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     A   CONSPECTUS[i] 


Seyfi Taşhan


          This essay will attempt to analyze Turkish-American relations from the onset of the Cold War and how various leaders and international conjunctures have led to fluctuations in this relationship



During the Cold War,   US played the role of leadership for the Western nations with dignity and even magnanimously. With the exception of few small incidents US leadership was unchallenged and US was able to both defend its own interests while supporting those of her allies who did not squabble about their own problems that appeared to be not so important in relation to the perceived security threats and considerations.

Eventually, the combined efforts of the Western nations and the military-economic competition between the two blocs led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. As Fukuyama (1989) had prophesized, the final victory of liberal democracies over communism, the age of American unipolarity had come about. This unique period in world history has brought along some problems.


America and her allies no longer had a mutually perceived threat and there was little incentive for America’s allies to cooperate with US on the same level as before. The ideological vacuum left by the collapse of communism was replaced, chiefly, by religious fundamentalism and nationalism. While the former led to a consolidation of American unilateralist policy and thus increased resentment towards US, the latter proved to be a security challenge and became another basis of resentment of America.

This essay will attempt to analyze Turkish-American relations from the onset of the Cold War and how various leaders and international conjunctures have led to fluctuations in this relationship. We will conclude that security concerns and potential threats are vitally important in this relationship; so much so that the effects of other factors and events can be subordinated. In this light, we may observe that Turkish-American relations were best when their mutual threat perceptions were high and low when both countries felt secure. It is just like the principle of nations not having permanent allies or enemies, merely permanent interests – or as Lord Palmerston once said about British foreign policy, “We have no eternal allies or permanent enemies”, and, “our interests are eternal and we have a duty to follow them.”[1] So, in this particular case, security concerns were the dominant factor.

Early Configurations

The nuclear race began at a time when the relations between the two superpowers were beginning to deteriorate. The second half of the 20th century did not witness wars of global scale, fought between great power states. However, conflict was ever present and the ideological conflict manifested itself as proxy wars between the allies of USA and USSR; as the subordination of small states to the two superpowers; and as small scale wars in newly created states. Turkey and US have had some degree of contact before this era but these were limited in scale and scope; usually minor trade arrangements and missionary activities.

Bearing in mind the vivid experiences of the First World War, Turkey’s decision making elite were not enthusiastic about the prospects of participating in another major power war.[2] Under the strict guidance of İsmet İnönü, Turkey managed to steer clear of the Second World War and managed to retain decent relations with all the belligerents. There were some issues that needed to be addressed though. Namely, what would Turkey’s role be in the post-war world order? More importantly, what could Turkey do to secure itself against an ever growing Soviet bloc? The Soviet Union and Turkey had excellent relations after World War I, with the former providing weapons and money to Turkey in the War of Independence. Yet for historical reasons and the apparent expansionistic tendencies of USSR, especially with regards to a prevailing suspicion that Russia had always wanted to reach warm waters, Turkey saw USSR as a security threat. The logical course of action was to become a member of the Western camp. For this end, Turkey declared war on Germany after the Yalta Conference to be a part of the United Nations and would later become a part of the Council of Europe and NATO.

Turkey’s fears were confirmed in 1945 after a meeting between the Foreign Ministers of USSR Molotov and Ambassador of Turkey  Selim Sarper.[3] It transpired that the Soviets indeed wanted a revision of the Montreaux Straits Convention and possible territorial rearrangements regarding Turkey’s Eastern borders.[4] In the backdrop, Great Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy and announced in 1947 that it could no longer provide assistance to Turkey and Greece. US took up Britain’s mantle and under the Truman Doctrine, dated March 12th 1947, Turkey and Greece were offered money as military-economic assistance. This aid given as help to “nations fighting against authoritarian regimes” was to be the first of many to be offered by US. Indeed, the Marshall Plan that began in 1948 amounted to some USD 13 billion and given to 16 European countries, which Turkey benefited from. This aid can be interpreted as the resurrection of Wilsonian principles with a distinct military flavor that promoted a practical form of collective security in the form of first bilateral and, later, multilateral alliances. The same year, Stalin was becoming increasingly frustrated with the new developments and West Berlin was soon cut off from the rest of the world. In this first major crisis of the Cold War, US and its allies kept the city alive with airlifts. This first act of hostility by USSR made it necessary for the foundation of a collective security organization, NATO.


