Post-pandemic U.S. and Turkey

The responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the curtailment of civil liberties by lockdowns and the accompanying economic pain, are calling forth various estimations of what impact it will have on international relations in a post-pandemic world. 

These run the gamut from a new era of nationalist isolationism to proof positive we must re-energise multilateral institutions to prepare for and counter the next inevitable pandemic as well as to combat climate change, establish sustainable economic development, and end reliance on fossil fuels. But let us look beyond the wild predictions on the extremes and focus on more likely outcomes based on trends we can already see manifest in response to the pandemic.

In a short essay in Foreign Affairs, Richard Haass, President of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, recently laid out a strong argument for an acceleration of the nationalist tendency, though not along the lines of a century ago, but as a more rapid continuation of trends of the last 30 years.  Both Turkey and the United States represent these trends in foreign relations that respond to as well as shape internal political developments.  If Haass’s analysis proves right, the United States is more likely to thrive post-pandemic while Turkey will struggle not to slip back further politically and economically. 

The last 30 years have witnessed a renewed emphasis on national identity as both a populist response to the perception of socio-economic dislocations brought about by globalisation and as a tool for gaining and maintaining political power wielded by politicians. Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Donald Trump of the United States have both benefitted from and utilised to their advantage the unease and anger felt by many of their respective fellow citizens and pursued more nationalistic agendas. 

Trump’s America First policy is not a call for isolation, but a call for American officials and companies to put the interests of the United States before all others. Erdogan has done likewise, more in deeds than in words. 

He used Turkish businesses supported by state actions to expand Turkish soft power.  The dramatic expansion of Turkish Airlines’ international network, humanitarian assistance in Somalia and elsewhere, or construction and engineering companies active throughout the Greater Middle East and beyond were tools of a Turkey First policy.

Up until 2013-14, Turkey also used the network of Hizmet/Gülenist schools set up by followers of the Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen to expand Turkish soft-power, but that arrangement ended several years ago.

Then along comes the Coronavirus. 

Almost immediately, all the countries of the world adopted a My Country First policy.  They sealed their borders, first to those who had been in China and then soon to all non-citizens or legal permanent residents, repatriated citizens from quarantine abroad into quarantine at home, abrogated contracts for medical supplies to keep them for domestic use, and began relying on their own data and research rather than turning to the World Health Organization or other multilateral organizations. This was not total – there were positive signs of information sharing and some cross-border assistance between neighboring countries, but in the main, each nation’s leadership put the health and safety of its citizens before all others.

They really had no choice.  Post-Cold War globalization has not been welcomed by many, particularly those with a more culturally conservative or traditional mindset.  It would have been electoral suicide for any elected politician not to be seen as putting the life, health, and safety of one’s own citizens before all others.

The darker aspect to this focus on one’s own citizens is the use of the crisis to undermine, or intensify the undermining, of civil liberties on the pretext of combating the virus and saving lives. As written here before, the U.S. federal system, as well as the separation of powers between the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, is an effective brake on any President’s efforts to usurp the basic civil liberties of the citizenry. In a unitary state with a strong executive, the brakes have less capacity to prevent a permanent reduction in civil liberties. 

At the same time, count on anti-democratic forces to tout the advantages of strong, unified leadership unhampered by civil liberties to combat the virus, even though a cursory inspection of the national responses to the pandemic reveals that countries with a strong democracy have done quite well combating the pandemic and caring for their citizens without permanently reducing their rights and freedoms – the Nordics and New Zealand are a few that give clear witness of this.

Post-pandemic, this My Country First policy alongside creeping authoritarian rule will continue, increasing most quickly in those nations with fragile or ineffective democracies.   

We shall see evidence of this in how nations stockpile medical equipment for use in fighting future pandemics. These will be national stockpiles. 

The case of the European Union is illustrative. Unlike the U.S. federal system of shared sovereignty between the state level and national level of government, the EU member states remain fully sovereign states. By treaty they have relinquished sovereignty in some matters to the EU Commission, but the pandemic has re-animated the emphasis on the nation over the European community. That said, the control of those stockpiles would remain with each nation-state, not a multinational organization such as the EU. 

This leaves Turkey out in the cold. This year’s refusal by the EU to cooperate with Turkish efforts to move refugees into the EU via Greece and Bulgaria will only intensify. The meagre appetite in European capitals to bring Turkey (eventually) into the EU will disappear. Increasingly more distant from the EU as its member states turn inward, and with few friends in the Middle East, Turkey will by necessity lean more heavily on Russia for support, further fraying ties to the US and NATO. 

At the same time, the Turkish state will increase its control over its citizens using the pretext of saving the lives of those citizens. The remaining independence of the judiciary, the press, and civil society will likewise be battered. Ironically, just as the argument that to root out coup plotters, civil liberties had to be curtailed began to lose strength, along comes the pandemic to allow Erdogan to continue curtailing civil liberties on the pretext of saving lives. Expect a further erosion of the power of parliament to restrain the Presidency as well as reduced economic opportunities for those not well-connected politically. 

Meanwhile, the United States will focus its attention on being fully prepared for the next pandemic and pay scant attention to the misfortunes of others, regardless of the efforts by free-traders, economists, and national security advisors to temper isolationist thinking with good sense about the benefits of interconnected global trade. A trans-Atlantic or Community of Democracies based, U.S.-led effort to coordinate preparations for the next pandemic is not likely.  Both Biden and Trump will most likely run stridently America First election campaigns, with a healthy dose of anti-China rhetoric, in their respective efforts to gain or retain power. 

In sum, as damaging as a post-pandemic reduction in trade and investment will be, the U.S., as a net energy exporter can weather the foreseeable economic storms better than a country without such robust energy assets. 

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