As the Erdoğan-Biden meeting approaches…
The national conversation in Turkey remains focused on domestic politics as we get closer and closer to a critical meeting in the international arena where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is set to meet U.S. President Joe Biden for the first time, on the margins of the June 14 NATO summit.
It is no secret that the relationship got off to a rocky start, as Biden referred to the 1915 events as a “genocide” right after his initial phone call with Erdoğan. Ankara’s response to Washington’s endorsement of Israel’s attacks on the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Gaza (in the name of self-defense) also put strains on bilateral relations.
Still, both sides are currently busy working on proposals, which could compartmentalize problem areas and promote cooperation. Clearly, policymakers have a difficult job, since chronic issues – such as disagreements over the S-400 air defense system, the F-35 fighter jet, the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) and the PKK/YPG terrorist organization – threaten to set the tone for the leaders’ meeting.
Erdoğan frequently reiterates his commitment to normalization in foreign policy and reforms on the home front. He has also said, multiple times, that he hopes to start “a new chapter” with the Biden administration.
Most recently, in a video call with the executives of 26 U.S. companies, Erdoğan highlighted the importance of “broad-spectrum cooperation” and “a deeply-rooted, multi-dimensional alliance” dating back long years saying, “President Biden’s statement on 1915 imposed an additional burden on our relationship. But I am confident that our upcoming meeting with President Biden at the NATO Summit will be the precursor of a new era.”
The Biden administration, however, continues to see the S-400 issue as the main obstacle to repairing the bilateral relationship.
June is a milestone
My view is that the atmosphere in Erdoğan’s upcoming meeting with Biden will set the tone for Turkey’s relations with the United States and the European Union for the next two years.
After all, EU officials, too, have been waiting for Washington’s decision regarding Turkey. Against that backdrop, the European Parliament’s May 19 decision to call for terminating membership talks with Turkey was incompatible with the “positive agenda” that European leaders have publicly announced.
Biden’s intention to make NATO more active creates an opportunity to repair Turkey-U.S. relations. Turkey happens to be the second most influential NATO ally –second to the United States— when it comes to the organization’s relations with Russia.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been attempting to de-escalate tensions with Russia, ahead of the U.S. president’s June 15 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That approach, intended to prevent Russia from moving closer to China, Washington’s actual adversary, is unlikely to yield radical outcomes. Instead, climate change and the fight against the coronavirus may be at the top of the agenda. Nonetheless, the softening may also de-escalate tensions between Moscow and Kyiv.
The side effect
Areas of agreement between Biden and Putin may also impact the balance of power between Ankara and Moscow.
In recent weeks, the Russians have openly expressed their unhappiness with Turkey’s defense cooperation with Ukraine (Crimea) and Poland. Ensuring the safety of Eastern European nations and keeping a lid on Russia’s influence, however, strengthens Turkey’s hand within the NATO framework.
That’s why Biden’s pending offers to Erdoğan (to repair the strategic relationship) and his deal with Putin are critically important.
Some people in Washington and Brussels argue that normalization with Turkey must be postponed until after 2023. Their view rests on multiple claims – that normalization would serve Erdoğan’s interests, that putting pressure on the Turkish economy will help the opposition and that it will be easier to shake hands on a grand bargain with Turkey’s post-Erdoğan government.
It is no secret that this approach, which is utterly disrespectful of the Turkish people’s will, is quite anti-democratic. It is highly risky, moreover, to even think about getting a grand coalition, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), to abandon the Turkish people’s national interests.
It may be possible to effectively strongarm a coalition of opposition parties with no common foreign policy. Instability may produce a crisis of government and an early election as well. Still, to expect the Turkish people to abandon their vital interests in Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean is completely out of touch with reality.
The bottom line is that the West must not think too much about the veil of anti-Erdoğanism. The idea that the United States is “hostile” towards Turkey is quite popular among opposition voters.
This article was first published by Daily Sabah on May 31, 2021.