The Democratic Party Years

In the meantime, there was pressure outside and within Turkey for a transition to a more democratic system. İsmet İnönü was able to retain power in the controversial 1946 elections but, finally, Turkey had its first proper elections in 1950 with the Democratic Party (DP) winning in a landslide victory. The same year, Celal Bayar, the head of the Democratic Party, became the 3rd President of Turkey. Unlike his predecessor, Celal Bayar did not want Turkish-American relations to be limited to security issues; he wanted to expand the scope of this relationship.

Celal Bayar’s decision to send Turkish troops under UN auspices to participate in the war against North Korea was principally aimed at reaffirming Turkey’s solidarity and alliance with the United States. As expected his act was greatly appreciated, and became the most effective instrument to prove Turkey’s dependability as a prospective member of NATO, quelling all objections of European powers. Consequently, Turkey’s image was greatly enhanced in the West; it was soon seen as the bastion of West against the Soviet Union – an image as a “projector of  Western power”.[5] Thus Turkey, along with Greece, became a member of NATO in 1952.

This episode was led to a close cooperation between Turkey and the United States in areas of defense and economy so much so that in the beginning of 1954 when the then Turkish President Celal Bayar paid a state visit to the United States at the invitation of President Eisenhower, he was given a ticker-tape parade in New York, worthy of only war heroes, and Greek and Armenian diasporas rushed to publicize and welcome this visit in contradiction to their current hostile attitudes and actions towards Turkey.

Many US military bases and systems were established in Turkey and there were strong and long lasting bonds established between the military of the two countries. Yet the relations, even in the heydays of the alliance, were not spotless. George Harris has summarized these trouble spots in his book,”The Troubled Alliance”.

Nevertheless, the impact of the high threat perception of Turkey from the Soviet Union and its strong allegiance to its Western Alliance and particularly its leader the United States had a monopolizing effect on Turkish foreign policy. Turkey did all in its power to conform to the interests of its major Ally even to the negligence of its own regional political interests (Algiers, recognition of Israel). This relationship was characterized as a patron-client relationship as Turkey, as part of the alliance and as a major security dependence on US, followed a policy that would conform to that of the United States in areas where Turkey’s national interest was not in contrast with that of the United States. This trend in Turkish foreign policy dominated the 1950s.

In this respect, Turkey, United States and Great Britain carried out a plan conceived by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to contain the advance of the Soviet Union in to warm waters of the Mediterranean and of the Indian Ocean. Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Pakistan formed the Baghdad Pact. Unfortunately, piece by piece, this pact became impotent as Iraq withdrew after the Ba’athist revolution in 1963. At this point the Baghdad Pact became CENTO (Central Treaty Organization). After the Iranian Revolution, it ceased to exist. However, the economic branch of CENTO, which was transformed into the Regional Cooperation for Development (RCD), which later changed its name and enlarged its membership to cover some Caucasian and other Central Asian Countries and assumed the name of ECO (Economic Cooperation Organizations).



The situation somewhat changed in 1960s because of two incidents where US respect and commitment to Turkey’s security became a subject of debate in Turkey. The Cuban Missile Crisis and the removal of the Jupiter Missiles that were placed in Turkey, without consultation with Turkey and as a reward to Soviet Union in return for the conciliation in Cuba. This was considered as Turkey’s security being expendable. The second incident was the nature of the threat that came from President Lyndon B. Johnson, contained in his letter, that was aimed at thwarting Turkey’s possible intervention in Cyprus to protect the Turkish community from the assaults of Cypriot Greeks.  This letter showed that Turkey was not only expendable for US interests but also to protect the interests of Greek lobbies in US.[6] This also led Turkey and Soviet Union to establish improved economic and trade relations.[7] In fact, in 1967, Soviet Union extended assistance for the construction of a major refinery, aluminum plant, iron and steel plant and glassworks in Turkey.

