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  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, National Security Advisor to US President Jimmy Carter, and Member, Atlantic Council International Advisory Board
  • Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (ret.), National Security Advisor to US Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, and Chairman, Atlantic Council International Advisory Board
  • Mr. Frederick Kempe, President and Chief Executive Officer, Atlantic Council

At a dinner on September 30 hosted by Atlantic Council President and Chief Executive Officer Frederick Kempe as part of the Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum in Istanbul, former U.S. National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski struck a note of optimism about Turkey’s democratic and economic successes and its developing international role as assets for the United States to work with on regional and other issues of common interest.  Brzezinski and Scowcroft highlighted the Iranian nuclear issue, stressing the importance – and difficulty – of pursing a successful negotiating strategy.  General Scowcroft, who chairs the Atlantic Council’s International Advisory Board, and Dr. Brzezinski, who is a member of the Board as well, also spoke briefly about U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s difficulty defining itself and its accommodation with history.


Kempe opened the discussion by referring to the dramatic shifts taking place in the global and regional landscapes, including Turkey.  He noted recent tensions in U.S.-Turkish relations and asked his guests to reflect on developments in Turkey, on U.S.-Turkish relations and on what is different now from the Turkey they dealt with during periods when they had been National Security Advisors –Scowcroft for Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush and Brzezinski for President Carter.

Scowcroft remarked that when seen from Washington during the Cold War, Turkey looked like a staunch ally against the Soviet Union.  It was important to U.S. interests in other respects, and its role fighting alongside American troops in Korea was one example.  But, Scowcroft and Brzezinski agreed, the world, the NATO Alliance and Turkey have all changed.

Brzezinski remarked that during the Cold War, Turkey was an important but relatively weak and not very democratic country.  Today’s Turkey is economically advanced.  It is “in every respect a great democracy.”  Turkey today reflects a “remarkable act of modernization and democratization” that strikes “a relaxed, but intelligent balance between the requirements of democracy, traditional religious values and a modern, secular state.”  Brzezinski suggested that this is what Americans ought to want to see become the dominant reality in the region, to be emulated by others – in particular Iran.

Scowcroft agreed that Turkey has changed internally in significant and positive ways.  It is a freer and more democratic country than ever before.  Its economy is booming.  Scowcroft observed that growth and development have brought conservative aspects of Turkish society from the countryside to Istanbul and other large cities, and Turkey’s present government is a reflection of that.  And the rigid separation of religion from politics and public life that was such a dramatic feature of Ataturk’s transformation of Turkey in the 1920s and 1930s now seems to be no longer necessary.

Both speakers acknowledged there are misunderstandings in the United States about what is taking place in Turkey and what its priorities are.  As General Scowcroft put it, “Some are looking at their old ally and saying, ‘What is going on here?’”  This, Scowcroft and Brzezinski suggested, is the wrong way to look at Turkey.  It would be helpful, they agreed, for Turkish leaders to do a better job of explaining their country to Americans – what Turks are thinking and where their country is really going strategically and domestically – to address growing concerns.

Both observers spoke about perceived changes in Turkey’s approach to the world.  For Scowcroft, Turkey has broadened its foreign policy to be more inclusive of its neighbors to the east and southeast.  “This is fundamentally in our interest,” he stated, disagreeing with the idea that Turkey is somehow turning its back on the West.  He said that “the U.S. and Turkish strategic visions are very much in parallel, our basic regional interests complementary,” and the two countries’ partnership a “natural one.”  That should be the basis of joint work together, he suggested.  Brzezinski agreed, pointing to a common interest in avoiding conflict with Iran, on the necessity of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, on Iraq and on other issues.

Unfortunately, Scowcroft observed, there have been differences and misunderstandings.  The change in U.S.-Turkish relations really dates from the end of the Cold War, he said.  People thought that the U.S.-Turkish alliance might not be as valuable as before – which was not the case.  But how fundamentally things had changed became apparent when the United States sought in 2003 Turkish support for a “northern strategy” that would have allowed American troops to invade Iraq from Turkish soil, an approach that was blocked after a controversial vote in the Turkish parliament.  There was “a shock on both sides,” Scowcroft observed.

