Soft Power and Economic Pressure Best Options for U.S. Diplomacy with Turkey
President Erdogan’s assertiveness on the global stage poses challenges to the U.S. and the NATO alliance
How Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees diplomacy has powerful implications for the U.S., according to a former ambassador to the country.
“He is thinking of a glorious past, an unfortunate present, and a glorious future,” W. Robert Pearson said of Erdogan. “He thinks of Turkey as being morally superior but often treated as a victim.”
Pearson, who spent three years as U.S. ambassador to Turkey, spoke at “Turkey’s Ambitions and the American Interests,” the 2021 kick-off event for the Rethinking Diplomacy Program, organized by the Duke University Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS). The webinar was co-sponsored by Duke in DC and moderated by Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for Public Affairs & Government Relations at Duke University and hosted by Prof. Giovanni Zanalda, director of DUCIGS.
Pearson said Erdogan wants to make sure “that everyone understands that (Turkey) has to be a part of the game, that it can spoil the game if it wants to do so.”
Turkey’s delicate balance between an imperial past and modern democratic principles, between being part of NATO and taking overt steps to move toward Russia’s orbit— with Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile system—poses challenges for U.S. diplomacy, Pearson said.
The sanctions the U.S. has recently imposed on Turkey over the S-400 purchase should be left in place by the Biden administration, Pearson said. But the U.S. also has a wider range of diplomatic options to exert pressure on Turkey, including the cultural influences often called soft power, plus its economic might, Pearson said.
“The U.S. economy and the European economy together are nearly 50 percent of the world economy,” he said. “The Russian economy is half the size of California’s. So in economic terms we are the draw for decades to come for the growth of the Turkish economy. We can use that for our benefit.”
PEARSON ON TURKEY’S VIEW OF THE COVID-19 CRISIS
“Turkey sees an opportunity for itself in future years that plays off the impact of the COVID crisis. Mr. Erdogan has criticized what he calls 'world governance.’ He says that the liberal democracies and the world order that existed until COVID broke out actually produced the chaos that resulted. He points out that the UN did not play an effective role, that WHO did not play an effective role, that the G20 did not play an effective role and so his argument is that now it's time for middle powers to play a more effective role regionally in what he calls a new emerging globe order.”
ON THE AMERICAN APPROACH TO RELATIONS WITH TURKEY
“Our approach, I recommend, would be one of patience and persistent use of our strengths. Turkey is not a strategic enemy of the United States. Therefore, since democracy and democratic elements are alive in Turkey, there's an opportunity to move forward.”
“I think there's an enormous scope for exchanges with Turkey that had not been fully taken advantage of in the performing arts, in the visual arts, and in the exchanges of experts on social problems that are not political. When I worked in international development, we would take NGO experts from a given country and bring them to a city of the U.S. with the same problem, to get a cross-cultural exchange. … If you're dealing with medical issues or if you're dealing with other issues that are socially important but not politically sensitive, I think there's a large scope of things that can be done there. I personally would like to see more emphasis publicly be given to that kind of exchange because it would help the overall tone of the relationship.”
ON THE POTENTIAL FOR TURKEY TO JOIN THE EUROPEAN UNION
“With respect to the European Union, I would say, quite honestly that membership in the European Union is a dead letter for now and for the foreseeable future. Both parties keep open the idea that it could be possible but essentially, in the last few years, they've made no progress whatsoever and I don't see any prospect for them continuing to do so.”
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF NATO FOR TURKEY
“NATO is very important for Turkey as a prestige symbol. It is the only European-wide organization in which the Turks have an equal seat and equal authority. While they have acted contrary to NATO principles as far as the Americans and others are concerned, they believe that their membership in NATO is very important, and I don't see any possibility that they would voluntarily leave that alliance. The U.S. can try to use that relationship to expand areas of possible progress on security issues. “
ON TURKEY’S UPCOMING NEGOTIATIONS WITH GREECE
“This is a clear move by Turkey to deflect criticism of it and its role in the eastern Mediterranean and to give the semblance of having a willingness to address some of these issues. We’ll have to see what happens. It's certainly better than not talking, and it is a sign of Turkey’s adjustment to the changes in the U.S. administration and in the Middle East.”
ON THE ELEMENTS OF RETHINKING DIPLOMACY
“Rethinking diplomacy has three major components. First, it has to involve all the stakeholders- cultural, economic, political and military. Secondly, you start with the easiest issues, the shared issues. If you do a Venn diagram, you put those issues in that common space and you start there. Thirdly, and very importantly, everyone involved in that process has to be committed to a solution.”
ON THE POTENTIAL FOR THE U.S. AND TURKEY TO WORK AGAINST RUSSIA
“Russia will be a problem for Turkey as well as for the United States. I think there'll be opportunities for us to work with the Turks to deal with problems that the Russians cause in the Middle East. I don't mean we will be partners, but I believe that the same problems may affect them that affect us, and we should use that opportunity to work with them.”
ON TURKEY’S EXPANDING DEFENSE PROGRAM
“(Erdogan) wants to wean Turkey off its dependence on US, German, and Israeli technologies and that is one of his major goals in expanding Turkey's defense capability. Turkey has an ambitious defense and security plan for the Middle East that raises a number of issues for regional states and for Europe and the United States.”