This article was published in Arab News on January 1, 2018.
How will Turkey fit into new ‘America First’ policy?
The National Security Strategy (NSS) launched on Dec. 18 by US President Donald Trump contains several important points that should not go unnoticed.
The NSS maintains the policy line of earlier American administrations, but puts the emphasis on slightly different points. The main line of the strategy is what the president persistently emphasized during the election campaign: “America First.” This policy is of course appealing to the American people, but it may not be as appealing for non-Americans.
Using foreign policy issues to divert the attention of the electorate is a practice that leaders resort to from time to time, and Trump is no exception. Declaring ambitious targets is always attractive for the domestic audience and superpowers have the means to achieve them. However, it is another subject to see whether it is worth achieving such targets in exchange of what it costs in terms of finance, politics and diplomacy.
Unlike earlier NSSs, which used to put US security in the same basket with that of its allies, Trump emphasizes primarily the security of his own country. The only exception is NATO. He has rediscovered the importance of NATO after having used, during his election campaign, a rhetoric that belittled the organization. Another change over time is on Russia. While he did not consider Russia as a threat during the election campaign, he does now.
Giving primacy to relations with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries, with the exception of Qatar, is one of the important features of the document.
To counter the increasing role of Iran in the region, the NSS alludes to the formation of a bloc composed of the Gulf countries without mentioning them by name.
Trump neglected to mention country in his National Security Strategy — but at least that avoided a potentially detrimental reference to Turkey’s tarnished image in US.
Unlike Barack Obama, Trump does not see any inconvenience in using Islam in the same context as extremist ideas and sends a warning to countries that support extremist Islamic ideology.
The promotion of soft power is not a priority in the new strategy and it does not discard the use of hard power if needed.
After the dismemberment of the Soviet bloc, the US was expected to become the sole leader of a unipolar world, but this did not happen. Firstly, because Russia emerged out of the Soviet Union’s ashes as an important player and took advantage of American dithering in Syria.
Secondly, the hasty withdrawal of the US military from Iraq provided Iran with a suitable ground to settle first in Iraq, then in Syria.
By mentioning that Daesh is not yet eliminated in Syria, the NSS gives hints of the US intention to stay in Syria at least until the question of Bashar Assad’s future role is settled, but it cannot easily reverse the tide there.
Turkish public opinion was particularly interested in the NSS because of the complicated nature of Turkish-US relations. Trump’s National Security Adviser Herbert R. McMaster, a few days after the launching of the NSS, stated that Turkey and Qatar are supporting “radical Islamist ideology.” Since he is the most important figure in the team that drafted the document, Turkey takes seriously both his statement on Turkey and the text of the NSS. McMaster’s office later tried to bring clarifications to his statement by saying that Turkey is a NATO ally and partner in the fight against Daesh, but the substance of his initial statement remained unchanged.
There is no direct reference to Turkey in the entire document. It only says in another context: “Russia aims to weaken US influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners”, probably hinting at Russia’s sale of S-400 missiles to Turkey. There were cynical comments in the Turkish media wondering whether it was better not to mention Turkey at all in the document, because if it were to be mentioned it was going to be detrimental to Turkey’s interests in light of its tarnished image in the US.
Turkey has become a target of harsh criticism by the US because of the active role President Recep Tayyip Erdogan played in protesting Trump’s decision on Jerusalem.
There are ambivalent statements by both Turkish and Russian leaders on the genuineness of cooperation between these two countries. On the other hand, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said after his talks with Saudi leaders that Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed on 90 percent of the subjects they discussed. In light of these two parameters, it remains to be seen whether Turkey will be able to develop a balanced policy between its relations with the US and Russia.
To conclude, the strategy document is full of interesting points that have to be taken into consideration across the world and, more particularly, in the Middle East.