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Will Joe Biden pave a new path for US-Turkey relations?

Trump’s recent sanctions on Turkey highlight a tumultuous relationship throughout the past four years.

Analysis | Middle East

As we await the incoming Biden administration, the president-elect’s Middle East vision deserves a closer look, particularly on Turkey. The Trump administration severely undermined the parameters of the longstanding bilateral cooperation between Turkey and the United States, by, among other measures, imposing sanctions on Turkey on its way out the door. Yet cooperation with Turkey still offers great value and can serve as a pillar of stability and bolster U.S. interests in the region.

There is a tendency to attribute Ankara’s foreign policy to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal ambitions or his authoritarian tendencies, but this analysis misconstrues the underlying dynamics of Turkish foreign policy.
Turkey has increasingly relied on hard power to project influence around the region in hot spots like Syria, Iraq, and Libya in sharp contrast to the pre-2015 period where Turkey relied primarily on soft power to expand its influence. Most recently, Turkish incursions into the Eastern Mediterranean and Nagorno-Karabakh have added to existing tensions with its European and Caucasian neighbors.

Although Turkey has pursued a more assertive policy in recent years under Erdogan’s leadership, the scope of its engagement has been limited and largely aimed at improving Turkey’s position and leverage in existing conflicts and disputes, rather than creating new ones or resolving longstanding issues.

In fact, Washington’s effective abdication of its leadership in the Middle East since 2017 has left regional actors, including Turkey, to fend for themselves.

So while Turkish regional policies appear out of step with the United States or the European Union, the broader context suggests that Ankara’s more assertive policies largely aim to safeguard its longstanding interests in Syria, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Caucasus, in ways designed to take advantage of the void left by fading U.S. hegemony. Despite Erdogan’s singular dominance of Turkish politics, the basic trajectory on which he has taken Ankara’s foreign policy is certain to outlive his tenure; his policies have broad popular support and track Turkish interests in the region.

The fact is that Washington and Ankara have mutual interests in the region, and Turkey can be a particularly valuable partner for Biden for two key reasons.

First, as the incoming administration is looking to restore the nuclear deal with Iran, the United States will need all the support it can mobilize. In view of the likely opposition by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, enlisting Turkey’s support will be critical. As Iran’s neighbor, Turkey seeks to maintain and enhance strong economic relations with Tehran, a solid incentive in itself for Turkey to support such a deal.

Second, any potential U.S. competition with China or Russia would require prying Turkey away from its growing ties to both countries. Despite the strong anti-American and anti-Western rhetoric Erdogan has routinely employed, Turkey’s ties with Russia and China still lag significantly behind those with the United States and Europe and, crucially, lack deep, strategic components. For example, Turkey’s increasing interactions with Russia on Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh are part of a series of transactional engagements, reflecting longstanding distrust between the parties. Turkey’s search for greater foreign policy independence could also serve U.S. interests in limiting Russian regional influence.

Similarly, Turkey’s gestures toward China, notably the Turkish state’s silence on the suppression of Uighurs in China — has largely failed to pay off in major new financial investments from Beijing, which Turkey’s troubled economy badly needs. Turkey is thus well-positioned to check Russia’s and China’s expansion in the Middle East.

Beyond their mutual geopolitical interests, a closer bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara could facilitate Biden’s express intentions to prioritize human rights and democratic reforms abroad in sharp contrast to the outgoing administration’s disdain for such efforts, including in Turkey itself.

Despite setbacks in recent years, particularly after the failed 2016 coup, the Turkish political system is still characterized by key elements such as a robust opposition, commitment to democratic politics, and rhetorical adherence to pluralism. While the status quo is far from ideal, there is room for Washington to push Turkey on the status of ethnic and religious minorities, press freedom, and women’s rights.

The key question is whether Erdogan himself can be persuaded to move toward rapprochement with the United States. There is potentially much to be gained. As noted above, Turkey’s more assertive regional posture, particularly within NATO, could clearly work to Washington’s advantage in an emerging age of “competing great powers” as the recently published “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” described it.

But the potential economic dividends from an improved relationship may be at least as or more important. Years of misguided policymaking, regional instability, and doubts about Turkey’s strategic orientation have led to a serious downturn in its once-thriving economy and major challenges in securing critical external financing despite the government’s efforts to overcome them by attracting Gulf and Chinese investment.

But domestic political uncertainties and weakened adherence to the rule of law have also contributed importantly to Turkey’s economic straits, and it is in this sphere that a Biden administration, in coordination with the EU, may be able to persuade Erdogan to return to a closer relationship with the West. Recognition on their part of the necessity of addressing the political nature of Turkey’s economic troubles gives them leverage, specifically by conditioning economic assistance in the form of loans and guarantees on ensuring human and minority rights and democratic and judicial reform.

Of course, Erdogan also has leverage, particularly in light of Turkey’s recent regional initiatives. It can always play a spoiler role if Turkey is left out of a post-Trump U.S. Middle East policy. He has shown time and again the utility of anti-American and anti-Israel discourse in shaping both domestic and regional public opinion. Put simply, the Biden administration can shore up regional public support by securing Turkey’s buy-in and enlisting its cooperation.

A return to the past seems neither feasible nor desirable for both countries. Instead, the United States and Turkey can choose to cooperate on their shared interests in a new nuclear deal with Iran and limiting Russian and Chinese influence in the region. Despite the recent volatility in the relationship, the Biden administration can avoid the prospect of creating another pariah state by excluding — or sanctioning — Turkey from its vision for the Greater Middle East.

Photo: Office of the Vice President, Obama administration.
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