The Honorable Ambassador Alexander Vershbow is the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.
These remarks were delivered at the Second Annual Conference on Turkey by MEI's Center for Turkish Studies.
Washington, DC - June 23, 2011
Thank you, Dr. Tol, for the kind introduction, and thanks to President Wendy Chamberlin and the Middle East Institute for inviting me to address this year’s conference. I applaud the fact that you have devoted an entire day to understanding Turkey’s evolving internal politics and relations with traditional Allies and new partners and neighbors, and it is terrific to see the representation here from Washington’s U.S.-Turkey intelligentsia, as well as distinguished guests from Ankara. I look forward to your insights.
As many of you know, my portfolio at the Department of Defense covers Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Russia and Eurasia. I have spent considerable time over the past year engaged with Turkey through the prism of each of these regional contexts, and I would like to share with you what I have learned—and what I think my Turkish counterparts have also learned—about our critical alliance.
When you convened last June for your first annual conference, the downturn in U.S.-Turkish relations had surprised us all. We were concerned because it seemed so at odds with the relative closeness we had felt over the past year, beginning with President Obama’s April 2009 visit to Istanbul and Ankara.
Since that time, the governments of Turkey and the United States have found a way to work through the events of that challenging phase, disproving charges that Turkey was drifting from the United States, or that the United States could not abide an independent Turkish foreign policy.
I am pleased to say that, in many key respects, the relationship has not only recovered over the past year, but it has strengthened. Despite the frustration and disappointment felt by both sides following the Gaza flotilla, the Turkish vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1929, and the P5+1 dismissal of the Tehran Declaration, I believe that U.S. and Turkish officials have redoubled their efforts to deepen the relationship.
Together, we determined we needed to enter into a new style of dialogue, publicly and privately, and we agreed to be more candid and consultative with one another. In Washington, we recognized more clearly that Turkey’s unique regional perspective and interests will sometimes lead it to make decisions that are not perfectly aligned with ours. This is reasonable and natural, so long as we are not surprised and that the disagreements revolve around tactics rather than outcomes. Indeed, we almost always have the same strategic objectives in mind, even if we sometimes have different ideas about the best way to achieve them. I think it’s also fair to say that Ankara recognized that, in defending its regional interests, it cannot lose sight of its strategic obligations to its Allies. Disagreements over tactics, if handled clumsily, can give the impression that we have different outcomes in mind, even leading some to question Turkey's commitment to NATO and to the United States.
In fact, the last year has shown that our interests are very much aligned, and that we have been able to advance them together. Turkey has been an indispensable partner for the people and Government of Iraq, supporting Iraq’s consolidation of gains in security and political development, as well as avidly investing in an economic and defense partnership for the future. Turkey has worked closely with the United States in supporting a government formation process in Iraq to ensure that Iraqi leaders remain committed to power sharing and institutional reform. Turkey has also supported reconciliation processes among Iraqi leaders and local communities. Prime Minister Erdogan’s historic trip this year to Baghdad, Najaf, and Erbil underscored his commitment to work with all Iraqis. In particular, Turkey’s willingness to engage with the Kurdistan Regional Government has been critical for Iraq’s stability.
U.S. and Turkish combined support for a peaceful, democratic Iraq and an inclusive government laid the basis for our efforts to help promote reform and democracy in the Arab world. As the events of the Arab Spring have unfolded, close consultation and collaboration between the U.S. and Turkey has proven essential. We have worked together at the highest levels of our governments following the surprising liberation of Tunisia, from the first days of Tahrir Square, through the siege of Benghazi, and the most recent appalling use of violence against the Syrian population by the Asad regime.
In past months, this more candid dialogue has enhanced international and regional security by serving as a bulwark against governments that defy the basic rights of their people. Turkey strongly supported NATO’s assumption of control over Operation Unified Protector, to enforce UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 in Libya, and has contributed forces include fighter aircraftand warships. Turkey has been a leader in humanitarian relief and in searching for a political solution for Qadhafi to leave power. Turkey’s diplomacy has freed captured U.S. journalists, and helped thousands of non-Turkish citizens safely depart the country.
Throughout the region, Turkey continues to exercise its own leadership and is a source of inspiration for those who aspire to free-market, secular democracy. Turkey’s influence in the region continues to surprise some of the most seasoned and respected Middle East-watchers, who underestimated its potential not only to draw from its Ottoman past, but to inspire with its modern-day dynamism.
I want to underscore a few important examples of Turkey’s importance to the international community.
Turkey remains a strong supporter of the NATO ISAF mission in Afghanistan, with its contribution of nearly 1,800 personnel, leadership of two provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs), and a third tour in the lead for Regional Command-Capital. Turkey is committed to a NATO transition strategy through 2014 and beyond that relies on training the Afghan Security Forces to take the lead. Turkey has simultaneously sought to bridge political difficulties between another of its key partners, Pakistan, and the Afghan government.
The ability of Turkey and the United States to work together in a multilateral context was on full display at last November’s NATO Summit in Lisbon, where we joined the other 26 Allies to reach consensus on a new Strategic Concept for the 21st century; and in our decision to adopt ballistic missile defense of European territories, forces and populations as a NATO mission. Turkey’s continued leadership in NATO was recognized with the Alliance command structure reform that was agreed upon earlier this month in Brussels. The new Land Component Command will be located in Izmir, keeping a major NATO flag on Turkish territory for the range of new challenges NATO will face in the coming decades.
