Story and photos by Isaac D. Pacheco
Istanbul’s prominence as a trading hub and cultural crossroads stretches back to antiquity thanks to its strategic location along a major transcontinental trade route; the Turkish city straddles the Bosporus Strait near the mouth of the Marmara Sea. This important maritime passage provides the sole route for vessels traveling between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and serves as a natural boundary between Europe and Asia.
Istanbul has been the crown jewel of several major civilizations over the millennia including the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires, and is today the economic center of the modern Turkish state. The rise and fall of the city through conquest and expansion has made it one of the world’s most historically significant metropolitan areas. Influences from the diverse array of cultures that have transited or inhabited the city over the generations are reflected in its cuisine, architecture and even its present-day infrastructure.
Rarely are major development projects completed around Istanbul without workers unearthing important historical artifacts from the city’s eventful past. These discoveries sometimes lead to the rerouting of heavy machinery so that archeologists can meticulously excavate the site, as was the case during construction of the recently completed Eurasia Tunnel beneath the Bosporus, the first underwater rail link connecting the European and Asian sides of the city.
A bucket-list destination for people around the globe, Istanbul welcomes millions of tourists each year. The city features Michelin-quality restaurants, world-class museums and unique cultural treasures like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar. Further afield, Turkey’s beautiful countryside beckons outdoor enthusiasts and adventure seekers.
“There are very few places in the world that are as rich, culturally and historically. So many civilizations have passed through this city and they’ve all left their mark,” said John Larrea, consular section chief at the U.S. Consulate General in Istanbul. “The Turks have a culture of pride in being a host, and that is to them an important responsibility and something they take seriously. When you combine this rich culture with the real warmth of the Turkish people, you’ve got a pretty awesome place.”
Istanbul remains one of the world’s fastest growing cities, with more than 15 million residents in its metropolitan area. Though no longer a national capital—that distinction belongs to Ankara—Istanbul is nonetheless responsible for more than 27 percent of Turkey’s gross domestic product and nearly 60 percent of the nation’s exports. Such a vital link between continents necessitates a highly adept American diplomatic corps to manage relationships, promote new business opportunities and build upon shared values, tasks that the men and women at ConGen Istanbul dedicate themselves to daily.
“This is ‘new diplomacy’ at its most urgently needed. With Turkey, we have a relationship that has traditionally been positive but is now suffering. It’s the people-to-people ties that are going to keep the foundations of the relationship together while the governments are disagreeing,” said Consul General Jennifer L. Davis. “Officers coming here get an extraordinary opportunity to help repair a relationship that is struggling, using new types of diplomatic skills that will serve them well moving into the future.”
In the latter half of the 20th century, Turkey, an early NATO member, emerged as an important security and defense partner of the United States, particularly as a hedge against Soviet aggression during the Cold War. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, Turkey began cultivating even closer ties with its European neighbors, and entered accession negotiations with the European Union in 2005. Turkish government forces’ violent expulsion of citizens who were peacefully protesting against urban development in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Gezi Park led to large-scale civil unrest in 2013, wherein more than 8,000 people were injured and several killed. The government’s violent suppression of free speech and dissent during what came to be known as the Gezi Park Protests signaled an ominous step back from the democratic values espoused by EU member states, and led to concerns about the rise of authoritarian policies in Turkey. Accession negotiations with the EU were put on indefinite hold following the Turkish government’s additional crackdowns in the wake of a 2016 coup d’état attempt.
“Throughout the first decade of the 2000s, the United States viewed Turkey as a model for the Islamic world during the Arab Spring and beyond because it was a 98 percent Muslim country that was enjoying a flourishing democracy and economy,” said Davis. “In the second decade of the 2000s we’ve, unfortunately, seen political instability as a result of the 2016 political coup, major purges from government institutions, and rising inflation and youth unemployment. We also have seen a significant increase in the use of misinformation in the Turkish media about the United States that we have struggled to combat.”
Recent changes in Turkish law have not only led to a steep slowdown in the country’s economy, but also the erosion of its democratic institutions. According to Reporters Without Borders, the nation is ranked near the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, and currently imprisons more professional journalists than any other country. Government manipulation of remaining media outlets and the pervasive use of disinformation campaigns have further imperiled free speech and the ability of Turkish citizens to hold their leadership accountable.
“Turkey is an interesting case: There is plenty of Russian-inspired propaganda here, and where we see it the most is related to Syria,” said Melissa O’Shaughnessy, deputy public affairs officer. “We don’t want to imbue any kind of credibility on outlets that are just putting out nonsense by pushing back on certain things, so [whether we respond] is very much a case-by-case decision.”
A staff member from the consulate says the spike in anti-American rhetoric in the media and the government’s increasing hostility toward journalists that engage with Americans has made it especially difficult for the consulate to work with members of the Turkish press.
“There’s a giant Russian propaganda machine trying to get closer and closer to Turkish media. They’re trying to influence. They’re trying to spread fake, fabricated stories,” said the staff member. “We have to explain to the Turkish public why Turkey should be a part of the West, and not the partner of Iran, Russia, or those countries who have autocratic leaders.”
Locally employed (LE) staff were vital to keeping ConGen Istanbul operational when American employees were placed on ordered departure in the fall of 2016 due to credible threats of terrorism against the consulate. Their institutional knowledge, sustainment of important relationships and maintenance of consulate facilities meant that American employees were able to pick up right where they left off when they returned to post in March of 2017. Unfortunately, LE staff throughout the Mission have recently faced harassment and reprisal from Turkish authorities for working with their American colleagues to build a stronger bilateral partnership based on a mutual respect for human rights, free expression and government transparency. The arrest of two LE staff members at Consulate General Istanbul in 2017, and the earlier arrest of an LE colleague in Adana, led to a temporary suspension of visa operations throughout the U.S. Mission in Turkey at the end of 2017. American officials continue to ardently petition for the release of the wrongfully imprisoned LE staff members, and have made the safety and security of their remaining LE team a focal point of diplomatic engagement with the Turkish government.
“The [LE staff] are extraordinary. Many of our local employees have been with us for 20 or 30 years. They’ve forgotten more about our relationship than we know, so they really are our teachers, our friends, our family, and we feel that way,” said Davis.
Despite the numerous obstacles that consulate employees currently face, there is nearly unanimous agreement among current American staff that serving in Istanbul is the opportunity of a lifetime. For anyone seeking to tackle continent-spanning issues that have the potential to shape geopolitics for years to come, in a city where history seeps through the seams of thousand-year-old cobbled streets, Consulate General Istanbul offers a bevy of challenging and rewarding opportunities.
“Istanbul is a dream post. Living here is incredible. It’s one of the best cities in the world. There is very little you can’t find here,” said O’Shaughnessy. “I think there’s a myth that work in consulates isn’t as substantive, or as policy-focused as the work that embassies do, but that’s simply not true here. Working in this consulate, you will get as much professional development, as much opportunity, as anybody working at the embassy.”
“These are the trenches of the new diplomatic battlefield,” agreed Davis. “It’s a very different battlefield than what we are accustomed to because it involves a steady and challenging stream of misinformation shared through social media that we are still developing the tools to combat effectively, which makes our work all the more urgent and important.”
Isaac D. Pacheco is the editor-in-chief of State Magazine