Can Erdoğan fix relations with Biden without hard talk on human rights?

The annual summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) kicked off on Monday with leaders from across the 30-member bloc flying into the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels. As they gather in unity amid the blue lights that colour the Belgian capital for the occasion, the summit itself will be a test of how far that unity will overcome serious disagreements between member-states.

U.S. President Joe Biden will inevitably be the most carefully watched and courted political figure in Brussels. After four years of former President Donald Trump’s endless verbal abuse of NATO members, Biden has made it clear that, like Trump’s predecessors, he sees the organisation as inherently valuable. Prior to his departure to Brussels, Biden broke with Trump policies and said Washington is “back at the table” and his administration “does not see NATO as a sort of protection racket”.

Several of Biden’s counterparts already had a first shot at speaking to him at the G7 summit he attended in the United Kingdom just before leaving for Brussels. But at the NATO meeting, Biden will face a pricklier but nonetheless important ally; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

For Erdoğan, re-establishing good relations with the U.S. establishment under the Biden administration has been highly desirable as a sort of crown jewel to a months-long charm offensive to break Turkey’s geopolitical isolation. To do this, Erdoğan is pinning his hopes on face-to-face talks with Biden to discuss a host of difficult issues in U.S-Turkey relations.

Erdoğan is keen to free Turkey from U.S sanctions for its purchase of S-400 air defence missiles from Russia in 2019 and to present a case to Biden that Turkey remains a critical ally of the United States. To Erdoğan, a positive picture of U.S-Turkish relations will also hopefully translate into domestic political points and quell fears of Turkey's business community and foreign investors, given the sensitivity of the economy and the Turkish lira to fluctuations in the relationship.

Before leaving for the summit, Erdoğan played down any feeling of bad blood between himself and Biden. Referring to Biden as a “friend of ours” from his time as Barack Obama’s vice president, Erdoğan said he hoped Turkey’s expectations of NATO’s most powerful member would be fulfilled at their meeting.

Erdoğan and his government have shown optimism that they can succeed in winning over the Biden administration through a compromise on the S-400s and heightened cooperation in places like Libya and the Black Sea. What may bedevil Erdoğan’s efforts though may be the topic he is least likely to address with Biden: human rights.

Since coming to office, the Biden administration has not been shy about issuing statements that criticised Turkey’s government for its treatment of student protestors, its hostile rhetoric towards the LGBT community, political prisoners, its anti-semitism and efforts to shutter the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). In nearly every readout of the interactions U.S officials had with their Turkish counterparts, encouraging respect for human rights was included as a theme, something conspicuously absent in parallel statements from Ankara.

Biden himself has spoken out on several occasions against Turkey’s troublesome record on human rights. Following Erdoğan’s withdrawal of Turkey earlier this year from the Istanbul Convention that is committed to addressing gender-based violence, Biden called the decision “deeply disappointing”. And perhaps in his most significant policy decision on Turkey, Biden officially acknowledged the 1915 Armenian genocide, something Turkey has prevented for decades by strong-arming U.S presidents.

Erdoğan has restrained himself in the face of Biden and his administration’s frequent invocation of human rights as he clings to the prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough at Monday's talks. Merve Tahiroğlu, the Turkey Program Coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), said that she does not expect the outcome Erdoğan is betting on, absent of reforms to Turkey’s democracy.

“If Turkey comes up with one solution - or more - for foreign policy issues and thinks that would be enough to put American-Turkish relations back on track and turn a new leaf, that is a completely wrong reading of the Biden administration,” Tahiroğlu told Ahval News in a podcast over the weekend.

Tahiroglu explained that Erdoğan is working to portray a positive image of U.S-Turkey relations to audiences back home, but Biden may not be inclined to oblige him. Before coming to office, Biden labeled Erdoğan as an “autocrat” and is cautious about how close he is with the world’s strongmen in another break from Trump’s embrace of them.

“Unlike his predecessor, Biden really cares about human rights and democratic governance around the world,” she said in a separate podcast with Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations.

Past U.S presidents and their emissaries to Ankara have not always been particularly forceful when speaking out on human rights abuses in Turkey. The fear was that it would push Turkey to adopt an uncooperative posture in the region. But that lack of cooperation still came to pass under Erdoğan, who frequently engaged in anti-American rhetoric and directly undermined U.S policy towards Iran, Syria and Russia.

The so-called “too big to fail” approach towards Turkey has weakened in the halls of Congress and across the executive branch as frustration with Erdoğan intensified and trust all but evaporated. Biden officials themselves, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have openly questioned Turkey’s role as a “strategic partner” even as the administration left the door open to further cooperation.

Barkey told Tahiroğlu that Turkey’s lost status as a reliable and trustworthy ally will continue to cause difficulties in the relationship, even if compromises can be reached on non-human rights issues. This, he said, will put Erdoğan in a difficult situation as he looks to navigate a worsening domestic and economic situation in his country.

"There is pressure of course to come up with an agreement," said Barkey. "It is awkward, and Erdoğan needs an agreement a little bit as a face-saving position at home because he needs to show that he is a world leader."  

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