pp. 193-195). If this is the case, positive change in the policies of the EU and the U.S. towards Turkey could play a critical role in mending relations. Such an alternative reading leaves readers with confusion: is Erdogan’s recent drift from Western values the outcome of systemic imperatives? Kirişci, however, is very clear in his argument that Erdoğan’s non-democratic slide is the source of all.
Despite its empirical richness in examining the history of Turkish-American relations with a special focus on the latest developments, the book suffers from the problem of reductionism, specifically reductio ad Erdoganum (p. 187). Kirişci judges the practices of Turkey both in domestic politics and foreign relations through the criteria of the international liberal order (see for example p. 12). By doing so, he implicitly assumes that the institutions of this order, such as Freedom House, measure developments in Turkey objectively. However, this is not always the case. For example, although the cycle of court cases between 2009 and 2011 was based partly on fabricated evidence, putting hundreds of military officers and journalists as well as politicians and academics in prison, the book is blind about the fact that the same Western institutions described this judicial process as the sign of democratic improvement in Turkey (p. 130). These two different pictures reveal something very critical about the logic of argumentation. Throughout the book, Kirişci leaves an intriguing question untouched: are all these judgments of western institutions objectively true –or the result of Turkey’s crisis with the U.S.-led order?
This question is important because it discloses the fact that Kirişci puts all the blame on the individual decision maker (Erdoğan) in Turkey’s deepening crisis with the U.S.-led order, leaving systemic dynamics peripheral. Although the book starts with an emphasis on the importance of the systemic variable in explaining the behavior of actors, it paints the political leader as the source of everything in the final analysis. The book, however, is a very rich source for students of Turkish foreign policy because it provides a very detailed analysis of Turkey’s recent crisis with the West. It is also good reading for policymakers wishing to understand the reasons for the crisis and possible solutions to it.