Greece and Cyprus had become an important negative factor in Turkish-US political relations. However, this did not have any significant impact on security cooperation between the two countries. In fact, this cooperation was particularly enhanced following the Prague Spring events and the Brezhnev Doctrine[8] that increased threat perception in Europe, United States and Turkey. Incidentally, this event also facilitated Turkey’s progress from preparatory phase to transition phase, in Turkey’s association process with the EEC.

The turn of the decade began with both blocs realizing the futility of maintaining mutual annihilation threats and there was a strong search for increasing dialogue prospects. The Nixon visit to Moscow in 1972 and resulting agreements between two bloc leaders had profound effects in intra-bloc relations in the Western camp, as imminent threat perceptions were reduced to possible threat perceptions.[9] As a result of this change, Greek and Armenian lobbies began to exert increasing anti-Turkish pressure in US government and Congress circles. The Opium Crisis led to hues and cries in US Congress for imposing economic and military embargoes on Turkey. This campaign was led by such distinguished senators as Richard Mondale, who later became Vice-President, and Armenian and Greek origin senators like Pashayan, Dukakis and Sarbanes. Even though they failed in their first attempt they were to succeed a year later because of the Turkish military intervention in Cyprus in 1974.[10] At this time the US executive was suffering from the Watergate scandal and was not in a position to block the Congress action.

The embargo continued for several years and was finally lifted in 1978 following major campaign by US security and strategy experts who believed that the most appropriate military bases were in Turkey to defend US interests in case of an attack on the Gulf.[11] Moreover, this preceded the religious revolution in Iran. This revolt that brought down a trusted ally of the United States, the Shah of Iran, to flee his country once again changed the US attitude towards Turkey as the second most trusted ally in South-East Europe and the Middle East – the first being Israel.

The Özal Era

Mr. Turgut Özal, who had become the economic Tsar of Turkey in 1980 under Prime Minister Süleyman Demirel, kept his position under the military rule that began in September 1980. Eventually, he formed a political party and won the 1983 elections to carry out an unprecedented economic reform program. He was also very active in introducing a multi-directional foreign policy for Turkey.

All through his Premiership and Presidency he not only succeeded in maintaining excellent relations with the United States, but he liberalized Turkish foreign trade and established good relations with Turkey’s neighbors, including Israel. He wanted to make Turkey an irrevocable partner of the European Union; he tried to promote respect to human rights in Turkey by accepting the right of Turkish citizens to bring their complaints of the Turkish government to the European Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. He created the Black Sea Economic Cooperation and cooperated with the United States during the First Gulf War, even though Turkey did not take part in the war. Turkey cooperated, again with the United States to preserve the security of the No-Flight-Zone in Northern Iraq and actively mediated between two major Iraqi Kurdish groups in order to prevent them from fighting each other, even by maintaining a military contingent in Northern Iraq for this purpose. Özal carried Turkish foreign policy from Cold War paradigms to political and economic pluralism that characterized the Post-Cold War era.


Post-Cold War Pluralism and the Difficulties Faced by US-Turkey

The demise of the Soviet Union towards the end of the 1980s created or reactivated the independence of many states in the wide Eurasian region controlled by the Soviet Union. Turkey extended immediate recognition to all of these former Soviet Republics and established diplomatic relations with most of them. In the provision of economic and political support to these new countries Turkey and US had many common interests. Turkey did its best to integrate the Turkish speaking NIS countries in the international system and PfP program of NATO. In this respect Turkey and US had the same mind set as to what was to be done. Turkey became an ardent supporter for the enlargement of NATO as well.

In this section of this article an attempt will be made to analyze comparative policy aims and interests of the United States and Turkey on global and regional issues and their chances of cooperation.

Global issues

In the post Cold War era the United States, sometimes together with and sometimes separately from Western Europe began a policy that would firmly establish the dominant position of US in the unipolar world. Russia had been so weakened that it could hardly cope with even a Chechen revolt. China had just begun its development efforts and was no threat to anyone. It was this period when a French foreign minister (Hubert Védrine) could dub the United States as ‘the hyper-power of the world’[12] The consciousness of its global power may be one of the factors that led the United States with or without the help of its allies, and some times in competition with them, take charge of the problems of the word so long as their solution helped US interests. The America of today is acting increasingly independent of other countries. Some acts of US unilateralism range from the refusing to take part in the Kyoto Protocol, to the controversial invasion and occupation of Iraq.


