The historic breakdown in Anglo-Ottoman relations is a useful model for evaluating today’s troubled alliance between the United States and Turkey
SHORTLY BEFORE his death in 1869, the pro-Western former Ottoman grand vizier and foreign minister Keçecizâde Mehmed Fuad Pasha commented, “It appeared preferable that . . . we should relinquish several of our provinces rather than see England abandon us.” In response to this commitment, the British made the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire against Russian aggression a key pillar of their foreign policy.
Yet, in spite of the significance that Istanbul and London attached to their alliance in the 1850s, both sides were determined to eradicate each other by 1914. As Prime Minister Herbert Asquith put it, Britain was “determined to ring the death-knell of Ottoman dominion, not only in Europe, but in Asia as well.” In response, the Ottoman government described the British as “the greatest enemy” of not only the sultan’s empire but also of Islam itself.
THE ANGLO-RUSSIAN Great Game, waged across the vast lands stretching from Europe to Central Asia during the nineteenth century, rendered the Ottoman Empire an invaluable strategic asset in the eyes of British policymakers. Although the British public frowned upon the Ottoman Turks’ “peculiar Oriental ways,” and regarded them as “uncivilized Mohammedan barbarians” for their treatment of Christian subjects, Whitehall recognized that they could serve as a bulwark against Russia.
The Ottomans, likewise, recognized the value of having Britain as an ally given the looming threats posed by their neighbors, Russia and Austria. Though the Ottomans previously regarded the British as an untrustworthy non-Muslim power, the cooperation was a win-win venture, and the two powers agreed to partner economically and militarily. The strategic collaboration between them reached its zenith in 1853 when, along with other allies, they successfully waged war against Russia in Crimea.
America’s relative indifference to the Ottoman Empire and the early Turkish Republic was reminiscent of Otto von Bismarck’s famous remark that European Turkey “was not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” The United States and the Ottoman Empire fought World War I on opposite sides, but did not clash with each other. Moreover, while President Woodrow Wilson discussed the future of the Ottoman Empire in his Fourteen Points, the United States did not actively participate in its partition. In 1922–23, Washington merely sent observers to the Conference of Lausanne, which produced the final peace treaty between the victors of World War I and Turkey. Though these observers helped Turkey reject British demands on Mosul oil through the Turkish Petroleum Company—an enterprise that was Turkish in name only—American involvement in Turkish affairs ended there. The United States secured the interests of American oil companies while frustrating British plans to cartelize Middle Eastern oil. Beyond this, Turkey was not worth the bones of a single American GI.
Though Turkey was a remote power representing an inherently different culture, exchanges between the nation’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt reveal that, by the late 1930s, Washington viewed Ankara’s example as a model for the region. Early on in the Cold War, the United States moved to expand its relationship with Turkey. President Harry Truman reckoned that a friendly Turkey would be a strategic asset capable of containing the Soviet expansion into the Middle East, keeping the Soviet Black Sea fleet at bay and providing military bases whence to attack the Soviet Union. Turkey could additionally safeguard American interests in a region gaining in importance thanks to its rich oil reserves. Ankara similarly stood to benefit from U.S. protection. Threatened by Joseph Stalin, who condescendingly demanded the return of two provinces in Eastern Anatolia to their “motherland” and requested “joint” control over the straits, Turkey desperately sought help from America. After Turkey joined NATO in 1952, a relationship similar to the Anglo-Ottoman partnership developed.
Notwithstanding differences of setting, the backgrounds of the Anglo-Ottoman and American-Turkish partnerships are so alike that one may consider the latter as a continuation of the former. We can evaluate the current alliance fatigue and future of U.S.-Turkey relations by comparing them with those of the Anglo-Ottoman partnership. Five commonalities come into relief: selling the partnership, enduring cultural differences, becoming regional rivals, asymmetric relations and unsolicited domestic interventions.
BOTH THE Anglo-Ottoman and Turkish-American relationships succumbed to alliance fatigue. Each party had difficulty selling the merits of the partnership to the public. This was partly due to specific political events, but also because of enduring cultural differences previously ignored for the sake of sustaining the strategic alliances.
