Under the forthcoming Joe Biden presidency, the US is expected to play a more involved role in international politics. Biden is largely expected to change the state of US foreign policy as it had been administrated by President Donald Trump. Naturally, this will cause certain shifts to global power balances and reroute the US’s relations with Turkey, a country whose president has been at the center of several international disputes and disagreements that soured the country’s relations with the US, the EU, NATO, and other Western allies. In this interview, we discuss the future of US-Turkish relations with Dr. Aykan Erdemir.
Erdemir is the Senior Director of the Turkey Program at the Washington D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Between 2011 and 2015, he served as a member of the Turkish Parliament. He is also a steering committee member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief and a member of the Anti-Defamation League’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities. He has edited seven books, including Rethinking Global Migration: Practices, Policies, and Discourses in the European Neighbourhood (KORA) and Social Dynamics of Global Terrorism: Risk and Prevention Policies (IOS Press). He is also a co-author of the book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge). In 2016, Erdemir was awarded the Stefanus Prize in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms.
Mehmet Yegin (MY): The Biden administration has now announced its national security advisors as well as its secretaries of state and defense. How do you think the upcoming US administration will approach Turkey?
Aykan Erdemir (AE): Of all the key messages emanating from the upcoming administration, one of the most prominent is that unlike under Trump, under Biden, US-Turkey relations will take on a more institutional rather than personal character. I think that Trump’s trademark approach to foreign and security policy was exemplified in his person-to-person relationships, especially with certain authoritarian leaders. These interpersonal relations sometimes even involved extended family members, as was also the case when it came to US-Turkish relations. So, it would be fair to assume that moving bilateral relations back to the institutional level will be extremely important for the Biden administration. We will begin to see the State Department, Congress, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community play a much more important role than they played under Trump.
Also, most analysts agree that the Biden administration will prioritize human rights to a much greater extent than the Trump administration. At least at the discursive level, we may see a stronger reference to Turkey’s egregious human rights violations. We will definitely see messages from the administration of solidarity for Turkey’s democracy, pluralism, and also the dissidents who have been prosecuted over the years. The last but not the least, I think we will observe more robust transatlantic coordination with respect to Turkey. The Biden administration has been very clear about the need to coordinate US policy with that of the European Union (EU) as well as with NATO allies. So, when it comes to Turkey, particularly Turkey’s footprint in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Caucasus, coordination between Washington and Brussels will most likely increase. This will of course raise the stakes when it comes to incentives and disincentives that Turkey’s NATO allies can utilize to encourage Turkey to engage in more cordial and peaceful diplomacy, and to discourage it from belligerent and irredentist behaviors.
MY: The Turkish government has recently signaled a desire to better its relations with Western allies, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Turkey’s place was with the EU. There have also been certain changes to Turkey’s ambassadorial appointments and an increase in its rhetoric of reform, albeit with no concrete steps yet taken within the country. Will this rhetoric resonate with the Biden administration?
AE: I think most analysts and observers agree that this is just empty rhetoric. The Erdogan government has neither the intention nor the capacity to make even incremental improvements within the realms of democracy, pluralism, the rule of law, or human rights. Nevertheless, Ankara’s recent statements and posturing are extremely important in the sense that they act as concrete proof that the US as well as the EU still have leverage over Turkey. This is clear considering that these rhetorical shifts coming from Ankara occurred during the US transition period as rumors surfaced that Biden would be more forceful in the realm of human rights in order to provoke a change in Ankara’s rhetoric and ambassadorial appointments. This shows that Turkey’s Western allies still have great potential to alter Turkey’s behavior.
Also, these shifts in Turkey’s rhetoric highlight the importance of the agency of leadership, in that Biden, as the next US president, has enormous potential to make an impact. I think that the EU should also reflect on this. If Biden has this potential, Germany’s Angela Merkel should also assume that she has similar potential. In this sense, France’s Emmanuel Macron is trying to provide leadership when it comes to Turkish issues as is Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis. Thus, agency is important, as is engagement with Turkey. Nonetheless, while it is important to highlight issues in the fields of democracy and human rights, ultimately, we all must recognize that Turkey’s Islamist and ultra-nationalist ruling bloc has neither the capacity nor the will to improve these areas. This is not just a matter of the bloc’s ideological orientation but a matter of its political survival, because it remains in power solely as a result of repressive and brutal measures. Such action has distorted Turkey’s electoral playing field as the bloc uses state resources to its electoral advantage, coopts and controls 95 percent of the media, criminalizes the opposition, removes elected officials from office, and jails leading dissidents and elected officials.
In this way, if they do take steps toward democratic reform, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, they are well aware that this will have consequences for their rule, as such would open the way for democratic opposition and result in a repeat of the opposition’s 2019 victory in local elections. I am pessimistic when it comes to democratic reform under Erdogan and Devlet Bahceli, but I am optimistic about the post-Erdogan era because Turkey’s opposition has proven its capacity and resourcefulness in functioning under an oppressive regime and in its commitment to ushering in much needed reform.
MY: The Trump administration seemed to be protecting Erdogan, his actions in Syria, and his purchase of Russian weapons systems by delaying CAATSA sanctions against Turkey until recently. What do you think about this?
AE: The Trump administration has been sending mixed signals when it comes to Turkey. On the one hand, appeasement appears to be the main logic behind Trump’s relationship with Erdogan, but at the same time Trump also issued Global Magnitsky Sanctions against two Turkish ministers for the first time. This was also the first time that these sanctions were issued against a NATO ally. The same administration also imposed additional tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel. The administration has also now introduced CAATSA sanctions on Turkey, albeit at a level that is less harsh than technically possible. If we approach this issue from Ankara’s point of view, I am sure that Erdogan is puzzled, because on the one hand he enjoys good rapport with Trump and has largely been granted the leeway to do as he wants, yet on the other hand the Erdogan government has been the target of not only a number of sanctions but also increasingly harsh rhetoric on the part of the Trump administration.
Overall, Washington has not pursued a systematic and comprehensive policy towards Turkey. Instead, US-Turkey bilateral relations became dependent on personal whims. However, at the same time, we would do well to recognize a deeper trend in Washington: despite the profoundly polarized state of US politics, there is now a bipartisan consensus among Republicans and Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate against the Erdogan government. I think there is a growing skepticism of Turkey among US legislators, the results of which have been seen in landslide votes on bills and resolutions that directly affect Turkey. We have also seen how Congress pushed for the enaction of CAATSA sanctions against Turkey even when Trump refused to issue them. While the Biden administration will return US-Turkey relations to institutional avenues, the damage that the Erdogan government has done is there to stay. This situation has led to a Washington that is extremely skeptical of Turkey’s ruling government, whether within Congress or among think-tanks, academia, the media, and advocacy organizations. The Erdogan government is isolated in nearly every policy field, but Turkey’s opposition has allies across the political spectrum. In this sense, we will continue to see strong messages and gestures of solidarity from the US directed at Turkey’s opposition.