The positive trajectory of the U.S.-Turkey partnership is one that this Administration is committed to continuing. But let me also highlight some challenges ahead from the perspective of the Department of Defense. Any relationship, no matter how strong, must be continually managed. The sheer complexity of the current security environment guarantees that we may have moments when the policies of Turkey and the United States do not always align. The true test of our relationship will be how we manage those differences.
We remain especially concerned by the state of relations between Israel and Turkey. Considering that these are two vital democracies of strategic consequence to the United States and regional stability, we hope that a political solution can be reached to move beyond the events of last May aboard the Mavi Marmara. We encourage creativity and engagement between Tel Aviv and Ankara to find a way forward.
Let me also address the topic of policy toward Iran. Turkey has played an important role as the international community engages Iran to end its illicit nuclear programs, and hosted the last P5+1 meeting with Iran in January. Overall, we share the same goals of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Although we have had some notable differences on tactics, we are confident that Turkey will abide by all relevant UNSCRs and will remain an important and committed non-proliferation partner for the United States on this and many other issues.
The whole of the U.S.-Turkish relationship is more than the sum of its parts, and there is certainly untapped potential for both sides. We seek to increase our economic, trade and cultural ties, and expand on educational exchanges, and desire that our relationship maintain its firm grounding in defense and security. We face in particular a common threat of terrorism to our homelands and our way of life—be it Al Qaeda or the PKK. But I think that, most of all, we share a common outlook on the world. Secretary of Defense Bob Gates explained U.S. and Turkish alignment well last October. In remarks to the American Turkish Council’s annual conference, he said that, “even as our views and approaches on some issues may differ, we are allies, we share fundamental interests in the region, and our goals remain the same.” He highlighted:
• Respect for sovereignty and rule of law;
• Economic growth and development; and
• Enduring stability and security.
I would add to that list of goals that Turkey and the United States share a strong belief in the universal rights of people to live free from fear and harm, and a common aspiration for fair and accountable governance. This shared goal was the basis of the Truman Doctrine, and therefore of the very beginnings of the U.S.-Turkish strategic alignment that led to Turkey’s entry into NATO in 1952.
Let me close by raising several areas where I see significant opportunities in the relationship—the untapped potential that I alluded to.
The first challenge is to maintain our strong defense cooperation. As Turkey’s economy continues to grow, and its technological capacity increases, Turkey has also developed among the region’s strongest defense industries. Turkey seeks to become a preeminent defense industrial power, and judging by this year’s International Defense Industry Fair (IDEF) held in Istanbul, Turkey is advancing very quickly toward this goal. Instead of seeking to compete with U.S. defense industry, Turkey has chosen to partner, as in the recent agreement to develop a new utility helicopter between Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). This was the right decision on purely economic and technical merits for Turkey, but it was also the right decision to ensure that NATO Allies work together in defense industrial cooperation. Turkey and the United States are, of course, also close partners on the Joint Strike Fighter and a host of other projects that contribute to the defense, security, and economies of both nations.
The second challenge is to ensure that Turkey remains strongly committed to NATO, and NATO to Turkey, even as the security outlook of members may increasingly differ. When Secretary Gates delivered his warning on the future of the NATO Alliance earlier this month, his message was clear: NATO, the most powerful political and military alliance that the world has ever known, is the sum of its members’ military strength and commitment. Maintaining that commitment by implementing the ambitious agenda agreed upon at Lisbon is critical, and Turkey will play a defining role. In return, Turkey has a right to expect that its security will be taken seriously, as it occupies a particularly perilous geography in the current security landscape. In particular, the PKK threatens not only Turkey, but the values of NATO. The question of minority grievances within Turkey should be addressed through the political process, and no quarter should be
given by any nation to those who support violence to achieve their ends.
Also, threats on the border of any NATO nation must be treated seriously by the entire Alliance. The crisis in Syria, now spilling refugees into Turkey, is a crisis on a NATO border, and we must carefully consider Turkey’s needs on the matter as we press the Asad regime to end violence against its own population.
The third challenge is for Turkey to continue to engage constructively in rapprochement with its neighbors. President Obama said to Turkey’s parliament in 2009 that, “Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future.” The United States strongly supports a continuation of Turkey’s rapprochement with Armenia, as we do continued dialogue on a still-divided Cyprus. Turkey has gone farther than most believed possible in reaching out to its neighbors in recent years, and that momentum to resolve remaining conflicts should continue. Progress in those relations is vital to Turkey’s most important long-term project of EU accession, and to the continued strength of ties with the United States.
A fourth challenge is for Turkey and the United States to continue to work together to bring into closer alignment our efforts to prevent would-be regional spoilers—state and non-state actors alike—who would seek to take advantage of current regional instability to undermine democratic gains among Turkeys’ neighbors in pursuit of their own interests. This applies specifically to Iran and the support that it continues to provide the Syrian regime in the oppression of its own people, as well as its broader support for terrorist groups and proxies in the Middle East.
When the history of the U.S.-Turkish relationship in the first decades of the 21st century is written, I am hopeful that it will show Allies tested but resolute, who emerged stronger. As the pace of change continues to accelerate, Turkey and the United States must adapt to it, bonded by core principles, with each bringing an indispensable element of leadership to foster stability and prosperity. We must strive to be relevant to one another, committed, and attentive. At times, this may necessitate decisions that are domestically difficult for us, but decisions that will advance our shared strategic interests.
I thank you for your attention and welcome your questions.
About this Transcript:
Assertions and opinions in this Transcript are solely those of the above-mentioned author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute, which expressly does not take positions on Middle East policy.