British statesmen who hoped to establish an alliance with the Ottoman Empire were unable to change negative public perceptions of it by the turn of the nineteenth century. When the House of Commons debated supporting the Ottoman Empire against Russia in 1791, Edmund Burke objected. He intensely disliked “this anti-crusade” and opposed “favoring such barbarians.” This impression hardly changed during the Greek War of Independence (1821–29), in which the Ottomans allegedly oppressed defenseless Christians.
After 1839, though, positive press coverage made it easier to sell the benefits of an Anglo-Ottoman partnership. The implementation of the tanzimat, the Ottoman Empire’s grand reorganization program, allowed British public intellectuals to portray reformist Ottomans as genuinely liberal and amenable to Westernization, in contrast to absolutist powers such as Russia. By the end of the Crimean War, the Ottomans had become staunch allies in defending the liberal cause and often followed British counsel. For example, Sultan Abdülmecid (r. 1839–61) granted equality in all respects to his non-Muslim subjects in 1856, at the behest of Britain. Nationalists who defended extensive autonomy or separatism gradually gained the upper hand in non-Muslim Ottoman communities that viewed this measure to be “too little, too late.” This consequently led to a long-term struggle between the Ottoman center and its non-Muslim communities.
In reality, Ottoman reformist statesmen were liberal only insofar as the territorial integrity of their empire was not challenged. When liberal policies threatened to dismantle the empire into the États Désunis de Turquie, as Fuad Pasha sarcastically remarked, the Ottomans had to draw a red line. Heavy-handed Ottoman repression in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Bulgaria in 1875–76 tarnished the positive perception the Crimean era had yielded. The British public’s outcry against Istanbul’s treatment of Ottoman Christians influenced British policymakers. At the Constantinople Conference of 1876, Lord Salisbury worked with Count Nikolay Pavlovich Ignatyev of Russia and incensed Ottoman statesmen by demanding extensive reforms favoring Ottoman Christians.
Thereafter, Britain cold-bloodedly watched the Russians defeat the Ottomans in 1877–78. Though the British could have aided the Ottomans, they refrained as their public had low esteem for the “bloodthirsty Muslim tyrants.” After signing the Treaty of Berlin in 1878, which established the autonomous Principality of Bulgaria, Britain continued pressuring the Ottomans to adopt reforms supporting the Macedonian Christians and Armenians. Abdülhamid II (r. 1876–1909), the new Ottoman sultan—who assumed the mantle of caliph, the ostensible leader of all Sunni Muslims—responded by initiating a policy of pan-Islamism, which threatened the British in their heavily Muslim colonies, particularly India and Egypt. This was mostly an empty threat, but the British eagerly bought in. They once again made the Ottomans the illiberal “other.”
By the 1900s, the Ottoman public was convinced that Britain had a hidden agenda of establishing an Armenian kingdom and separating Macedonia from the empire. For their part, the British public spotted an Ottoman specter behind the intensified Islamist sentiments in Egypt, India and other parts of its empire. The diminishing Russian threat paved the way for the Anglo-Russian entente of 1907, a diplomatic revolution. This practically marked the end of cooperation between London and Istanbul, though neither party officially pronounced it “dead.” Rather, they acted like friends for seven more years, despite holding different opinions on several issues and experiencing acute alliance fatigue.
Eisenhower’s lofty words belied the reality of the U.S.-Turkey relationship. Because the American public showed little interest in Turkey during the early decades of the Cold War, Washington was able to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings of Turkish democracy. In fact, American policymakers viewed the Turks as “Finns with mountains,” as Time magazine introduced them to the American public. This image portrayed Turkey as a secular Muslim state with a burgeoning democracy in an unstable region. Turkey’s recognition of Israel in 1949—which made it the first predominantly Muslim state to do so—only bolstered this perception. As long as Turkey supported American regional interests, Washington overlooked human-rights abuses, including Ankara’s heavy-handed suppression of left-wing movements. The Cyprus crisis between Turkey and Greece caused more headaches in Washington than the coups staged by the Turkish military.
