ANALYSIS – Seeking a new balance in Turkish-US ties

‘Main elements pushing Turkish-US ties to dead-end are contradictions, instability in both Turkish and American societies due to their ongoing identity crises’

Helin Sari Ertem   | 10.11.2021
ANALYSIS – Seeking a new balance in Turkish-US ties

The author is a political scientist at the International Relations Department of Istanbul Medeniyet University.


It is challenging to interpret the course of Turkish-US relations in recent years, with their many ups and downs. Persistent problems point to a crisis greater than an issue of profound trust. We can define it as an identity crisis that can be discussed in various aspects. This identity crisis feeds on common realities that take the form of peculiar characteristics which can be dealt with separately.

Identity crisis

Generally, the concepts of identity and identity crisis are handled in the field of political science after psychology and sociology, based on the atmosphere created by the Vietnam War. [1] “Identity crisis,” which can be regarded as a temporary instability in the self, has long come up frequently in political analyses related to nations and states. The main element pushing Turkish-US relations to a dead end today is that both societies carry out activities that are contradictory and far from stability due to their ongoing identity crises. We can approach this from two angles: 1) Turkish society cannot overcome its rage at and distrust of the West, suffering from an emotional dilemma of “trying to be Western despite the West,” and the West is making repeated mistakes, continuing this dilemma. In addition to the tension and state of distrust, the multipolar structure of the current system creates another belonging issue. 2) The American public, a society with multiple identities as well as numerous sub-identities, is having difficulty coming up with a new “Grand Strategy” in the 21st century. The pressure emerging with the rise of opposing powers like China, India, and Russia exacerbates this identity crisis.

Consequently, although both sides have characteristics peculiar to themselves, there is a common problem of an identity crisis. While this crisis affects bilateral relations profoundly, it leads to systemic confusion on how to proceed, which causes mounting contradictions which emerge in line with the idea of identity interests affecting foreign policy [2] of the constructivist theory.

'Westerner despite the West'?

Efforts to be "Westerners despite the West” in Turkish society have a history of over three centuries dating back to long before the republican era. In the 21st century, Turkey retains its faith in maintaining and developing its relations with the West despite numerous ups and downs. However, it holds profound differences of opinions and crises in its relations with the US. The US has consistently ranked at the top of the list of “countries that pose a threat to Turkey” in public polling in recent years.

According to the 2021 Report of the Research on the Public’s Perception of Turkish Foreign Policy released by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, over half of the Turkish population sees the US as the most prominent country posing a threat to Turkey, chiefly through terrorism, depending on the internal and external context. While three out of five see US-Turkey relations negatively, the top-cited reason for this is differences in opinion in the fight against terrorism. Nevertheless, 54% of the population think our NATO membership should continue, and says NATO’s support in case of an attack on Turkey is the main reason. “Religion and identity differences,” however, stand out as the main factors forming hurdles to Turkey’s EU membership bid. Regardless, 63% of those with a university degree or greater still continue supporting Turkey’s EU bid. [3] It seems that while Turkey has a profound issue of distrust for the West, it wants to maintain its military, cultural, and financial association with the region and institutions in question.

Growing distrust

The Turkish public has trouble making sense of the US’ alliance with and support for the terrorist YPG/PKK, its forsaking Turkey in its fight against the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), the Russian S-400 crisis, and excluding Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program. The gradually growing differences in national interests and the means to achieve these interests in Turkish-US relations are significant, and there is a drastic divergence between the two sides. Sensing a serious threat to its national unity and territorial integrity due to activities in northern Iraq in the past and in Syria now, as well as the activity of foreign powers in the region, unfortunately, Washington does not provide the support that Turkey expects to eliminate this perception. The two allies diverge in terms of national interest to the point of challenging the alliance relations. The US’ continued support for the YPG in Syria despite all the warnings from Ankara is proof for this. This mistake carries the risk of making Turkey form relations with powers that compete with the US. The rivalry at the global level brings the options of Russia and China more strongly to Ankara’s table.

Just like the FETO problem, the crises of the S-400 and F-35 are the product of efforts to drive Turkey into a corner, which escalates the anti-US views among the Turkish public. What happened in recent years account for an “axial confusion” rather than an “axial dislocation.”

Pursuit of national interests and changing global balances in era of chaos

Some argue that the world is going through an era of chaos while others say that of anxiety. In this transitional period, the US is having a hard time clarifying its Grand Strategy for the 21st century. With a structure that is fractured and polarized at unprecedented levels, the American public is having difficulty looking forward and coming up with a mutual foreign policy strategy. The reason for this corresponds with the second identity crisis. The American public, with its identity split into myriads of micro-levels, is in a position where it cannot respond to Samuel Huntington’s question of “Who are we?” [4] Americans are concerned about the future; faith in the system and institutions is growing weak, and it is having trouble defining a common foreign policy enemy or interest. This, however, puts the US at risk of falling behind in its struggle against China and Russia, and causes it to take contradictory foreign policy steps. It is important to look at the deadlock in its relation with Turkey from this perspective, and to interpret the US’ deadlock from various points of view. As a matter of fact, Washington is going through tough times with not only Turkey, but many of its former allies, chiefly France and Germany. While offending France with trilateral alliance AUKUS with the UK and Australia, it is at loggerheads with Germany over the Nord Stream 2 project, fearing it will be dependent on Russia.

Memories of the Cold War no longer provide enough material to shape foreign policy. We are facing a multi-layered word shaped by brand-new dynamics. Certainly, a new world is to be established and Turkey will have its place in it. Yet this process requires brand new “mind games,” played cautiously. If we manage to crystallize the role that we will play in the new world to be established with a sense of ideological unity, it will be easier for us to pave the way for growing mature and working on a path that leads to our objectives with ambition and determination as a community, from a period full of identity crises.

[1] Erik Erikson, Identity: Youth and Crisis, W. W. Norton & Co., 1994; Philip Gleason, “Identifying Identity: A Semantic History,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 69, No: 4, March 1983, pp. 910-931; Roger Brubaker and Frederick Cooper, “Beyond ‘Identity’,” Theory and Society, Vol. 29, No: 1, February 2000, pp. 1-47.

[2] Alexander Wendt, “Constructing International Politics”, International Security, Vol. 20, No. 1, Summer 1995, pp. 71-72; Alexander Wendt, “Anarchy is What the States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics”, International Organization, Vol. 46, No: 2, Spring 1992”, p. 402; Ted Hopf, Social Construction of International Politics: Identities and Foreign Policies, Moscow, 1955 and 1999, Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 2002.

[3] BASIN_08062021.pdf

[4] Samuel P. Huntington, Biz Kimiz? Amerika’nın Ulusal Kimlik Arayışı, İstanbul: CSA, 2004.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

*Translated by Dilan Pamuk

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