US conservatives thought that in this Post Cold War era they should pursue to encourage human rights and democracy on a global scale beginning particularly with the Middle East. The European countries also follow a similar policy in their neighborhood through enlargement, in this case, in Eastern Europe; and encouraging the countries of the Mediterranean through an economic program (MEDA). US policy considered a new doctrine for the larger Middle East area and two conferences have been held in Rabat and Oman, aimed at encouraging democracy and economic cooperation. However, American and European soft-pedal policies did not yield any significant results.

For most of the Middle East countries the real problem lied in the Arab-Israeli conflict. These attempts of Europe and the United States did not bring any results; the principle reason being US was squeezed between its unconditional support for Israel and its desire to promote peace and democracy in the Middle East. In this area, politically, what Europe could do went, in reality, no further than the Venice Declaration of 1980, giving support to the legitimate rights of Palestinians. The disappearance of the Soviet Union from the Middle East scene and the failure of the United States to bring about peace and security in that wider Middle East led to problems. These, when coupled with policy errors[13], encouraged the rise and spread of hard-line Islamism, greatly encouraged by such fundamentalist countries as Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In the backdrop of all these developments, it became very difficult to combine democracy with the spread of Islam. Free and fair elections that are sine qua non of democracies tended to bring to power Islamist political parties – in many instances, these parties were active fundamentalists. This led the Neo-Cons of the United States to encourage a moral “mild” Islam that could enable the coexistence of democracy and Islam. Therefore, the G8 Group became the instrument to encourage dialogue for peace and democracy among religions. Even though almost all Islamic countries choose to talk about reform of their societies, very little actual progress was achieved.


Iraq and Iran

The revolution in Iran came as a shock to the world because it represented the rise of Islam in its crudest form under a dictatorship of clergymen. This form of Islam defied Western value system and encouraged Islamic revolution in other parts of the world. Coupled with anti-western sentiments rising from Arab-Israeli dispute, the Iranian propaganda found a fertile ground. In order to counter this Iranian ideological threat that could also endanger US energy interests in the Gulf, US chose to encourage nationalist but mostly secular Ba’athist leader of Saddam in his attempts to destroy Iranian Shiism, which was also a threat for the security of Iraq and other Gulf countries. In the Iran-Iraq War, US could not take sides officially, and the war that lasted a long time ended in a stalemate; exhausting the energies of both belligerents. The Iraqi leader, in order to recuperate his lost prestige, chose to invade oil-rich Kuwait. That was too much for the United States because this time Saddam had become a threat to US interests in the Gulf and no one knew where Saddam’s expansionism would stop. This led to the First Gulf War that saved Kuwait but left an embittered Saddam in power.

Neo-conservationism and the Middle East:

The legitimization of US foreign policy is based on a triad concept consisting of supporting democracy, human rights and economic liberalism, even though in many instances these principles have remained only rhetorical where they contradict US interests. As we have seen earlier, US leaders have championed this ideology both at the end of the First and the Second World Wars and have remained part of the US declaratory policies. Until the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon by Al-Qaide terrorists who had made themselves a base in Afghanistan with their Taliban friends, US attempts to promote democracy and human rights were limited as US was constrained by a soft power policy described by Joseph Nye[14]. Yet, the terrorist aggression committed within US territories and the support given by NATO and the Security Council, empowered US to invade Afghanistan. This invasion also heralded the implementation of the Neo-con policies that also involved in imposing reforms and democracies also by use of force on countries whose regimes constituted a threat to international peace. This is a very complicated process. The invasion of Afghanistan was followed by plans to topple Saddam Husseyn in Iraq that demonstrated open hostility towards the United States and together with Iran he could endanger both the security of flow of oil from the Gulf and the security of Israel.

