THO Teleconference Illuminates Challenges Around The U.S.-Turkey Visa Crisis

Former U.S. Ambassador and Leading Turkish Scholar Described the Diplomatic Measure as “Wrong” and “Counterproductive”
On October 31, THO organized a teleconference addressing the ongoing U.S.-Turkey visa crisis. During the teleconference, the audience heard from Amb. Matthew Bryza (former U.S. Ambassador, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia, and Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council) and Prof. Ilter Turan (Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Bilgi University and President of the International Political Science Association). 

The discussion was moderated by THO Executive Director Yenal Kucuker.

During the teleconference, the speakers discussed the origins of the crisis – a breakdown triggered by the detention of a Turkish employee at the U.S. consulate in Istanbul – as well as the recent history of U.S.-Turkey relations, the crisis’ impact on people-to-people ties, and possible strategies for improving relations between Washington and Ankara.

The U.S. decision to suspend non-immigrant visa services came as a surprise

Both speakers expressed varying degrees of shock over the U.S. decision to suspend non-immigrant visa services in Turkey. Amb. Bryza noted that in all his years of service, he had never conceived of visa suspension as an acceptable diplomatic measure, and certainly not for a staunch NATO ally. He described the move as the “wrong tactic.”

Prof. Turan echoed these comments, describing the suspension as an “unusual step” that hurts “the man on the street.” It was counterproductive, per Prof. Turan, because it “makes it difficult for segments of the population that are more favorably disposed and are in connection with the United States to go and come back.”

Turkey’s response and the roots of the decision

Turkey’s choice to respond in kind by cancelling its own visa services for U.S. nationals was equally counterproductive, according to both speakers. Amb. Bryza mused that perhaps such a decision was taken out of necessity, and that a weakened U.S. foreign policy apparatus offered no clear point of contact for Turkish officials in the crucial moments following the initial suspension.

The ambassador went on to describe how such a decision is made on the U.S. side, and the many decision-makers involved in crafting this kind of policy. Prof. Turan argued that a key failing in the crisis lay in its politicization; the “escalation of the problem into political leadership” necessitated a dimension of “face-saving” that could have otherwise been avoided.

On a societal level, Prof. Turan acknowledged that while anti-American sentiment has always been present in Turkey, the recent U.S. decision to arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria has had a particularly inflammatory effect.  He believed “a change in that policy would clearly be a radical symbolic gesture that might lead to a turnaround in how the United States is perceived in Turkey.”

Amb. Bryza further discussed the historical persistence of anti-Americanism in the country. Turning the tide, he argued, would be difficult, “but the more people-to-people interaction, the better.”

The impact of the decision and what lies ahead

Professor Turan underlined the impact the visa crisis will likely have on the substantial numbers of Turkish students who seek to study in the U.S. every year. He also noted the impact on academics, saying that there are many political science conferences in the U.S. scheduled for the coming spring, and the crisis could prevent Turkish academics from attending these if it is not resolved soon.

Amb. Bryza talked about the perils of the decision concerning the business community, noting its particularly detrimental effect on American tourism in Turkey – approximately half a million Americans visit Turkey yearly.

Asked about recent congressional condemnations vis-à-vis Turkey, Amb. Bryza downplayed their importance. Prof. Turan described Turkish perceptions of these condemnations and how they are viewed as illegitimately spurred by special interest groups.

Both speakers were optimistic as to the visa crisis’ speedy resolution, and both emphasized the value of people-to-people ties as a balm for longer-term issues between the two countries. Responding to a question about the recent U.S. delegation visit to Turkey to resolve the crisis, Amb. Bryza explained that “Deputy Assistant Secretary Cohen had a productive visit here [in Turkey] and hopefully that [visa] crisis will be resolved soon.” According to Amb. Bryza, “there is way too much we hold in common” for the U.S. and Turkey to remain estranged for much longer.