Ambassador Bass’s Remarks to the 34th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations – September 28, 2015

Ambassador Bass’s Remarks to the 34th Annual Conference on U.S.-Turkey Relations Hosted by the American Turkish Council (ATC) at the Ritz Carlton, Washington DC
September 28, 2015

Thank you all very much. This conference – and the relationships between ATC, TOBB and other business associations on both sides of the Atlantic, such as TAIK, –provide essential connections and context for all of us in these challenging times.

And these are, indeed, challenging times – in Turkey and the surrounding regions –  and by extension, in our relationship.

Every day, we absorb a drumbeat of alarming news detailing violence, extremism and active conflicts to Turkey’s immediate south – and north.  Much of that news concerns threats to both countries, to our common humanity and to the work we have done over the past generation to finish building a Europe whole, free and at peace.  Those threats come from many different quarters:

• From a Russian government that is challenging the basic tenet that borders should not be changed by force;

• to the extreme terrorism of ISIL, and the ongoing conflict in Syria;

• to the threats Turkey faces from the PKK’s violent attacks on the Turkish state – which are undermining the premise that the rights and freedoms of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens are best advanced and protected through democratic institutions and electoral politics, not IEDs and violence.

In both capitals, our efforts to address these threats are complicated by  an additional challenge: perceptions that the U.S. and Turkey are increasingly headed in different directions – that we have different values and different objectives, with fewer common interests.

There are several reasons for this, starting with diplomacy in the Digital Age.  We live and work in an era in which differences over individual issues or tactics are painted in stark relief on a daily basis, and when remarks in political stump speeches are immediately interpreted as policy choices.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences in approach on some issues in Ankara and Washington; there are.  Just as there are in every partnership and friendship between countries.  Just as there were ten, twenty and thirty years ago.

Why, then, do these differences feel so pronounced?  Part of the answer is that there are fewer people, in Washington and in Ankara, who have a breadth of experience working with each other, on common problems and challenges.  To cite just a couple examples of this on the American side:  over half (roughly 60 percent) of the U.S. Congress has taken office since 2008.   In the U.S. military, a generation of officers and personnel has come of age in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Horn of Africa and other places fighting terrorism – not in Europe, facing down Soviet aggression in defense of the shared values of the NATO alliance.

The domestic landscape doesn’t help, with its polarized politics, equally polarized media and constant accusations of bias and favoritism.  And that’s just here in the U.S.  In Turkey, we see similar dynamics, with the added complications of the renewed conflict with the PKK and the social and economic pressures created by Turkey’s remarkable generosity in hosting more than 2 million Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees displaced by conflict and suffering at home.  To put that in context:  it’s the equivalent of the U.S. absorbing more than 8 million refugees in about four years.

But despite these challenges, there are enduring strengths in the relationship.  I see evidence of those strengths every day, in the depth and intensity of discussions between our two governments on a wide range of issues.  And in recent months, we have seen concrete examples of those strengths.

• Our military partnership remains very strong.  Intensifying its participation in the coalition against ISIL, Turkey has opened several bases to U.S. and coalition forces.  Because of the proximity to areas under ISIL’s control, Turkish bases enable us to have greater impact from the same set of forces.

•  Adding to that, Turkish pilots are now flying strike missions against targets in Syria alongside other coalition aircraft.  It took some time to work out the operational details to integrate Turkish aircraft into the coalition, but with that now behind us we see a strong Turkish commitment to fighting ISIL.

•  We still have a lot of work to do, across the coalition and with Turkey, to address the threats posed by ISIL and to identify and squeeze the smuggling networks that sustain it.  Those efforts by diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, finance and other professionals are intensifying.  President Obama will host Prime Minister Davutoglu and 100 other leaders tomorrow at the Leaders’ Summit on Countering ISIL and Violent Extremism.  The summit will highlight strides made in preventing the travel of foreign terrorist fighters77, and countering violent extremism, as well as serve as a forum to announce new commitments and initiatives on all fronts.

•  We also see strong Turkish support and contributions to the range of measures NATO has implemented to counteract Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.

•  Turkey is also playing a very constructive role supporting the talks underway in Cyprus to try to finally achieve a settlement that has eluded the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities for too long.

Beyond the issues that attract the most attention, we see other areas of vitality in the relationship.  One of the most important is economic growth and development.  Despite slowing growth and uncertainty about the policy priorities of the new government that emerges from the November 1 parliamentary elections, Turkey continues to command strong interest from U.S. companies, both for its internal market and as a platform for their operations in three regions.  U.S. businesses, including a number here tonight, are creating jobs and supporting innovation and Turkish exports.  To cite just a couple of examples:

•  Ford Motors, Turkey’s second largest industrial enterprise, this year opened Turkey’s largest single R&D center near Istanbul, with more than 1000 engineers and technicians.  The R&D center supports the development of climate-friendly diesel engines used across Europe.

