America’s ‘Turkey Dilemma’ in the Mediterranean

US and Turkey flag

America’s ‘Turkey Dilemma’ in the Mediterranean

By Jon Alterman, Senior Vice President, Head of Middle East Program, CSIS

Turkey represents a multi-layered challenge for the United States in the Eastern Mediterranean, where it is simultaneously an ally and an antagonist. Its status as a partly European and partly Middle Eastern state confounds a US policy process that has stark divisions between the two regions. Turkey’s maritime activities stymie a policy process that is overwhelmingly terrestrial in its orientation. Turkey is also seeking to become more deeply involved in a region in which the United States has important stakes but where it is seeking to reduce its footprint. Most importantly, though, the United States lacks both a strategy and a policy towards the Eastern Mediterranean, providing opportunities for a proactive Turkey to act while the United States and its allies react. While a strategy would not by itself resolve growing US tensions with Turkey, it would provide opportunities for greater policy coordination across the US government, and with allies as well.

The US–Turkey alliance was a bulwark of US global strategy for decades, but tensions have been growing lately. Turkey’s Kemalist heritage, its massive conventional army, and its wariness of the Soviet Union just to its north served US strategy in the half-century after World War II. However, in the last two decades, all three pillars of the relationship have been shaken. Turkey’s simultaneous embrace of a muscular nationalism, politicians’ marginalisation of the military, and the country exploring a new modus vivendi with Russia all render Turkey a troubling and confounding partner.


The ideas expressed are those of the author not the publisher

Published in October 2020

All rights reserved to GCSP

Part of the Syria Transition Challenges Project

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at CSIS. Prior to joining CSIS in 2002, he served as a member of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. Department of State and as a special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, and from 2009 to 2019 he served as a member of the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. In addition to his policy work, he often teaches Middle Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the George Washington University. Earlier in his career, Alterman was a scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace and at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a legislative aide to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (D-NY) responsible for foreign policy and defence. From 1993 to 1997, Alterman was an award-winning teacher at Harvard University, where he received his PhD in history.