How Biden handled Erdoğan in his first year: it’s been a mixed bag

“I believe that the strong cooperation and the bond of alliance between our countries will continue to make vital contributions to world peace in the future, as it has done so far."

Those were the words that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended to U.S President Joe Biden after he secured victory in the November 2020 U.S presidential election. In ordinary circumstances, the comment sounds like congratulations expected of any one of the United States’ allies with the arrival of a new administration - the only problem was that they arrived almost a week after Biden was officially declared a winner.

This snub wrapped in uncertainty was only the beginning in what would develop into an awkward freeze in U.S-Turkey relations that has stunted Ankara’s desire to refashion itself as an American partner. It set about seeking to repair ties in the hope of getting out from under U.S sanctions, avoid economic fallout from tensions with Washington and ideally use good top-level relations to protect Turkey from ire elsewhere in Washington, as was the case under Trump.

This was bound to be a tall order from the very beginning. Biden as well as his most senior officials have shown that they favour an institutionalised approach to international relations over the leader-to-leader rapport that characterised Trump’s foreign policy. In each of their interactions to date, Biden has repeated to Erdoğan the need to engage on bilateral disagreements through their respective agencies, narrowing the room for any breakthrough merely through dialogue between the two men.

The administration has also demonstrated that it would defer to the U.S Congress on certain fronts, something that does not bode well for Erdoğan given the immense antipathy towards his government on both sides of the aisle. Throughout the Trump administration, punishing Erdoğan for his undermining of U.S interests or his authoritarian rule became one of few areas of bipartisan agreement, resulting in an informal arms ban on Turkey and a formidable obstacle to lifting any sanctions imposed after Ankara purchased S-400 air defence missiles from Russia. This coolness has not abated under Biden. 

Even if Erdoğan succeeded in forging a bond with a skeptical Biden, it is unlikely that any amount of good personal chemistry would be enough to overcome the deeper roots of the problems in U.S-Turkish relations.

“It seems clear that President Biden and President Erdoğan do not have the same kind of personal chemistry that Presidents Trump and Obama (during his first term) enjoyed with the Turkish leader,” said Dr. Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.

Cook told Ahval News that wider disagreements over U.S support for Syria’s Kurdish militants, Turkey’s possession of the S-400s, and the presence of Erdoğan's despised foe, the exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen, in the United States remain unresolved and it wasn't likely that they would be, no matter the relationship between Erdoğan and Biden.

Taken together, the first year of U.S-Turkey relations under Biden can be characterised by a mix of containment and transactionalism, said Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament.

"On the one hand, Biden and his aides see Erdoğan as a toxic autocrat and try to minimise their association with him. On the other hand, when expediency forces Washington to cooperate with Ankara, as it has been the case in Afghanistan, the Biden administration seeks quid pro quos," Erdemir told Ahval.

For all the preexisting acrimony between Ankara and Washington, the two have managed to avoid exasperating outstanding disagreements while maintaining dialogue on other issues.

For example, Turkish and U.S officials worked together on details for maintaining an international presence in Afghanistan through Kabul international airport before the country fell to the Taliban on August 15. More recently, U.S diplomats have remained in touch with their Turkish counterparts throughout the ongoing tensions between Ukraine and Russia, and will both take part in talks between NATO and Moscow over the situation.

On Monday Turkey's presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalın and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan exchanged views on bilateral relations, the Ukrainian crisis and the ongoing protests in Kazakhstan by phone, in interactions that have grown of late.

The level of cooperation though has shown its limits. The Biden administration has not signaled much interest in reshaping relations with Turkey without progress on any of their disputes or compared to their other priorities like competition with China. Erdoğan has also shown his frustration with his inability to make meaningful progress with Biden.

"I worked well with George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, but I cannot say we started well with Joe Biden," Erdoğan told reporters in September during a visit to New York for the United Nations General Assembly. "After 19 years in office, I can’t say that we have reached a good position with the U.S."

A shift to transactionalism, while to the chagrin of Erdoğan, also has its costs for the United States, nowhere perhaps more than on its advocacy for human rights and democracy in Turkey and its struggle to keep Turkey within the orbit of democratic nations.

As a candidate and shortly after assuming office, Biden defined his foreign policy as one that placed human rights at its center. At the start of 2021, Biden’s State Department and the White House spoke out against Erdoğan’s crackdown on student protestors in Istanbul, anti-LGBT and anti-Semitic statements by Turkish officials, and Erdoğan’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on women’s rights, which came in the form of a direct rebuke from Biden himself. Perhaps the most significant move of them all was Biden’s decision to officially recognise the 1915 Armenian genocide, ending decades of deference to Turkey on the matter for fear of undermining their alliance.

But as 2021 drew nearer to a close, U.S criticism has become less pronounced and even been walked back. In October, the U.S Embassy in Ankara joined nine other nations in a statement criticising the imprisonment of Osman Kavala, a Turkish businessman and philanthropist who has been jailed in Turkey for four years while awaiting trial for charges alleging involvement in espionage, terrorism, and attempts to overthrow the government.

Erdoğan threatened to expel the ambassadors. He walked the threat back after a statement by the United States pledging adherence to diplomatic protocol between the two countries. Erdoğan hailed the statement as a victory against foreign interference.

Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey Coordinator for the Project On Middle East Democracy (POMED), described Biden’s track record on supporting Turkish democracy and human rights in his first year as “mixed”.

"On the one hand, his administration has done more than its predecessors to advocate for human rights in Turkey,” Tahiroglu told Ahval. “And yet, Biden himself has shied away from raising these issues with Erdoğan—even as Erdoğan stepped up his repressive policies.

“Overall, I think this approach has undermined the administration’s credibility and thus ability to incentivise any democratic reform in Turkey,” she said.

Erdemir said that the transactional approach can pose a "significant obstacle" to fulfilling Biden's promises on human rights within his foreign policy. This, he warns, may carry consequences into 2022 if Erdoğan internalises the idea that he can find deals he can strike with Biden that do not call for any change in his behavior at home or abroad.

“In 2022, Erdoğan will count on finding and exploiting such transactional deals to get away with his heavy-handed authoritarianism at home and belligerence abroad,” said Erdemir.

“As Turkey’s financial nosedive continues, however, the Biden administration’s appeasing stance might not be of much help to Erdoğan, who will struggle to reverse the fallout from an economic crisis of his own making.”

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