Exclusive Interview with Strobe Talbott: "The role that Turkey can play is larger than the role it is playing now for"

Exclusive Interview with Strobe Talbott: "The role that Turkey can play is larger than the role it is playing now for"

By Mehmet Yegin, Elif Özmenek Çarmıklı

USAK experts conducted an exclusive and extensive interview with Director of the Brookings Institution, Strobe Talbott.



How do you evaluate recent Turkey-US relations?


Strobe Talbott: It's definitely a strange relationship in terms of the US’ foreign policy considerations, and it also brings a degree of concern in regards to the evolution of the Turkish civil society and Turkish politics. Both countries’ policies and practices are in different positions. It was an honor for our institution to host PM Erdogan who delivered a speech not so long ago. Foreign Minister Davutoglu has also done so on many occasions. But just as Turkish commentators and politicians, along with the PM, are very candid in expressing concerns and criticisms about the issues happening in Europe, in the US and with the US’ policies, it is important to take notice that people who participate in US politics are diverse and very popularistic. The US has a noisy democracy and people are going to frankly express their opinions, including the members of congress who have long track records of being supportive of US-Turkish relations.


It's my point of view that the basic logic of the US -Turkish relationship, going back at least to the beginning of the Cold War in the aftermath of WWII, is still very much intact, and for an unfortunate reason, or multiple unfortunate reasons, this logic in the US-Turkish relationship is stronger now than before.


Mr. Davutoglu is famous for an expression that he doesn't use very often anymore, “zero problems with neighbors”. Now, Turkey has zero neighbors without problems. Each of those problematic neighbors is a problem for the US as well. So, that means a strong relationship between a stable democratic US and a stable democratic Turkey is, if anything, more important than it has been in decades. Moreover, in regards to Turkey's three neighbors just across the Black Sea – Ukraine, Russia, and Georgia – it is observed that the relations among these countries are at critical points right now. There is a major conflict, just across the Black Sea from Turkey and Turkey has developed a strong relationship with all of those countries in the region. But the role that Turkey can play is larger than the role it is playing now for a variety of reasons. One reason can be seen particularly in the run up to the election where PM Erdogan did very well, namely, a preoccupation with controversies in domestic politics. 


With regard to Ukraine, it is harder for Turkey to maintain a steady relationship with both Russia and Ukraine. Then, the issue of Turkey's European vocation, its aspiration to be a part of EU, and its status as an ally of the US have been supported by the many in the US for decades. It used to be said, up until the early 90s, that Turkey was a particularly important ally because it was on the front line of the Cold War. We are not back in the Cold War now, it's not an accurate description of the situation that resulted from Russia's annexation of Crimea, but we are definitely in a period where partnership between the former Soviet Republic and Russia is expanding.


Going back to the Ukrainian crisis, do you think the crisis ended with the annexation of Crimea?


Strobe Talbott: No, the crisis still continues. The newspaper Today’s Feature published photographs showing the buildup of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border. Moreover, the infiltration – if not 'invasion' by stealth – is still happening in the eastern part of Ukraine. There is absolutely no doubt that the Russian strategy or tactic is to destabilize a country that is on its own borders. In addition, this destabilization is not only dangerous for Ukraine, it is also dangerous for Russia and Turkey as well. It is just one more neighbor with a big problem and it is a big problem because the destabilization in Ukraine can radiate across other countries’ borders.


Do you think that Russia has an intention similar to what we saw in Crimea for the east of Ukraine? And how will the EU or European countries and the US react to such a move?


Strobe Talbott: It is doubtful that Russians would conduct a conventional invasion of Ukraine with tanks and troops and air cover, etc. because that would bring about a huge and unpredictable degree of bloodshed. And one of the ironies of what the Russian people have done so far is that, well, they have 'God grabbed' Crimea. They are trying to occupy one part of Ukraine, but they are losing the other part. All of this happened because Putin was convinced that as a result of a Western plot, Ukraine was going to be lost from Russia's sphere of influence and become part of the Western sphere of influence through an association agreement with the EU. 


The strategic objective of Russia is to prevent Ukraine from ending up in the lap of, and what it sees as the sphere of influence, of the west. The consequence of what it is doing means that much of Ukraine will in fact want to accelerate its integration into the west because of the fear of Russia. 


So, what is he going to do next? 


Strobe Talbott: Probably what he is doing now in Ukraine is what I would describe as a kind of ‘Oozing’. ‘Oozing’ is the form of a virtual interference, or a real interference with a virtual invasion, employed through a combination of filth columnists and sympathizers of the presumably Russian speaking part of the Ukrainian population and Russians who have infiltrated certain sectors, including the military. What they're trying to do is to disrupt and make Ukraine’s May 25th election fail, and hopefully they not succeed, we have to hope they will not succeed but that's what they're going to try to do.


The other thing they can do is interfere in Transnistria. It can be described as a piece of 'low-hanging-fruit'. You know the history, ethnic politics, and strategic value of Transnistria, and that they could do. As a result of this, Moldova would be pushed more in the direction of the west. 


Considering the Crimean crisis, when we look at the trajectory of the Russian Federation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, do you think it is becoming more imperialistic or is it still real politik that they are toying with?


Strobe Talbott: I think it resembles real politik of a 19th and early 20th century variety with a very strong element of Russian nationalism. That is a big difference from what we've all experienced in the Cold War period. Remember that the ideology of the USSR was internationalism. Nationalism as such was an enemy. Now, it's an anachronism, amongst other things, to base foreign policy on ethnicity.


Turkey of course had its own issues with minorities, but it has made a real effort in recent years. However, Russia is going backwards in this regard. As for the Russians on the outside of its borders, Putin says, "through my military might and political will, mother Russia is going to protect her children even on the other side of the borders". This is not a healthy approach in two ways: First of all, it alarms people who are not Russian, those people who live on the other side of its borders – and there are a lot of them – and secondly, the people who live inside the borders are dramatically affected.  


How do you evaluate the approaches of Russia and Turkey?


Strobe Talbott: I wouldn't call it dangerous. I would question Putin’s rationale behind it, particularly now, since Russian policy has changed in a fundamental way, and it has changed in a way that is threatening to allies of Turkey. Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are allies of Turkey, and that is a sacred alliance. It's the most successful alliance that the world has ever seen, preventing WWIII and allowing the Cold War to end in a way that I'll never forget.


I want to emphasize that one of the most interesting and memorable interviews I've ever had in my life was with Turgut Ozal. He was already looking beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union to what would take its place. What he saw then is that there were a number of nation-states to the east of Turkey, or to the south of Russia. They have had a very rough twentieth century, but they deserve a place in the wider world and because of their historical, cultural, and linguistic ties to Turkey and because of Turkey's extraordinary prominence, not only as a model for other such countries, but as an example of how you can have a Muslim majority country that also has democratic values, democratic institutions, and democratic civil society and is a part of an alliance of democracy, Turkey is a kind of beacon for those countries to the east.


The Crimean crisis will affect future projections of the alliance of the great powers in a way that Brzezinski predicted as, we will come together with Russia against China. He said that eventually the West will become closer with Russia in order to stop China and Russia will eventually become more and more democratic in the meantime. Do you think that this really makes sense or do you think that the Crimean crisis has changed this?


Strobe Talbott: I think the most important part is we shouldn't assume that Putinism, the era of Russian policy that we are now looking at, will last forever. We've had 25 years of Russia moving in the direction of integration with the outside world and the fact that we have a leader now who is going in the opposite direction doesn't mean that the past has changed. These could be temporary changes and the more temporary, the better for the world.


When we look at the Obama administration's approach to the use of military force, with the exception of Libya, we see that it's very reluctant. Do you think this stance paves the way for Russian aggression?


Strobe Talbott: No.


Can we call this the ‘Obama doctrine’? Do you think it is an international issue or just particular to the Russian case, for instance if China does something with regard to the contested islands similar to what Russia did in Crimea will the US react in the same way?


Strobe Talbott: What is very critical here are our alliance commitments? The three Baltic states will be hugely invulnerable to Russian aggression. The US with all of our allies, including Turkey, will come to the defense of those countries. Anybody who is a NATO ally is going to be protected by NATO. In regards to the Far East, the US has a virtual treaty arrangement with Taiwan and a literal and binding treaty arrangement with both Japan and Korea, and that hasn't changed.


Well, I don't know what the 'Obama doctrine' is, but I know what the realities are. He inherited the presidency complete with wars that have been going on for a long time and which weren't terribly successful. He particularly does not want to get back into a land war in the greater Middle East. It's also because of the high reluctance to get involved in Syria, a crisis that of course has already had hugely dangerous consequences for Turkey, particularly on the Syrian border regarding radicals, refugees, etc. But our ally commitments are on the line. The US will at least lend force if necessary.









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