Post-earthquake disaster diplomacy can help repair US-Turkey ties

Turkey is reeling from the destruction left behind by the strongest earthquake to hit the country since 1939. The numbers of the dead and injured—which continue to rise in both Turkey and neighboring Syria to more than thirty-five thousand at last count—are shocking and difficult to comprehend. It’s harder still to imagine on a human level the manner in which people’s lives and livelihoods were erased overnight, while apartment blocks and indeed entire neighborhoods crumbled. This disaster requires global help and solidarity and, so far, the international community’s response has been inspiring.

US President Joe Biden swiftly expressed condolences to Turkey and promised aid coordinated through United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Disaster Assistance Response Team. This was, of course, the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do. Amid the horrific scenes of devastation emerging from the regions hit by the earthquakes, sensitive and sensible disaster diplomacy can open new pathways for dialogue and create fresh goodwill for the United States in its otherwise troubled relations with Turkey.

Already, there is evidence of countries setting aside their traditional differences and tensions with Turkey to offer help.

Seventy-four countries have sent rescue teams, equipment, and more. More than 1,400 personnel have been deployed from twenty NATO countries, including prospective members Finland and Sweden. The European Union has announced it will hold a donors’ conference to mobilize funds for affected communities in Turkey and Syria next month.

The full list of countries providing support is too long to detail but notable among them are Armenia, with whom Turkey does not even have formal relations; Greece, with whom bilateral relations are markedly troubled; Israel, with whom Turkey recently reconciled after a long rupture in relations; and Sweden, whose accession to NATO is in question after Turkey indicated it is not ready to approve the prospective member.

In a way, the international community’s rush to Turkey’s aid completes a circle. According to the Development Initiatives’ Global Humanitarian Assistance Report, Turkey’s outgoing humanitarian aid totaled $5.5 billion in 2021, second only to the United States in real terms. Comparing this aid as a percentage of gross national income, Turkey came in first at 0.86 percent while the next closest, the United Arab Emirates, came in at 0.21 percent—although the report adds that Turkey’s numbers are not exactly comparable to other countries because when Ankara reports its assistance, it includes funds spent on hosting refugees within Turkey’s borders.

Nevertheless, the aid and shelter Turkey has provided to millions of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more—making Turkey the world’s largest refugee-hosting country since 2015—should not be overlooked. Also, since the outbreak of COVID-19, Turkey has provided aid in the form of vaccines, medical equipment, cash, and export permits to 160 countries worldwide.

There are many reasons behind Turkey’s outsized humanitarian aid, but one is that Ankara can relate to countries facing natural disasters because Turkey has faced many of its own. The same geography that elevates Turkey in the minds of geopolitical strategists (as well as tourists) also leaves the country tragically vulnerable to a range of natural disasters. In the summer, the hot, dry southern countryside is at risk of wildfires, while in the north, the wet Black Sea coast is prone to flooding. Finally, straddling two continents, Turkey sits on seismic faults that are hotbeds for earthquakes. In short, the Turkish people are no strangers to mother nature’s powers of destruction.

Turkey’s stance is as pragmatic as it is principled. Aid means more than charity. Turkish humanitarian assistance abroad is an extension of its foreign policy, similar to the United States’ through USAID. Turkey founded its development-assistance body, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency (TIKA), while the Soviet Union was crumbling primarily as a means to engage the newly independent Turkic republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Foreign aid has been a cornerstone of Turkey’s expanding engagement with Africa, where its diplomatic missions have increased: In 2002, Turkey had embassies in only twelve African countries, but that number has since grown to forty-four.

And, critically, Turkey has used disaster diplomacy on several notable occasions to establish diplomatic breakthroughs. For example, in 1999, earthquakes struck Turkey (close to Istanbul) and Greece (near Athens) less than a month apart. The shared tragedy ushered in a positive atmosphere and an era of unprecedented calm in bilateral relations only three years after the two sides were on the brink of war in the Imia/Kardak crisis. In the aftermath of Turkey’s tragedy this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis held a phone call, their first in almost a year as tensions have been running high in the Aegean. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias also visited the affected region over the weekend, one of the highest-level foreign officials to visit so far.

It isn’t easy to create positive narratives in bilateral relations between countries with historic animosity (as in the case of Turkey and Greece) or mistrust (as in the case of Turkey and the United States). Tragic as the earthquake is—and words don’t do justice to how bad it is—this is a historic opportunity for the United States and other countries to engage with Turkey and the Turkish people and prove that despite numerous differences, they are allies and partners. In this moment, Turkey’s partners have shown they are ready and willing to help when in need, but more can still be done.

Nothing transcends bilateral differences as much as loss. Many in Turkey (at least those old enough) still remember when then US President Bill Clinton visited Turkey and met with those affected by the 1999 earthquake.

Disaster diplomacy won’t comprehensively solve US-Turkey relations. In fact, it won’t solve any specific issues in their relationship, which are many. However, it will create new room for dialogue. Turkish domestic politics and foreign policy are often closely linked and this is all the more true in an election year. Therefore, the opportunity to demonstrate the United States’ friendship to the Turkish people is significant.

The United States is providing and will continue to provide significant support. Officials across the Biden administration, from the president to the secretaries of state and defense, are engaged. The United States could take another positive step by passing a congressional resolution of condolence. In October 1999, the US Senate passed a resolution expressing sympathy for those killed and injured in that year’s earthquakes in Turkey and Greece. A co-sponsor of that resolution was Biden, then a senator. Last week, a resolution was introduced in the US House of Representatives and referred to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

In the words of State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, Turkey “has so often contributed its own humanitarian rescue experts to so many other countries in the past.” Thus, the international community must come together in this moment to support Turkey.

Grady Wilson is associate director at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY. Follow him on Twitter @GradysWilson.

Further reading

Image: Members of a Greek rescue team work on the site of a collapsed building, as the search for survivors continues, in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake, in Hatay, Turkey February 11, 2023. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan