Should the U.S. invite Turkey to its Summit for Democracy?

Eager to revive multilateralism and tackle international issues, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has committed to organising and hosting a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office. The summit will prioritise “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad”.

At this early stage, however, the process of the summit is unclear. Politico said that which countries are invited to attend is an open question of particular concern regarding U.S. allies, such as Turkey, that are governed by increasingly autocratic administrations.

“This is where it gets fun for the diplomats,” U.S. Representative Tom Malinowski said on a panel at the International Anti-Corruption Conference on Thursday. He said he expected there will be a debate within the State Department between human rights people who argue against including backsliding democracies and ambassadors who argue that certain important states can’t not be invited.

“Turkey is a great example. They’re a NATO country, they’ve got an elected president, an elected parliament, and at the same time hundreds, thousands of lawyers, judges, activists (are) in prison and (there has been) severe crackdown on civil liberties for the last several years,” said Malinowski, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, said.

He proposed that to solve the problem the incoming administration could “write the declaration of principles at the outset and say if you want an invitation you’ve got to sign on to all of these things and then when you come to the summit, we’re going to translate the principles into actual action commitments”.

“But you don’t even get through the front door if you’re not willing to sign some things that perhaps the leader of Turkey would be uncomfortable with signing. And then they disinvite themselves,” Malinowski said.

In the absence of an initial declaration of principles, there are competing strategic arguments for and against including Turkey. The Biden administration could defer inclusion of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government, given the president-elect’s intent to organise the world’s democracies to “honestly confront nations that are backsliding”.

Exclusion would send the message loud and clear that Turkey is one such nation. On the other hand, the summit could be argued to offer an opportunity to persuade Ankara to reverse its authoritarian drift and buy into Biden’s goal to “forge a common agenda”.

“Erdoğan has already signalled domestically in recent weeks that he is getting ready for a Biden presidency," Sibel Oktay, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, told Ahval. "So in the event that he joins the summit, Erdoğan will double down on this rhetoric at home to show that he is in fact delivering on his previous remarks about how Turkey’s future is with the West and transatlantic allies.”

Erdoğan should be invited to the summit because “the U.S. cannot afford to marginalise Turkey, and Turkey still needs NATO both as a source of collective defence and as a source of credibility and reputation”, Oktay said.

“Inviting Turkey to this summit might help rebuild the bridge between the two countries who still need each other. A declaration of principles would be a smart move to tie Turkey’s hands.”

Which strategy the Biden administration selects for its summit will matter less than the make-up of any enduring multilateral forums that the summit may produce. The full admission of Turkey to any new partnership of democracies would have minimal impact on the health of democracy in Turkey and would only serve to reproduce the problems within existing international bodies.

At the United Nations Security Council, the obstruction of China and Russia prevents collective action against authoritarianism. The political diversity of the G20 has rendered the group incapable of addressing the global issues of the pandemic, economic crisis and climate change. Even the relevance of the G7 has declined due to long-term structural factors that were exacerbated in recent years by President Donald Trump’s disdain for multilateralism.

One possible alternative is the D10 that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for in May, which would include the G7 countries plus Australia, India and South Korea. The Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank, has already convened dialogues between D10 policy planning officials since 2014. The inclusion of four Asia-Pacific countries in a formalised D10 could beneficially eclipse the transatlantic centrism of the G7.

A similar proposal is the formation of a T12. Jared Cohen and Richard Fontaine, two former State Department officials involved in policy planning, recently argued in Foreign Affairs that, just as the G-7 initially formed to guide economic multilateralism, we now need a group of leading “techno-democracies” to address the challenges posed by the digital age. Their suggested list would include the countries of the proposed D10, minus Italy, and would also make room for smaller countries with robust technology sectors including, Sweden, Finland and Israel.

Advocates of both a D10 and a T12 precondition membership on a commitment to rules-based democracy and call for organising an initial agenda around issues like 5G networks and critical supply chains that no government can tackle alone. It remains to be seen whether either concept will be considered by key leading democracies at the Summit for Democracy.

“Given the alarming nature of Turkey’s democratic backsliding, it would be absurd for Biden to invite Erdoğan to his Summit for Democracy,” Aykan Erdemir, the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Ahval.

“The Biden administration, however, should consider a second track alongside the meeting of heads of state to involve pro-democracy activists from authoritarian regimes in the dialogue,” he said. Erdemir was a member of the Turkish Parliament from 2011 to 2015 for the leading opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

“Ultimately, whatever course Biden takes, Erdoğan will use it as a pretext to propagate his illiberal worldview while targeting the opposition,” he said. “The incoming administration should worry less about finding ways to appease Erdoğan and fellow members of his authoritarian bloc and more about offering support and solidarity to pro-democracy forces.”

Representative Malinowski argued that a big tent Summit for Democracy should be avoided: “A better way to do it would be to set a pretty high bar for admission at the outset, and with a smaller group of highly committed countries, actually focus on getting hard commitments on issues like beneficial ownership, anti-money laundering, law enforcement cooperation (and) intelligence cooperation to actually track the flow of dark money around the world so that we can actually get something out of this.”

The representative said he expected President-elect Biden would prefer such an approach, “but it will take a lot of focus and discipline on the part of the diplomats that he hires to make it come out that way”.