The 2003 war against Iraq was quickly won and Iraq was invaded. But what was not expected was the rise of terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and the chaos particularly in Iraq that could not be remedied by the United States. War against Taliban continues at the time of writing of this article particularly in the South mountainous regions of Afghanistan, while law and order is still to be established in Iraq and no one knows what is in store for the future of Iraq. But it is obvious that the chances of re-establishing a united Iraq are weakening day by day. Contradictions between democratic norms foreseen in the constitutional instruments and the existing traditions and belief systems as well as societal structures, the Neo-con strategies have suffered a failure in both countries. In the United States the Defense Department leaders and Administrators in Iraq have paid the price.

US policy to the region gives the impression that US have eventually realized that it would be nigh impossible to bring peaceful international and domestic law and order in the Middle East before the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved. And insistence on democratic reforms should be subordinated to mellowing Islamic fundamentalism. The greater Middle East Project initiated by G8 group of nations and EU’s neighborhood policies aim at both creating inter-cultural and inter-religion contacts and dialogues constitute a soft pedaling of  reform demands from Middle East countries. Furthermore, US while ardently backing Israel seem to be giving higher priority for an early solution of the Palestine problem and supporting the activities of the Quartet.

This policy makes Iran which is deploying strenuous efforts to develop its own nuclear and missile capabilities and the zeal of its President defying and threatening US and Israel, number one preoccupation of the United States in the Middle East. It is absolutely clear that US, EU and UN desire Iran to reassure the world that its nuclear activities are really peaceful and it would open itself up to international inspections. For the time being soft sanctions are being imposed on Iran to obtain this objective, but it is not clear how long it will take for Iran to respond positively to these pleas and what would be the response of US and Israel if all these pressures do not give a result.

The US policy has witnessed three important shifts during the last Republican Administration under President George W. Bush. In the course of the first years we see a soft power mode entailing good relations with Russia and China and advocating democracy and globalization for the whole world. In the second phase after the 9/11 we witness a belligerent foreign policy evolved and advised by neo-cons. The third period consisting of the Administration’s distancing itself from neo-con policies as they have led US from one failure to another. US now tries to mend ties with Europe and its allies and even under these conditions of severe nuclear challenges by North Korea and Iran it seems to seek international cooperation, dialogue and sanctions acceptable to UN Security Council.

US-Turkish relations in recent decades

Until US invasion of Iraq, Turkish-US relations were at their best. US supported Turkey’s accession to the European Union and in early 2000s, when Turkey fell in to an economic crisis, US supported the reform of the Turkish economy in cooperation with IMF and encouraged social and political reforms in Turkey.

The preparations for the invasion of Iraq created a rift in US-Turkish relations whose effects continued for a long time. US wanted to station troops in Turkey and open a second front by moving into Iraq from Turkey. Remembering how Turkey was left alone when 300,000 Iraqi Kurds sought refuge in Turkey after the First Gulf War and nobody came to Turkey’s assistance, there was a general reluctance not to get involved this time in an adventure in Iraq. Furthermore US was unwilling to protect Turkish interests in Iraq by not promising the integrity of the state of Iraq after the invasion and protect the Turkish minority in that country from pressures by Arabs and Kurds. Low-level negotiations turned into “horse-trading” as coined during a meeting with President Bush. The Turkish Parliament did not approve the project of a second front through Turkey  against the US assumption that Turkey would, anyway, play the game with the United States.[15] This development, coupled with the post-invasion failure of US to stabilize Iraq, created much ill-feeling in the United States towards Turkey. In fact Donald Rumsfeld placed the blame of US failure on Turkey’s lack of cooperation.[16] This in return created an anti-American sentiment in Turkish public opinion, accusing America of disregarding Turkey’s interests in Iraq. However the statesmen of both countries have done their best not to reflect this public opinion phenomenon of hostile feelings in their cooperative relations. US and Turkey worked together to bring Caspian energy resources to the Mediterranean through Turkey. They also worked together within the G8 sponsored “Greater Middle East Project” and Turkey assumed a role-model of a state combining democratic reform in an Islamic country, even though this role is firmly rejected by a section of public opinion and civil society who consider Turkey to be a secular state.

