Silver Lining: Could COVID-19 Response Serve as Linchpin for Resetting U.S.-Turkey Relations?

Turkey’s delivery of medical supplies to the U.S. last week underscored the diplomatic opportunities of the COVID-19 era. The gesture was evidence that a reset in relations between these two NATO allies – who many believed had been breaking apart in recent years – is possible. It reminds us that both nations have the option of forging a path forward that focuses on shared interests rather than tensions. This gesture may prove to have been a first step, and if the process runs its course, both the US and Turkey could be better off — in terms of security, a merging of geopolitical influence, and economic opportunities, especially post-COVID.

The last several years have been marked by a string of missteps and misunderstandings in the American-Turkish relationship, most notably surrounding Turkey’s purchase of the S400 missile system from Russia in 2017. Many in the U.S. and Europe considered this evidence of Turkey’s realignment toward Russia, fraying its 67-year history as a NATO ally and longtime status as a trading partner with the US. The strain between the two countries accelerated rapidly after the purchase.

But earlier this year, the natural alignment between American and Turkish interests started to become evident, even amidst their disagreements. In January, the Munich Security Conference presented the opportunity for a resetting of the bilateral relations with the understanding that they face a common threat: China. The Chinese government’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is a direct threat to the strategic interests of both the U.S. and Turkey.

Bashar al-Assad’s Russian-led assault on Idlib last February created a security and humanitarian crisis that raised global alarm and threatened U.S. interests in the Middle East. Turkey stepped in to stop this horrific crisis next to its border.

In Libya, foreign-backed militias launched an offensive against the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) last year, putting American energy interests at risk and creating potential ground for the re-emergence of terrorist organizations like ISIS, which the GNA defeated in 2016. But once again, Turkey supported U.S. interests by providing military backing to the GNA in direct opposition to Russia, which backed the opposing militias. Thanks to this, the GNA has regained control of key cities along the coast and consolidated its military advances pushing militias further to the East.

On trade, the alignment of interests is positioned to grow as the US seeks viable alternatives to Chinese manufacturing after COVID. China’s flaunting of World Trade Organization rules impacts both the US and Turkey in a direct way.

Turkey is a logical partner with a robust manufacturing sector and an already-in-place trade project with the U.S. For the last year, Presidents Trump and Erdogan have repeatedly indicated a public commitment to tripling the trade volume between the US and Turkey to $100 billion a year.

A Reuters story in March indicated that discussions between Washington and Ankara over the S400 issue were continuing, and in April Turkey decided to delay plans to bring the system online. These developments could well get the two over their last stumbling block for a relationship refresh. Last week’s donation of personal protective equipment and medical supplies may mark a new pattern of goodwill and cooperation.

To be sure, disagreements remain between the United States and Turkey. But today, more than any time in the last several years, it seems there is a chance to find a resolution for those disagreements. Perhaps there’s something to be said for both countries having bigger crises to manage at the same moment and acknowledging they benefit from collaboration over bickering. Turkey’s gesture of help, even as it deals with its own COVID outbreak, may go quite a way towards creating a path forward. These things tend to stick.

So, as the world looks to reset itself and assess what the new normal looks like post coronavirus, the U.S. and Turkey should think about what the new normal might be in their relationship, and in what capacity it will best serve them both.