The Biden-Erdogan Summit

June 7, 2021

The Summit of Allied leaders will take place on 14 June 2021 at the NATO HQ in Brussels. Following a long-practiced tradition this will be the first NATO Summit after the new US President took office in the wake of four chaotic years with Mr. Trump. But there is no lack of other reasons. Among them are  dealing with a more demanding strategic environment marked by the return of global systemic rivalry, the need  for coherent Russia and China policies, how to continue adapting NATO for 2030 and beyond, especially by mirroring the recent military adaptation in the political dimension, strengthening the role of NATO as a unique and essential forum of Allied consultations, and tasking a work for an updated Strategic Concept to name just a few.

In his first major foreign policy speech as President at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, Mr. Biden said, “America is back.  The transatlantic alliance is back.” However, there is a lot to be done, primarily restoring allied unity in the face of emerging challenges and a recommitment to  the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law as enshrined in the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Do we care about any of the foregoing? Not really. For us, this summit is about one bilateral meeting. 

Presidents Biden and Erdogan will meet on the margins of the NATO summit. In Turkey we usually focus on our immediate challenges and overlook how we got here. This is understandable to a certain extent because the challenges facing us, most of which are our own doing, keep piling up giving us precious little time to look back.

In this connection, I would refer for the umpteenth time to two speeches by President Obama which, within a span of only four years, reveal Turkey’s unfortunate metamorphosis.

On April 6, 2009, President Obama addressed the Turkish Parliament on his first overseas trip. He said,

“This morning I had the great privilege of visiting the tomb of your extraordinary founder of your republic. And I was deeply impressed by this beautiful memorial to a man who did so much to shape the course of history. But it is also clear that the greatest monument to Atatürk’s life is not something that can be cast in stone and marble. His greatest legacy is Turkey’s strong, vibrant, secular democracy, and that is the work this assembly carries on today…”

The message: Turkey, with its secular democracy has set an example for the Islamic world. Turkey should continue this path and others should follow.

Four years later, on September 24, 2013, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly. In the context of the Arab spring he said,

“… the United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals…”

The reality is that during the four years between the two speeches, Justice and Development Party’s (JDP) Turkey changed from “an example to follow” to, at best, “a country the US would work with on its core interests”.

Today, the legacy of Ataturk, the hero of our War of Independence and the founder of the Republic for whom President Obama had such words of praise is under attack. The assaulters  are not the descendants of those he fought on the battlefield. They are Islamist extremists from within the country, the ungrateful Turkish Taliban whose comrades in minds are turning Afghanistan into a country with no future.

President Biden was Mr. Obama’s Vice President for eight years and they shared and continue to share the same world outlook. So,  in preparation for the summit we should ask ourselves the following questions: What can President Biden possibly think when briefed about Turkey’s internal developments before the Brussels summit? How did President Biden reacted to the assault on US Capitol? How would he react to if there were assaults on America’s Founding Fathers?

This is what President Biden said in remarks at the Annual Memorial Day Service on May 30:

“I had a long conversation — for two hours — recently with President Xi, making it clear to him that we could do nothing but speak out for human rights around the world because that’s who we are.

“I’ll be meeting with President Putin in a couple of weeks in Geneva, making it clear that we will not — we will not stand by and let him abuse those rights.”

Yesterday, in a Washington Post op-ed titled “My trip to Europe is about America rallying the world’s democracies”, President Biden said, “… this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age.”[i]

On June 14, Presidents Biden and Erdogan will have an extremely long agenda extending from the S-400s to US support for YPG. In recent weeks new items appear to have been added to the order of business.

One is the State Department’s statement condemning “President Erdogan’s anti-Semitic comments regarding the Jewish people” which drew a sharp reaction from the Turkish side. This was an allegation we could easily have refuted by reminding Washington, if not publicly through diplomatic channels, that deeds are more important than words; intentionally or not, the JDP government has done perhaps the greatest favor to Israel since the Balfour Declaration by assuming a leading role in Syria’s regime change project which has reduced Israel’s neighbor and regional arch enemy into a shadow of its former self. So,  we could have said, Israel should stop taking part in  anti-Turkey coalitions and find a way to return the favor.

On a more serious note, summits generally impose strict time constraints on bilateral meetings. But a White House statement on Mr. Biden’s travel plans specifically said, “The President will also meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss the full range of bilateral and regional issues.”[ii] This could be an indication that enough time will be allotted for a substantive discussion. Nonetheless, the maximum the two Presidents can do at this meeting would be reaching a common understanding as to where the Turkish-American relationship should go, so that senior officials can engage in follow-up talks.

In an earlier post I said that Turkey’s democratic free fall and ideological foreign policy has created an overarching problem of chemistry with the West; we may accommodate each other here and there, but the ground has shifted, and we are more likely to remain adversaries than partners in the foreseeable future. Hopefully, this would not be put on display at the summit.

If there is a will, there will be ways to resolve  even the toughest questions. But for the problem of bad chemistry, there is no will  hence no way. Moreover, President Biden’s April 24 statement, though not unexpected, was a huge disappointment and those calling for a reset with Washington have lowered their voices.

Thus, a  genuine reset in Turkish-American relations is mission impossible in the short term. The Biden-Erdogan summit of next week will likely focus more on containing the rising cost of our differences than give-and-take. No matter what is said publicly, it will not end mutual frustration. And it will lead to further speculation regarding Turkey’s shift of axis as Ankara’s Hamidian foreign policy of playing major powers against one another is reaching a dead-end.

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[i] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/06/05/joe-biden-europe-trip-agenda/

[ii] https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/03/statement-by-press-secretary-jen-psaki-on-updates-to-the-presidents-travel-to-the-united-kingdom-belgium-and-switzerland/

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