Until the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon and State Department deflected criticisms raised mainly by the Greek and Armenian political lobbies regarding Turkey’s human-rights record, treatment of minorities and deficiencies in democracy. After the Soviet threat subsided, however, these issues became thorns in U.S.-Turkey relations. American interest in the status of Turkish citizens of Kurdish origin and the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate particularly alarmed Ankara. Meanwhile, a rising percentage of the Turkish public came to believe that the United States was conspiring to separate parts of eastern and southeastern Turkey for a future Kurdish state, and to use the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate to settle centuries-old scores with Islam.
Another sore point in this relationship was the change in American perception of Islamic movements. During the Cold War, Washington viewed Islamism as a valuable tool in the fight against Communism. American administrations even discouraged Turkey’s French-style laïcité for alienating pious Muslims. Though the United States became more receptive to Turkish secularism after the end of the Cold War and 9/11, many policymakers still welcomed the electoral victory of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002. They hoped that the AKP would disseminate a “moderate Islam” capable of advancing democracy. Needless to say, it did not live up to these expectations.
Washington has come to regret its initial support for the AKP and its criticisms of Turkish secularism. It has become increasingly frustrated at Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party’s leader, for his strong anti-Western rhetoric. Not only has Erdoğan referred to the European Union as a “Christians’ club,” but he once called upon Muslim countries “to unite and defeat the successors of Lawrence of Arabia.” Washington has suspiciously viewed Erdoğan’s attempts to become a leading voice in the Muslim world, as he has reinforced the notion of a “clash of civilizations” by accusing the West of waging a modern anti-Muslim crusade.
American dislike of Erdoğan’s behavior is reminiscent of the British abhorrence of Abdülhamid II, who defended the rights of Muslims as their spiritual leader. These developments have relegated Turkey from a praiseworthy defender of Western civilization and democracy to an “other” representing Islam and autocracy. Conversely, according to Turkish public perception, the United States has become a wolf in sheep’s clothing: a superpower silently plotting to partition Turkey.
THE PARTIES to the Anglo-Ottoman and Turkish-American alliances illustrate how geographically distant states can become regional rivals. One reason why the Ottomans originally cooperated with Great Britain was London’s relative remoteness. Though Ottoman statesmen perceived Britain to be fickle, they recognized Whitehall’s limited interest in the Middle East. They bargained that Britain would honor Ottoman interests in its regional policy in return for political and strategic partnership. As it turned out, Britain had no desire to do so. Likewise, it refused to grant carte blanche to the Ottomans for their domestic policies.
Much to the infuriation of Istanbul, Britain often negotiated with regional powers harboring anti-Ottoman sentiments and local groups rejecting Istanbul’s central control. For instance, Britain did not support the Sublime Porte against Greek expansionism. Ottoman leaders found British gestures like gifting the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1864 extremely confrontational. British agents also provided assistance to leaders of disfranchised Ottoman communities. They sided with local leaders clamoring for autonomy or separation in Serbia, Wallachia and Moldavia. Britain brazenly advised Ottoman statesman to support non-Muslim minority privileges and autonomy in order to maintain control over those communities. Not surprisingly, the Ottomans did not appreciate this counsel.
Frustrated with the British after the Great Eastern Crisis of 1875–78, Ottoman policymakers abandoned “Perfidious Albion” in the wake of the settlement reached at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. British requests for further reforms in Macedonia and the so-called “Six Provinces” inhabited by the Armenians, thus, fell on deaf ears. In 1895, the British proposed a joint naval demonstration among the Great Powers to force the Sublime Porte to implement the provisions of an Armenian reform program. Luckily for the Ottomans, this never materialized. When the conservative Mürzsteg Agreement (1903) led by Russia and Austria-Hungary failed to produce tangible results, Britain assumed leadership of the Macedonian Question, much to the dismay of the Ottomans. By then, Sultan Abdühamid II had lost trust in Britain.