The last phase of the Bush administration after a period of more than four years of dilly-dallying, US has finally shown a greater understanding of Turkey’s positions and interests vis-à-vis Iraq. With the intelligence help from US, the Turkish army conducts air and ground operations against PKK terrorists based in Northern Iraq and has discarded the original plans of dividing Iraq into three states and insist on its future unity. US still supports Turkey’s membership in the European Union and is very happy with Turkey’s cooperation for peace-keeping efforts in problem regions ranging from the Balkans to Afghanistan and even further.


Looking at the history of Turkish-US relations there is no monotony. There have always been frictions, mostly under the influence of anti-Turkish lobbies and their annual attempts to get some anti-Turkish resolutions from the US Congress. However, because of the coincidence of a majority of the basic interests of the two countries in the wide region where Turkey and US are involved in economic, social, political and even military projects and cooperation. These interests always dominate the points of friction resulting from erroneous policies of leaderships of both countries as well as the impact of anti-Turkish lobbies and anti-American propaganda.



Hale, William. Turkish Foreign Policy: 1774-2000. London: Frank CASS Publishers, 2000.

Colton, Kramer, and R.R. Palmer. A History of the Modern World. New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 2007.

International Herald Tribune, “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower’,” February 5, 1999.

Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd, 1995.

Lesser, Ian. Beyond Suspicion, Rethinking US-Turkish Relation. Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson School for International Studies, 2007.

Nye, Joseph. “The Benefits of Soft Power”. Harvard Business School Archives, 2004, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4290.html.

Oran, Baskın, ed., Türk Dış Politikası Vol. I. Istanbul: Iletişim Yayınları, 2001.

Shanker, Thom. “Rumsfeld Faults Turkey for Barring Use of Its Land in ’03 to Open Northern Front in Iraq”, The New York Times, 21 March, 2005.


      (*) Based on a presentation made at the Panel organized by the Foreign Policy Institute on “Turkish Foreign Policy Responding to Changes in  International Conditions” at the 8 th METU Conference on International Relations on June 19 th, 2009

[1] Kissinger, Henry. Diplomacy (London: Simon & Schuster Ltd, 1995), p. 96.

[2] William Hale, Turkish Foreign Policy: 1774-2000 (London: Frank CASS Publishers, 2000), 79.

[3] Baskın Oran, ed. Türk D ış Politikası Vol. 1. (Istanbul: İletisim Yayınları, 2001),  472-473

[4] Ibid.

[5] Lesser, Ian. Beyond Suspicion, Rethinking US-Turkish Relation (Washington DC: Woodrow Wilson School for International Studies, 2007), 20.


[6] See: Baskın Oran, ed. Türk Dış Politikası Vol. 1. (İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 2001),  685-689.

[7] William Hale, Turkish Foreign Policy: 1774-2000 (London: Frank CASS Publishers, 2000), 150-151

[8] Joel Colton, Lloyd Kramer, and R.R. Palmer. A History of the Modern World. (New York: McGraw Hill Companies, 2007), 1008. Note: Basically, the Soviet Union had the right to intervene in any Communist country in the name of the proletarian internationalism to protect socialism against internal or external enemies. Quite basically, an excuse to send in tanks.

[9] See: Seyfi  Taşhan, Foreign Policy-Dış Politika Vol., pp 68-80, “Thoughts on Co-Existence and President Nixon’s Visit to Peking and Moscow, 1972

[10] William Hale, Turkish Foreign Policy: 1774-2000 (London: Frank CASS Publishers, 2000), 160.

[11] Ibid, 161.

[12] International Herald Tribune, “To Paris, U.S. Looks Like a ‘Hyperpower’,” February 5, 1999.

[13] The notable error by the United States was the pursuit of the Green-Belt Project by which militant groups in Middle East countries would be armed and radicalized in order to create a buffer zone of Islamic countries in the Southern borders of the Soviet Union.

[14] Nye, Joseph. “The Benefits of Soft Power”. Harvard Business School Archives, 2004, http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/4290.html (accessed June 7, 2008).


[15] Probably as a residual reflex inherited from the Cold War period when Turkey was perceived as a client state.

[16] Thom Shanker. “Rumsfeld Faults Turkey for Barring Use of Its Land in ’03 to Open Northern Front in Iraq”, The New York Times, 21 March, 2005.


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