•  3M opened an Innovation Center in Istanbul last April that already has innovated in developing a heat insulation film for a Turkish refrigeration company that is now also sold to many European companies.  Within five years 3M expects to triple the number of engineers they employ.

We see the potential for many more examples like this – notably the regional jet project Sierra Nevada Corporation is developing with the government and private sector partners in Turkey.  And we look forward to working with Turkey’s next government to continue to increase trade and investment in both countries.

Clearly, our success in realizing this shared goal will depend in part on our effort to successfully negotiate the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP), with the EU – and to ensure Turkish-American trade and investment can capitalize on this liberalized framework as well.  In 2013, President Obama and then-Prime Minister Erdogan set up the High Level Committee to address Turkey’s concerns about the impact of T-TIP on Turkey, and it remains an important forum to address these vital issues.

More broadly, our success in realizing this vision, and in maintaining the vitality of our relationship, will depend in part on the policy choices of Turkey’s next government – which itself will reflect the choices Turkey’s citizens make on November 1.  There is great interest, and some concerns, in both countries about this election.  Clearly, many feel there is a lot at stake.  We believe it is important for all of Turkey’s citizens to have the opportunity to make an informed choice and to exercise their duty to vote.

That requires vibrant, independent media that provide citizens a range of views and perspectives regarding the challenges Turkey faces today, and information on the policy options to address them.  It also means voters must feel safe enough to go to the polls, and we reject attempts by the PKK or anyone else in Turkey to prevent a secure environment for voters.

There’s another type of investment that’s essential to the future health of our relationship: the investment we make in the next generation of Turks and Americans, now coming of age in a very different world.  In this area, we see enormous opportunities and real dynamism:

•  This year alone, over 10,000 Turkish students are pursuing higher education opportunities at American universities, including hundreds pursuing dual degrees at State University of New York campuses – a model program that has brought Turkish students to SUNY campuses for over 10 years now.

•  We have welcomed the largest cohort ever of American Fulbright grantees to Turkey, including over 100 English Teaching Assistants teaching at over 40 Turkish universities.

• We have supported hundreds of professional exchanges over the last decade as well, bringing up-and-coming Turkish leaders from government, business, and civil society on programs to network with their American counterparts;

• We’re working together in science, technology, and health including projects to jointly develop affordable medical technologies and train doctors on advanced techniques for cancer testing.  We agreed in the last year to increase cooperation on forest fires, climate change, and deforestation.

Finally, there is one more group in which Turks and Americans alike must invest – the Syrians, Iraqis, and others displaced by conflict, who are now resident in Turkey.  As I mentioned earlier, Turkey is now hosting roughly 2 million refugees. We are grateful for all that Turkey has done to protect and assist vulnerable refugees, but we know Turkey can’t do it all alone.  That’s why President Obama and Secretary Kerry are focused this week at the UN General Assembly on mobilizing additional resources to support the front-line states hosting the vast majority of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.  We continue to devote the bulk of our own assistance, now exceeding $4.5 billion since the beginning of the conflict, to support Syrians and Iraqis inside those countries who feel safe enough to remain in their communities.

• In Turkey, US government support now totals $325 million.  Our support is building and maintaining new schools, and providing meals for the poor, mental health services to victims of trauma, cash to the most vulnerable.  New assistance will provide vocational training to help Syrians develop the tools they need to provide for themselves.

Given the limits on what individual governments can do, though, there is another aspect to this challenge where we need your help: educating the 600,000 Syrian children living in Turkey.  200,000 of them are currently in school – but 400,000 of them are not.  Setting aside the humanitarian imperative of helping equip them for productive lives, there will be real security risks in the future if these children have no education or prospects – and become the next generation of recruits for extremists.

While the Government of Turkey is taking many proactive steps to get children into school, which we also help support, it is an enormous undertaking.  So I ask you to support the efforts of the Turkish government, through AFAD, and of NGOs to get more of these kids off the streets and back in school.  There are many needs: teachers, buildings, transportation, school supplies, creative solutions to support home schooling, language training, and the use of technology to help children who can’t easily return to formal schooling.

We would be happy to provide you with more information on how you can do that; the American Business Federation in Turkey also is generously helping match interested companies with organizations active on the ground.

Every day in Turkey, I see the deep and enduring relationship that our two countries have shared for decades, and I will continue to make the case for better cooperation, more investment, and a healthy exchange of ideas and opinions on the challenges we face.  We need all of you to continue doing the same thing, to help others see behind the headlines and the rhetoric.

The American Turkish Council and its members play an equally important role in making that case, and I look forward to working with you all on the ideas and initiatives discussed here this week.

Thank you.