Donald Trump’s election comes at a time when U.S.-Turkey relations are already at perhaps their lowest point in a decade.
Many factors account for this: policy differences over how to fight the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria; the gridlock over the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher who many in Turkey believe staged the July coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; and the drift toward authoritarianism in Turkey (manifest in the erosion of the rule of law and the suppression of freedom of expression, among other developments).
That decline is a major problem. Turkey—a U.S. ally for 70 years, since the threat of Soviet expansionism brought the two together in 1946—is not only an important NATO member but a critical Western-oriented country in a deeply troubled region.
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Trump’s election has raised expectations in Turkish government circles. The thinking goes: Perhaps a transactional relationship—based solely on common interests rather than on an “imposition” of American or Western values—could work for both sides.
It’s not an unreasonable hope. On the campaign trail, after all, Trump’s foreign policy proposals were heavy on transactions and light on values. He signaled to Erdogan, as well as Vladimir Putin and others, that he would be prepared to work with them. However, even a transactional relationship may face turbulence.
One area where there may be some convergence between a Trump administration and the Turkish government is on NATO. Trump wants NATO’s European partners to pay more into the NATO budget and threatened European allies from the campaign trail with the termination of American support for their security.
Turkey’s contributions to NATO costs have been ahead of most other members. The chaos in Turkey’s region—not to mention Russia’s assertiveness, which makes Turkey nervous even in spite of the recent Ankara-Moscow reconciliation—is enhancing NATO’s importance.
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Hence, Trump is likely to appreciate Turkey’s diligence on the NATO budget, but that fact is probably far outweighed by the areas in which they’re likely to disagree.
Trump’s statements about Muslims, and in particular his promise to deny Muslims entry into the United States unless they undergo “extreme vetting,” will not sit well with Erdogan. Erdogan’s ambition to act as the leader of the Islamic world (whether realistic or not) will be a stumbling block for his relationship with Trump.
On top of this, Trump’s pledge for unconditional support for Israel, welcomed by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett as a sign that “ the era of a Palestinian state is over,” will not help warm U.S.-Turkey ties.