What Are Allies For? The Case of Turkey

That’s the question I found myself asking as I followed a trail of links about Turkey’s recent referendum – starting with Daniel Larison, then back to Greg Scoblete, and thence to J.E. Dyer and Thomas Barnett.

Back in the Cold War, to be an “ally” was simply to have chosen a side. Turkey and Saudi Arabia were allies because they were on our side, not the Soviet Union’s. North Vietnam and North Korea were allied with the other side and aiming to expand; they were therefore our enemies. India was not an ally – not because we had any profound conflicts between our interests, but because they were neutral in the Cold War ideological conflict.

But today there is no comparable global conflict. Radical Islam is a serious problem – particularly for Muslim countries – but it’s not a global ideological competitor. China is a rising power, but it is not in a meaningful sense a peer competitor with the United States geopolitically (not yet, anyway), nor does it have substantial revisionist objectives as, say, Germany did in the early 20th century (Taiwan being the only major exception to that statement).

So what does America want from its allies these days? In some cases, we just want assistance in power-projection – basing rights and the like. That’s the minimal case, though, and not really applicable to substantial countries. Presumably, what America wants from its major allies is for them to be effective in assisting America in handling problems that require multi-lateral action. We can’t fight terrorism, or nuclear proliferation, or organized crime alone. (Nor, for that matter, can we deal effectively with transnational economic or ecological problems.)

There’s always going to be tension, though, between effectiveness and pliability. An ally without a significant capacity for independent action and significantly dependent on American good-will for its protection – Bahrain, say – may be extremely pliable, but it won’t be a particularly valuable asset diplomatically or militarily. An ally with a high capacity for independent action and largely not dependent on American good-will for its protection – India, say – may be extremely valuable and effective where we have interests in common, but will not be terribly pliable.

You see this dynamic with respect to Pakistan. The United States has tended to prefer governments in Pakistan that either are aligned with the military or directly controlled by it, largely because what we want from Pakistan is cooperation from their military. We may compromise our interest in Pakistan becoming a more broadly functional and effective country, because we have such a keen interest in its pliability.

Historically, Turkey was not particularly useful to the United States in its relations with the broader Middle East. The Arab states were cold to Turkey due to the legacy of Ottoman rule, so if we wanted to keep Arab states from falling into the Soviet orbit, the Turkish connection was useless. Now, however, Turkey is trying to raise its profile internationally and develop an independent foreign policy. As Barnett notes, this could make Turkey a much more effective and valuable ally when our interests coincide. But it will inevitably be less pliable, and our interests will not always coincide.

If we fear an independent-minded Turkey, the main lever the West has for curbing that independence is Turkish subsumption into the European Union, which has long been a goal of U.S. and Turkish policy alike. But continued expansion of the EU makes that body itself less and less effective. So if the United States seeks an effective European ally – on the assumption that the EU will inevitably progress more and more towards a more state-like entity rather than being a mere alliance of states – Turkish membership undermines that goal.

In my own view, we have been far too reluctant to accept a measure of independence from our longtime allies, have too much emphasized the need for pliability and too little emphasized the value of effectiveness. Turkey is emerging into a more confident and independent mid-sized power. The United States needs to adapt to that reality, taking advantage of the opportunities it presents and addressing the challenges, rather than setting ourselves up to fail by fighting vainly to prevent that evolution.

By the same token, though, our policies toward the European Union may need to change. The United States needs an effective European partner. That means that, contrary to historic American policy, we should be in favor of deeper union and more skeptical of broader union. A baggy mess stretching from Gibraltar to the Black Sea without clear lines of authority or substantial central decisionmaking power will not be an effective ally, diplomatically or militarily, and will not even be able to work in concert on global economic issues. By contrast, a more unified confederation in the heart of Europe might be vastly more effective, and, with the rise of China and India, I think we can lay to rest the fears of a “rival power” rising in Europe that dominated British policy towards the continent from the 18th century through the 20th. Our interests in the future of the EU may, in fact, be more in line with the interests of Germany than with those of Britain – at least on the assumption that our larger, global interests are broadly aligned with those of Germany, which I believe to be the case.

In recent years, we’ve beaten up Turkey whenever it tries to assert its independence from America, and beaten up the Europeans whenever they drag their feet about admitting Turkey to the EU. I suspect that both of those habits are ultimately counterproductive.