Thank you, Paul, for that introduction. I am delighted to be here today to discuss U.S.-Turkey relations. It couldn’t come at a more critical time in our partnership. Our thoughts and prayers today are with our Turkish diplomatic colleagues and their families, along with the Turkish truckers, who are being held as hostages in Iraq. As Vice President Biden told Prime Minister Erdogan, the U.S. supports Turkey’s efforts to bring their citizens home safely.
I welcome the opportunity to speak at the Middle East Institute, which – in my opinion –represents the best of what constructive international dialogue can be. George Camp Keiser’s vision for MEI when it was founded in 1946 was: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.” In the 68 years since, MEI has been delivering on that mission.
This is MEI’s fifth annual conference on Turkey. It is also just over five years since President Obama made his first trip overseas as President. He chose to start in Turkey because, as he explained to the parliament in Ankara, he wanted to send a message to the world. “Turkey,” he said, “is a critical ally. Turkey is an important part of Europe. And Turkey and the United States must stand together – and work together – to overcome the challenges of our time.” While much has changed in Turkey, the region, and even the United States since that first conference and that first visit in 2009, the reality is that the challenges have increased while the imperative to work together remains as important as ever. Indeed, our bilateral relationship is more robust, more vibrant, and more multi-faceted than any time since Turkey’s founding in 1922. Sometimes there are differences between us. And sometimes these differences can be significant. But the strength of our partnership means that we can discuss these issues directly and candidly.
Let me begin by saying a few words about our security cooperation, which remains the bedrock of our relationship. Turkey has been an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture for decades. A NATO member for 62 years, we have stood shoulder to shoulder: from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Libya. Throughout the recent Ukraine crisis, Turkey has stood with the international community in rejecting Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and calling on all sides to de-escalate. Turkey has also drawn attention to the plight of Crimea’s Tatar community. In addition, Turkey is joining NATO Allies in contributing military assets to reassurance activities in Central and Eastern Europe.
At the same time that Turkey is supporting the security of its Allies, Turkey is facing very real challenges on its own borders. We are all alarmed by the continued gains of ISIL in Iraq, which pose significant dangers for regional and international security. The United States condemned the brutal terrorist takeover of Mosul last week, including the unacceptable seizure of Turkish hostages. We remain actively involved in working with Iraqi leaders in support of their efforts to implement an effective and coordinated response to this crisis.
These developments in Iraq highlight the threat posed to the entire region by the spillover of terrorism and violence from Syria’s civil war. The Syrian conflict has already been costly for Turkey, as over 70 Turks have died as a result of cross-border violence. Turkey is also bearing a significant financial burden from hosting one million displaced Syrians. The Turkish government is dedicating enormous resources to operating 22 refugee camps, while facing ongoing challenges in providing services to the many Syrians who struggle to survive in urban areas. We are deeply appreciative of Turkey’s generosity, and have provided $142 million – as part of the $2 billion we have contributed regionally – to support their efforts.
Despite the financial and human toll of this conflict, Turkey has remained a key facilitator of U.S. assistance to refugees and to the moderate Syrian opposition. Turkey has also actively supported international efforts to find a political solution to the conflict as a key member of the London 11. We must continue working together, along with our regional partners, to stem the flow of foreign fighters that are expanding the scope of this conflict. President Obama has called for a $5 billion Counterterrorism Partnership Fund to provide greater support to our friends on the front lines of this battle.
The instability of Turkey’s southern tier gives renewed urgency for Ankara to mend relations and restore ties with its neighbors. We continue to encourage Turkey and Israel to complete the normalization process, which would benefit both countries as well as the region. In Egypt, the U.S. will continue pressing for greater political inclusivity and policies that uphold the fundamental rights of all Egyptians – goals shared by Turkey. Given Egypt’s severe economic challenges, Turkish businesses are well-placed to aid the country’s growth.
There is reason for cautious optimism in Cyprus, where Turkey – along with Greece – has played an important and constructive role in facilitating the resumption of settlement talks after a nearly two year hiatus. As Vice President Biden reiterated during his historic visit to Cyprus last month, the United States remains committed to supporting the UN-led effort to reunify the island as a bi-zonal, bi-communal federation. A Cyprus settlement would attract investment, accelerate growth, increase employment, and expand innovation in a variety of sectors from construction and energy, to tourism and finance. After decades of division, there is a real chance for a lasting settlement that would bring positive benefits to the entire Eastern Mediterranean.
