Biden-Erdoğan meeting at G-20 leaves U.S-Turkey relations at a standstill

On Sunday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met for the second time in a year with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a G-20 summit in Rome. 

Despite the constructive portrait of the meeting from Ankara and Washington, it is clear that little progress has been made for either side to write home about. What it instead may represent is that U.S.-Turkey relations remain stuck between a rock and a hard place. 

In the statements that followed, both sides spoke of a desire to manage relations into a positive direction after a decade of tension. In a readout from the Turkish presidency, it said the meeting said the meeting took place in a "positive atmosphere" and that a "common will for further strengthening and advancing" relations were put forward. The statement also described the formation of a joint mechanism to achieve this, but stopped short specific details of what this entails.

The White House released a more detailed statement after the meeting. It emphasized that Biden expressed appreciation for Turkish contributions to NATO in Afghanistan, a reaffirmation of their defence partnership and underscored a "desire to maintain constructive relations". Unlike the Turkish statement, the U.S. side noted that Biden brought up American concerns over human rights in Turkey, as well as over its defence relationship with Russia.

Biden and Erdoğan similarly had similarly hailed their first meeting in June as constructive. At the time, Erdoğan was pitching a stronger Turkish role in Afghanistan after the United States had completed its withdrawal, with Washington expressing its support for any mission. The meeting also came on the heels of Biden’s decision to recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide, historically a red line for Turkey, but it appeared to do little to impact the talks at the time. 

In the months after that first meeting, the strains on the relationship made themselves known again. The Taliban’s seizure of power in Afghanistan in August dashed Ankara’s hopes for winning back support in Washington. Qatar, Turkey’s ally, soon emerged as The Unites States’ preferred partner in Afghanistan after the kingdom contributed extensively to the American withdrawal through use of its territory and relations with the Taliban.

A month later, Erdoğan was infuriated that Biden did not agree to meet with him at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. In an interview with CBS News during the UNGA, Erdoğan vented about how his relations with Biden were the worst he’s had with any U.S. president to date. 

Less than a week later, Erdoğan appeared in Moscow to meet Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, where he floated the idea of acquiring more Russian arms. Turkey’s initial purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia resulted in U.S. sanctions under former President Donald Trump and its expulsion from the F-35 joint strike fighter programme.

Behind all the acrimony towards Biden, Erdoğan is in perhaps his most difficult position in his two decades of rule. Weighed down by a sagging economy and an emboldened opposition, Erdoğan is looking for a victory abroad to present to the Turkish public, which is losing faith in him, according to polls.

Foreign policy in recent years has been the main arena in which Erdoğan can silence his critics and stake out a place for himself on the world stage. 

During the Trump administration, Erdoğan conducted a muscular foreign policy in the Middle East, South Caucasus and in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. These efforts were conducted with the acquiescence of President Trump, who considered Erdoğan a personal friend and was more interested in cutting back on U.S. involvement in these regions. 

Since Biden entered the White House, Erdoğan has been kept at a distance by the new president. This coolness from Biden is both personally and politically harmful for Erdoğan, who is increasingly conscientious of how he presents himself as a world leader.

“Erdoğan sees bilateral relations through the lens of interpersonal relations,” said Aykan Erdemir, senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington D.C.

Erdemir, who is also a former member of the Turkish parliament, explained that as Erdoğan approaches what he says may be the end of his rule, “impression management has replaced diplomacy as the main modus operandi” of Turkey’s foreign policy. Biden’s perceived snubs and de-emphasis on personal relations in international relations thus create a particular challenge for Erdoğan. His administration has also been reluctant to push back on the foreign policy dictates of the U.S. Congress, which has seriously soured in its views of the Turkish leader.

At the same time as Erdoğan runs into inertia with his attempts at rapprochement, the Biden administration for its part has not secured any concessions from Ankara either in its first year in office. 

Erdoğan’s flirtation with the idea of buying more weapons from Russia shows that he has not backed away from the idea of playing it against the U.S. when needed. Defence officials from both sides up to the highest level continue to speak regularly, but Turkey is still insistent that it is within its right to operate the S-400.  In Syria too, Erdoğan has threatened to renew military operations against the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Ankara views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Beyond enduring gripes overseas, Erdoğan remains opposed to U.S. criticism of his rule at home. On Oct. 18, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey joined with nine other Western envoys to criticize the continued imprisonment of Turkish civil society activist and philanthropist Osman Kavala

Erdoğan lashed out by threatening to expel the ambassadors and the U.S. later agreed to a statement that it respected Turkey’s internal affairs. This was seen by some observers as a retreat by the U.S. on speaking out for human rights in Erdoğan’s Turkey. 

The State Department did not return Ahval News’ request for a comment on whether it agreed on Erdoğan’s contention that it was interfering in Turkish internal affairs. Last week, department spokesman Ned Price insisted that the statement should not be understood as Washington toning down human rights advocacy or that the Kavala statement represented interference. 

In its statement after their meeting with Erdoğan, the White House said Biden “emphasized the importance of strong democratic institutions, respect for human rights, and the rule of law” to Erdoğan. The U.S. president proclaimed early on in his administration that human rights would be central to his foreign policy, but the outcome of the row over the ambassadors appeared wanting. 

Erdemir from FDD called the joint statement on Kavala a "noble effort," but lamented that the "volte-face" in response to Erdoğan's fury could have hurt efforts to speak up on Turkish human rights while handing him a domestic victory

He added that more needs to be done to speak up at a time when the human rights struggle in Turkey has “ended up being worse than where it started.”

"The Turkish people do need the solidarity of Turkey’s Western allies in their struggle against Erdogan’s despotic rule," said Erdemir. ""Such Western solidarity needs to be at least as brave and committed as the Turkish activists who risk their lives, freedom, and assets to keep Turkey a part of the free world."


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.
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