The Anglo-Ottoman relationship deteriorated further in 1882 after Britain became a “neighbor.” Unlike other powers in the Middle East, Britain envisaged a dramatically different future for the region. This vision sparked border disputes such as the Taba Crisis over the frontier between British-ruled Egypt and Ottoman Syria. Moreover, Britain exchanged contracts with and promised protection for local leaders in Arabia such as the sheikhs of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. The British ignored Istanbul’s protests, which argued that as Ottoman subjects, these regional leaders were unable to negotiate with foreign states or sign treaties. These intrusions prompted a bitter rivalry that rendered the cooperation of earlier periods practically impossible.
The United States enjoyed a highly positive reputation in the Middle East prior to 1945. This stemmed from its geographic distance and from its image as an anti-imperial power that supported democratic participation in areas under its control such as the Philippines. Many local intellectuals favored an American mandate in Turkey after 1918 and advocated for similar arrangements in other parts of the former Ottoman Empire, such as Syria.
When Turkey found itself under imminent Soviet threat after World War II, it had no choice but to cooperate with the United States, the only state powerful enough to defend it. Many Turkish policymakers thought that America’s geographic distance and marginal involvement in prior regional conflicts would help them establish a beneficial partnership. They hoped that Washington would see the Middle East through Turkish eyes and offer unrestricted support. They also anticipated that the United States would allow Turkey to crush any internal threat for the sake of defending the territorial integrity of the “easternmost bastion of Western democracy.”
Twentieth-century America and nineteenth-century Britain are, admittedly, not interchangeable. But as global powers they achieved their foreign-policy objectives similarly. Like London, Washington was aware of Ankara’s concerns and attempted to appease it insofar as Turkish actions did not hurt American interests. And like Britain, the United States did not design its regional policies in strict accordance with Turkish interests.
President Lyndon B. Johnson jolted Turkish policymakers when he sent them a letter in June 1964, stating bluntly that Turkey’s intervention in Cyprus was impermissible under the provisions of the 1960 Treaty of Guarantee. With respect to Turkish military activity, Johnson wrote, “the United States cannot agree to the use of any United States supplied military equipment.” Just two years after a secret swap deal to withdraw Jupiter missiles from Turkey in exchange for removing Soviet nuclear missiles from Cuba, the “Johnson letter” deeply shook Ankara’s trust and dealt a shattering blow to its willingness to follow American advice. Though Johnson succeeded in preventing a Turkish intervention in Cyprus at the eleventh hour, President Richard Nixon failed to do the same in 1974.
Turkey’s Cyprus intervention spoke volumes about the change in its relationship with the United States. In spite of Nixon’s warnings of a military embargo, Ankara opted for military action. And though Washington still imposed an embargo, the U.S.-Turkey alliance persisted, albeit with difficulty. In reality, Turkish statesmen barely entertained the idea of leaving NATO. Doing so would have weakened Turkey’s military capabilities considerably. Few American policymakers in Washington would risk losing Turkey either. Ankara learned that being an ally of the United States did not guarantee unbridled freedom in conducting its regional affairs. Washington, likewise, realized that providing a security umbrella would not sufficiently keep Turkey under control.
Indeed, the Soviet threat held together an uneasy alliance between a regional and a global power. After the Cold War, managing this cooperation has become even more difficult because of growing mistrust. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a situation similar to the British penetration of the Middle East in the second half of the nineteenth century. The United States had become a regional rival power, threatening Turkey’s vital interests and territorial integrity. Frustrated at this development, the Turkish Grand National Assembly rejected a motion granting bases to American troops in their invasion of Iraq. This rejection did not stem from an inherent anti-American sentiment. Rather, it was a response to a deep-seated belief that Washington had ulterior motives. Similarly, Turkey has become apprehensive of American ties to local Kurdish actors in Iraq and Syria. These connections have fueled the perception that the United States wishes to create a new map of the Middle East. No map, not even a Russian-drawn one, would be more antithetical to Turkey than an American chart.
Because the United States and Turkey are becoming regional rivals, the potential for dispute has increased tremendously. As a growing power, Turkey has begun developing a vision for the Middle East that does not align entirely with that of Washington’s. Accusing Turkey of pursuing overambitious “neo-Ottomanist” policies, Washington has started to regard Turkey as an unreliable actor that threatens other regional powers.
