Turkey’s Relations with the West

November 17, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden will assume office on January 20, 2021. Exactly twelve years ago he assumed office as Vice President. Three months later, on April 6, 2009 President Obama visited Ankara on his first trip abroad as US President. His address to the Turkish Parliament was full of praise for Turkey’s “strong, vibrant, secular democracy”. In May 2013, Prime Minister Erdogan visited Washington. Remarks made by the two leaders at their joint press conference reflected a strong relationship. Twelve years on, the US-Turkey relationship is at its lowest point in decades.

On November 10, three days after Mr. Biden’s election victory, President Erdogan sent him a congratulatory message underlining the strategic nature of two countries’ relationship based on “shared interests and values”. And like PM Netanyahu, he also sent a message to President Trump thanking him warmly for his vision regarding relations between Turkey and the US, and his friendship.

Secretary of State Pompeo’s visits to France, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia started on Monday with talks in Paris. After his talks, “President Emmanuel Macron and I agree that Turkey’s recent actions have been very aggressive. Europe and the US must work together to convince Erdogan such actions are not in the interest of his people,” Mr. Pompeo said, citing Turkey’s recent support to Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia as well as military moves in Libya and the Mediterranean. He also said, increased use of Turkey’s military capability was a concern. The same day, marking the International Day for Tolerance, he arrived in Istanbul.

Today Mr. Pompeo paid a call onPatriarch Bartholomewin Istanbul, met with the Apostolic Nuncio to Turkey and then flew to Tbilisi. He made no public comments in Turkey having said it all in Paris. Referring to his comments on Turkey’s military capabilities some Turkish newspapers said, “fear has gripped the US.”

That Mr. Pompeo did not refer to Turkey’s “malign activities” like Iran and China can be a consolation. It seems that the conversion of the Hagia Sophia to a mosque remains an important issue and Mr. Pompeo has his own political agenda for 2024.

So much for the close partnership between the Trump and Erdogan administrations.

Turkey’s relations with other allies/EU partners are no better. Obituary for the EU accession process is ready, waiting for the insertion of a date.

By contrast Turkey’s relations with Russia appear steady despite differences because Moscow’s foreign policy, as always, has long-term perspectives and is handled by a highly professional Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The way Russia handled the recent fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia proves that.

Turkey’s political leadership, without calling names, is accusing “external powers”, “foreign conspirators” of supporting terrorist groups targeting Turkey, concocting another Sykes-Picot, and struggling to stop Turkey’s rise as a major power in an emerging new world order.

On November 1st, President Erdogan addressed a local Justice and Development Party (JDP) meeting in Samsun where he said, “… Facing us are the power wielders of the last century. It is not an easy task to convince those who owe their power to cruelty, shedding of blood, exploitation through deceit and oppression that the rules of the game have changed. During the pandemic they have seen that their security and wealth proved only a glass tower shattered by the first crisis. Nonetheless, they are pursuing their old games. No matter how much they try, they will not be able to stand the tide of change…”

Thus, the government claims that Turkey is faced with a “survivability challenge” not unlike the one at the end of the First World War when the War of Independence was launched under Ataturk’s leadership. Media outlets, carefully toeing the JDP line, are constantly highlighting the irreconcilable conflicts of interest between Turkey and the Western world. Firing up of anti-Western sentiment continues unabated.  

The difference is that, at the time, troops of the victors of the First World War were patrolling the streets of Istanbul and parts of Turkey’s heartland were under foreign occupation. The question facing the nation was “to be or not to be?”

Today, the Republic of Turkey faces no existential threats. Yes, we are confronted with problems in Syria, but regrettably these are largely of our own making. And yes, we have problems with our allies. Some of these are indeed serious, but neither are they the victors of a world war nor are we among the losers. Unfortunately, the legacy of history, centuries-old prejudices do not make relations easy, but concrete common interests can be given a chance, by both sides.

Turkey’s fundamental challenge is not Syria, Libya, or Somalia. It is ensuring Turkish democracy’s survival, the healing of Turkey’s polarization and good governance. Because a sound foreign and security policy depends on national unity and a strong economy. And restoring national unity takes more than magnifying foreign threats.

Mr. Biden will restore the State Department to its former status, listen to its institutional advice, and appoint experienced officials to critical positions. Since a breakthrough in relations remains an illusion, the Biden White House would strive to strike a balance between its long-term perspective of the relationship with Ankara and its current frustrations. Moreover, it would have to work with a divided Congress Ankara has managed to unite.

In mid-August, Democratic presidential candidate Biden’s comments about President Erdogan surfaced. During a meeting with the New York Times editorial board in January, Mr. Biden suggested that the US should “embolden” President Erdogan’s opponents to defeat him in elections. “Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.” he said. These remarks must have been carefully noted in Ankara.

Once in office, Mr. Biden’s top priority will be the pandemic. This will be a huge challenge and not just because of climbing Covid-19 cases and deaths. Last week, “In GA, we work out, shop, go to restaurants, go to work, and school without masks. My body, my choice,” Congresswoman-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, wrote on Twitter.

This would allow the Biden and Erdogan administrations enough time to review again the roller-coaster relationship of the past decade and see if and how it may be steadied. Unfortunately for them, the list of problems between Ankara and Washington is a long one. They range from US support to PYD/YPG, S-400 air defense systems, Muslim Brotherhood, the war in Libya, Cyprus, eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey-related cases before US courts to Fethullah Gulen. So, before launching their dialogue, officials on both sides should take “30 seconds of calm” like on CNN.

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