We continue to encourage Turkey and Armenia to move towards normalization, as a means of creating the peaceful, productive and prosperous relationship that the people of both countries deserve. On this year’s Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Erdogan expressed his condolences to the grandchildren of those Armenians killed during World War I. That gesture and other positive efforts by the Turkish government in recent months indicate that the space for dialogue is opening. But more can be done, and we encourage both sides to reach a full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts. We stand ready to support all efforts in service of reconciliation.
In addition to the importance of our collaboration across myriad regional security challenges, our partnership has increasingly expanded in the economic realm as well. In the last decade, Turkey has undergone astonishing growth – tripling the size of its economy and leaping from the 26th to the 17th largest economy in the world. It is a G20 member and has set an impressive goal of becoming a top-ten economy by 2023. At the same time, U.S. exports to Turkey tripled in the last decade. In 2011, overall U.S.-Turkey trade grew by a whopping 35 percent and another 24 percent the following year. As a result of Turkey’s remarkable potential, the Department of Commerce has made it one of our highest priority countries for increased bilateral trade.
In order to strengthen trade, increase investment, and create business opportunities, we established the U.S.-Turkey bilateral Framework for Strategic Economic and Commercial Cooperation, known as the FSECC. Led by Commerce Secretary Pritzker and U.S. Trade Representative Froman, the FSECC demonstrates our commitment at the highest levels of the U.S. government to expanding our economic relationship. At its third meeting in May, Secretary Pritzker announced that she will lead the President’s Export Council to Turkey later this year to identify ways to further enhance our commercial relations.
As many of you know, the United States is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the European Union – known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP. We take seriously Turkey’s concerns about the potential impact that negotiations could have on their economy in light of their customs union with the EU. Following Prime Minister Erdogan’s visit to Washington last May, we established the U.S.-Turkey High Level Committee as a mechanism to keep Turkey informed about the status of these negotiations.
One of the reasons for Turkey’s impressive economic growth has been the introduction of democratic reforms. In order to maintain – and increase – its economic development, Turkey must continue to live up to the universal democratic principles that undergird its strengths. We have to acknowledge that some political events over the past few months have been troubling. As a result, questions have been raised about the trajectory of Turkish democracy – whether media and online freedom are adequately guaranteed; whether rule of law is sufficiently protected; whether citizens have the right to free assembly and expression; whether the judicial system is free from political interference; and whether the voices of all minorities are being heard.
As Vice President Biden stated, “The United States does not pretend to be indifferent to the developments in Turkey because we firmly believe that countries with open societies, political systems and economies, democratic institutions and a firm commitment to universal human rights, these are the countries that will thrive in the 21st century.” As we in the United States know from our own experience, strengthening due process, fighting corruption, and encouraging civic participation in political decision-making not only make countries freer but also help them grow more quickly. While the United States is not – and will not – become involved in Turkey’s internal politics, we will continue to express – as we do around the world – our strong support for transparent and accountable government. As Turkey prepares for the Presidential election in August, we remain optimistic that the ongoing debates in Turkey can ultimately lead to an even stronger and more successful democracy.
In closing, let me say that relations between countries cannot be built on government-to-government contacts alone. Rather, they also require engagement between our businesses, our civil societies and our diaspora communities. These people-to-people connections are the lifeblood of our bond. I am delighted to see several Turkish-American groups here today, and I thank you for everything that you are doing to promote mutual understanding and cooperation between us. These interpersonal relationships have the power to promote dialogue and foster deeper understanding, even when – perhaps especially when – our governments may not be in agreement.
Nowhere is this more important – and more evident – than in our student exchanges. More Turkish students study at American universities than in any European country. The future of Turkish democracy is the country’s outward-looking, creative and dynamic youth. As President Obama said in Ankara in 2009, “Turkey draws strength from both the successes of the past, and from the efforts of each generation of Turks that make new progress for your people.” The talent, ingenuity and hard work of Turkish students will provide the backbone of Turkey’s economy in the future.
From our security alliance and growing economic partnership to our shared values and enduring personal connections, the U.S.-Turkey relationship remains at the heart of American engagement in the world. With the help of MEI and organizations like it on both sides of the Atlantic, I am confident that our friendship will continue to flourish and endure. Thank you for your commitment to this vital partnership and to supporting the role that the United States and Turkey play together in promoting security and prosperity.