A BILATERAL partnership between a global and a regional power generally results in imbalance and little reciprocity. The former deeply influences, and even intervenes in, the domestic policies of the latter. For instance, while the British could influence in Ottoman politics, policymakers in Istanbul, who had no say in response, had to work with those winning British elections.
The Anglo-Ottoman partnership produced a pro-British faction within the Ottoman civil bureaucracy and military apparatus. Becoming a member of this faction offered bureaucrats and top brass pathways for upward mobility. Soon, Whitehall handpicked its Ottoman counterparts. At the height of the Anglo-Ottoman cooperation, British ambassador Sir Stratford Cunning, nicknamed “Little Sultan” by the Ottoman public, could hire or fire grand viziers. The British embassy gained so much power in Ottoman domestic politics that its dragomans started discussing delicate matters with Ottoman ministers, even conveying messages directly to the sultan.
Over time, these levels of British involvement in Ottoman politics did not strengthen mutual cooperation. Britain’s desire to work with yes-men in Istanbul created an outcry, even among bureaucrats who supported cordial relations with London but wished to act independently and on equal footing. When Sultan Abdülhamid II rose to power, he snubbed Ottoman statesmen who had developed dual allegiances. He occasionally instructed the Ottoman press to chastise British policies. In response, the British, now accustomed to working with their self-selected cronies, further supported pro-British bureaucrats.
During the 1890s, British ambassadors hosted field marshals, former cabinet ministers and high-ranking officials who envisioned instituting “a more liberal system of government” in Istanbul. These individuals requested British assistance in orchestrating subversive initiatives against the regime. They even proposed, “In the event of the deposition of the sultan, it should be the care of the British ambassador that a minor should be chosen to succeed him.”
In 1902, liberal Ottoman bureaucrats approached the British Foreign Office and requested support for a coup attempt. Sir Thomas Sanderson, the permanent undersecretary, vaguely promised naval cover. This episode illustrated an apparent British commitment to regime change, even in a friendly country. In 1908, even after the Young Turk Revolution reinstated the Constitution of 1876, the British continued to interfere in Ottoman politics. The new leaders in Istanbul accused Britain of inciting uprisings and counterrevolutions. Though Istanbul was not in a position to react, partisan British involvement in Ottoman domestic affairs considerably damaged the Anglo-Ottoman partnership.
With respect to the U.S.-Turkey relationship, all major Turkish political parties as well as the civil and military bureaucracy enthusiastically supported Turkey’s admission into NATO. A wide spectrum of groups, including religious ones, became pro-American, with the exception of the long-suppressed left-wing intellectuals. For a short time, Americans did even not have to take sides in Turkish domestic politics.
This situation changed when anti-Americanism and leftist movements gathered momentum after the 1968 Vietnam War protests. While no major Turkish political party actually entertained the idea of changing allegiances, critics no longer bit their tongues. American statesmen feared the prospect of working with groups who criticized American policies. The United States consequently began distinguishing friends and foes in Turkey. For instance, there was a strong belief in Turkey during the 1970s that Washington preferred right-wing conservatives to left-wing political organizations that promoted closer relations with Non-Aligned countries. Likewise, many believed that America tacitly approved the 1980 military coup. In the last decade, rumors have arisen claiming that the United States has been backing a pro-NATO element within the Turkish military to hedge against the so-called “Eurasians,” who champion rapprochement with Russia and Iran.
