On Sunday, voters in Turkey will go to the polls to elect their country’s next president and parliament. At stake is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authority to continue governing with newly enhanced presidential powers. Polls predict a close race, which could trigger a runoff if no candidate receives a majority of the vote. But regardless of when the result is determined, the outcome will reverberate throughout Turkish society — and could provide an opportunity to improve Turkey’s relationship with the United States.
Turkey is a deeply divided country. Conventional wisdom holds that Turkey is torn between competing identities involving religious piety and secular nationalism. But that simplistic description fails to capture critical nuance. Turkish society is in fact divided along numerous lines, with socio-economic, geographic, and economic dimensions, not to mention shifting alliances among Turkey’s business and government elites.
Sunday’s election is unlikely to close those fissures — and may indeed inflame them. Turkey’s constitution confers enormous powers on a president whose coattails pull a majority of allies into Turkey’s unicameral parliament. Indeed, over the past 15 years, as President Erdoğan’s power expanded, Turkey’s parliament increasingly became a rubberstamp assembly, unable to provide a reliable check on the president’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Hence, whichever party prevails at the polls, a critical mass of Turks will be left feeling voiceless in their nation’s affairs, even as their newly minted government claims outright victory.
For the United States, Turkey’s election is an opportunity to restore bilateral relations. Just 18 percent of Turks hold a favorable view of the United States, according to a Pew survey. Scapegoating by Turkey’s president along with the proclivity among many Turks to subscribe to conspiracy theories involving US meddling in Turkish affairs contribute to those attitudes. But causes notwithstanding, the United States’ standing in Turkey has sunk to precarious depths. Therefore, it’s incumbent upon President Trump and his administration to renew our relationship with Turkey before rival powers solidify competing alliances.
Key to restoring US-Turkey bilateral relations is a posture that appeals to the better angels of Turkey’s emboldened government and silent opposition alike. Here, a transactional approach that regards Turkey’s government as having an absolute mandate won’t do. It will neither empower Turkish leaders to cooperate nor mollify opponents who view President Erdoğan’s partners skeptically to act as though Turkey’s government stands upon a broad and stable political foundation, when it almost certainly won’t. Fortunately, President Trump doesn’t have to look too far into the past for a roadmap to better relations.
The United States was elevated to its place atop the world order by its fidelity to three fundamental values: democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. This triad of virtues sustained US power through the turbulent years of the Cold War and beyond because of its universal appeal. True, the United States hasn’t always followed its towering rhetoric with commensurate action. But it has nonetheless tended to adhere to these basic ideals — and that has made all the difference.
Sadly, such an approach seems foreign if not alien under the Trump Administration. The president appears to view the global landscape with the eye of a real estate mogul, not a statesman. And that jeopardizes American interests in places like Turkey, where a foreign policy that stresses universal values — however strongly rebuffed by the government in power — nonetheless sustains America’s power among the population writ large.
President Trump’s principle of placing interests above values pulls the cart before the horse and doesn’t augur well for our ability to rebuild bilateral relations with Turkey. But time remains to avoid a catastrophic outcome. Policymakers would be wise to recognize the influence to be found in Turkey’s political complexity and head off disaster before it’s too late.
Scott A. Olson is a former congressional staffer who worked for the State Department in Ankara, Turkey, from 2012 to 2014. He is a Political Partner of Truman National Security Project. Follow him on Twitter @SOlsonOR. Views expressed are his own.