Asked by Kempe to describe those 2003 events and how the United States handled them, General Scowcroft said the shock was “frankly the result of American behavior because, as in the past, we took Turkey for granted.”  The United States thought that of course Turkish leaders would agree to allow U.S. troops to cross their territory for the Iraq invasion.  But several things went wrong.  It was a difficult moment in Turkey politically.  There was a new parliament.  Its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, had not yet taken office as prime minister.  When Turkish parliamentary deputies voted, more members approved the government’s pro-U.S. measure than said no, but it failed to get the minimum number of votes required to pass.  “We should have known something like this was coming,” Scowcroft stated.  He recalled Turkish sensitivities that the United States had to accommodate after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.  Then-Turkish President Ozal said that his country would help in every way it could, but it had to be in support of actions taken in the name of NATO, not the United States.

Iran and Turkey

Kempe identified a number of issues related to Iran, including regional oil and gas developments, nuclear weapons ambitions and sanctions.  He asked what role Ankara could play now in the effort with Iran, particularly after Turkey and Brazil negotiated a nuclear deal with Iranian President Ahmadinejad.

Brzezinski lamented what happened.  The Turks and Brazilians set about to negotiate an agreement that would remove a share of Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile in exchange for the external provision of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.  They had a letter from President Obama that suggested U.S. approval for the sorts of specific goals they were pursuing.  The Turks and Brazilians essentially achieved those goals.  But six months had passed in the interim.  Conditions had changed affecting the deal and the way the United States could look at it.  [Editor’s note:  Among other issues, Iran had continued to enrich uranium.  Whereas the quantity specified in late-2009 for Iran to hand over handing would have left it with relatively little, by May 2010 Iran’s remaining stockpile would have remained substantial.]

Scowcroft remarked that President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan “agree that negotiations remain the best course with Iran” – despite difficulties.  One difficulty is that the Iranian leadership is not united.  The government is led by Ahmadinejad, the mullahs have supreme political power, and the Revolutionary Guard has power, too.  Scowcroft said that negotiations with one of these elements that lack agreement by the other two will be difficult.  For a negotiating strategy to succeed, he said, “we need a united front – meaning the United States, the EU, the Russians, the Chinese and Turkey.”  The only alternative is the use of force, not something to rule out, but also “not even a close second in terms of options.”  Brzezinski agreed that the use of force is not “the type of policy we want,” including because it is easier to get into a war than to get out of one.  Given how difficult the issues are and how difficult it is to negotiate with the Iranians, one has to ask ‘what is feasible” and then proceed from there.


Kempe concluded the conversation on Russia.  He noted that the Atlantic Council had hoped for Russian participation at the Black Sea Energy and Economic Forum.  Their absence in Istanbul was perhaps one small example of how much remains to be done in the so-called reset of U.S.-Russian relations.  He asked his guests to assess the current state of relations and whether the reset has been successful.

Scowcroft suggested that the reset was “essential.”  He looked back at leaders’ perspectives when the Cold War ended and after.  In 1991, President Bush tried essentially to say to the Russians, “No one ‘won’ the Cold War.  We all won it.”  The NATO charter was changed to take out pejorative terms about the Soviets, and the West turned the focus to building a Europe whole and free.  But what followed, seen through the Russians’ eyes, was the United States and others taking advantage of their weakness, including by enlarging NATO right up to their borders.   That produced a high level of bitterness and resentment.  Though NATO did not expand because of Russian weakness or to endeavor to take advantage of Russian circumstances, General Scowcroft said, the Obama Administration’s reset policy was an honest attempt to say, “Okay, let’s start anew.”

Asked by Kempe if he is concerned about Russia, Brzezinski declared himself “not concerned, but perplexed by the many difficulties Russia has had in resolving its relationship with its past – politically, historically and geopolitically” – despite the passage of many years since the collapse of the USSR.  Russians cannot decide how they feel about democracy, he said.  Lenin remains in the Red Square mausoleum.  Stalin is still buried in the Kremlin Wall, and the country continues in many respects to glorify his leadership.  Other countries have done a far better job of dealing with history, including Germany, Japan and even Turkey.

Scowcroft agreed Russia’s struggle with its identity is an issue, but added that Russia has for centuries grappled with what it is.  The contest between the Slavophiles and Westernizers goes back to the time of Peter the Great.  Russia is still searching for its soul.  The best part of the reset policy is that it put this problem aside while the United States and Russia work on key issues and problems around the world.  “We hope over time that Russians will decide their future is with Europe.  But they’re not going to decide that way because we tell them or say, ‘wake up and get modern.’  They will do it,” Scowcroft concluded, “on their own and not because of us.”

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