After an initial honeymoon, the United States has become critical of the AKP, especially after 2010. American diplomats have behaved as an opposition party in Turkey, and spokespersons of the State Department and Pentagon have explicitly criticized policies implemented by the AKP. Turkish statesmen, even the president, have accused Washington of interfering with Turkish politics by aiding the opposition and Kurdish separatists. American support for Syrian Kurds in the battle against the so-called Islamic State has further strained relations with Turkey, which fears this support may incite internal strife. Moreover, Washington has strongly criticized Ankara’s policy vis-à-vis Syria. The Obama administration viewed Turkish support to some Sunni groups as aiding anti-Western Islamic fundamentalism. In return, Turkey has claimed that the United States has overtly supported the Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish political party in northern Syria that Turkey considers as dangerous as the Islamic State. U.S.-Turkey relations reached a fever pitch following the July 15 coup attempt. Policymakers in Ankara, including President Erdoğan, accused the United States of supporting mutineers and sheltering Fethullah Gülen, an expatriate Muslim cleric suspected to be the mastermind of the undertaking.
While it is difficult to comment on the degree of U.S. involvement in Turkish politics, alleged American interference has exacerbated yet another major fault line in the partnership.
THE U.S.-TURKEY alliance resembles the dysfunction of post-1907 Anglo-Ottoman relations. But this comparison also reveals opportunities to salvage the partnership. Will the parties be able to resolve their disputes and revitalize their alliance? Will the United States abandon Turkey and work with other actors in the region in its stead? Will Turkey turn its coat and seek alliance elsewhere?
With respect to the first question, the British and Ottoman delegates sketched out a major settlement resolving their differing visions for the Middle East in 1913 and 1914. The Anglo-Turkish Convention of June 1914, ratified by the Ottoman sultan, seemingly addressed all outstanding disputes, ranging from the British sphere of influence in Arabia and autonomous regions like Kuwait to the status of the rebellious leader Abdulaziz ibn Saud, the future king of Saudi Arabia. Yet, this settlement did not prevent Ottoman policymakers from signing an alliance with Germany two months later, immediately prior to the start of World War I. Therefore, while the United States and Turkey may resolve their existing disputes, their alliance may still collapse amid a major global crisis.
Next, will the United States make another country other than Turkey (or Israel) the focal point of U.S. interests in the Middle East? In 1896, fourteen years after Britain occupied Egypt, Lord Salisbury deprioritized preserving the status quo in favor of making Egypt the center of British policy in the region. Similarly, the United States may prefer a less independent and more obedient power to base its interests in the region. For instance, it may work closely with a Kurdish entity, especially after its growing interactions with Kurdish groups in the battle against the Islamic State. Ultimately, this depends on the shape of the Middle East after the conclusion of numerous crises occurring in the region. If the conflict in Syria persists indefinitely, however, then there is also a risk of the United States and Turkey drifting apart, especially if both countries support different substate entities in the conflict.
Ottoman statesmen and the founders of modern Turkey struck alliances with Russian leaders. They did so in desperation after the liberal powers turned against them. For example, the Russian and Ottoman empires signed the Treaty of Hünkâr İskelesi in 1833 after the British cabinet voted against sending the Royal Navy to the aid of the Ottomans during a war with the rebellious governor of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha. Lord Palmerston, secretary of state for foreign affairs at the time, later maintained, “No British cabinet at any period of the history of England ever made so great a mistake in regard to foreign affairs.” The Ottoman sultan, remarking that “a drowning man will clutch a serpent,” approached Saint Petersburg in desperation. Similarly, when the British backed the Greeks waging a proxy war against Turkish nationalists in 1921, the founders of modern Turkey signed a “treaty of brotherhood” with Bolshevik Russia.
The lesson for the United States is clear: unless Turkey feels desperate, it will not ally with non-Western powers, including Russia. Some Turkish politicians are today feeling desperate and have favored rapprochement with Russia, Iran and China. Erdoğan, in 2013, publicly expressed interest in transitioning from a Dialogue Partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to a full member. But even if Turkey changes sides, it will not last long unless its traditional allies abandon it permanently, which would be extremely unlikely.
The U.S.-Turkey alliance, originally forged because of a common external threat, has become exceedingly fragile since the fall of the Soviet Union. Both states criticize each other rather than sweep aside their differences. More troublingly, they harbor mutual mistrust, which colors their perceptions of each other. While it is difficult to predict the future of the U.S.-Turkey alliance, it has clearly suffered from severe alliance fatigue and needs extensive restoration. Resuscitating the relationship will demand investment and concessions from both parties.