Biden and Erdoğan: official over personal
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a glance above at the official photo of a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the margins of the G20 summit in Rome on Sunday is sufficient to summarise the state of their personal relations.
With a forced smile from Erdoğan and a steady, emotionless stare from Biden, clearly no love is lost between the two heads of state. But their personal relationship matters very little to official relations between the United States and Turkey. Unlike his immediate predecessor, Biden is not going to direct U.S. foreign policy based on his personal feelings about a counterpart. That is bad news for Erdoğan and not as much good news for Turkey and its people as some might hope.
Moving from the pictorial to the textual, we must parse the official White House readout on the meeting between the two leaders. The text opens with the words that “President Biden underscored his desire to maintain constructive relations, expand areas of cooperation, and manage our disagreements effectively.” With a treaty ally of almost 70 years? When the president of the leading nation of NATO feels the need to emphasise his desire for “constructive relations” with a NATO ally, then relations are not as they should be.
Two nations seek constructive relations when they do not share many common values or interests, when they want to make the best of a far less than ideal relational situation. The United States seeks constructive relations with Russia, it seeks closer and deeper relations with its allies. More positively, “expand areas of cooperation” implies there are at least some such areas already, but then the statement shifts back to “manage our disagreements effectively”.
Between allies, disagreements should not be managed effectively, they should be resolved in a spirit of friendship and mutual respect - unless that is lacking.
Next came a quick “thank you” for Turkey’s contributions to the NATO mission in Afghanistan. Many Turks, regardless of their attitude towards Erdoğan, will see a slight in this all too brief expression of appreciation. That was certainly not its intent. For domestic political reasons, the White House wants as little mention of Afghanistan made as possible - not surprising given the shambolic exit of U.S. forces in accord with the directives of Mr. Biden. That said, a few words of the sacrifices in blood and treasure made by Turks in Afghanistan were called for.
Then a short litany of the matters discussed follows. Some will read too much into the use of “eastern Mediterranean” instead of Cyprus, but while the situation has Cyprus at the center, it is a complex one involving several nations of the region and therefore is better encompassed by the term eastern Mediterranean.
Then onto the elephant in the room - “Turkey’s possession of the Russian S-400 missile system”. It is noteworthy that the drafter of the readout knew enough to write “possession of” rather than “acquisition of”. The problem is no longer that Turkey purchased the system, but that Turkey possesses the system, implying that retaining the system but not operating it would not be an acceptable compromise to put to rest the S-400 disagreement. Of course, it could also be clumsy drafting with no greater implications, but the current White House staff include many experienced personnel from the Obama administration who should know the importance and usefulness of a precisely worded official statement.
Finally, a few throwaway lines about democratic institutions, etc. being linked to greater peace and prosperity. Placement matters, and the insertion of a comment on human rights and the rule of law at the very end of the text reveals that Mr. Biden focused on other issues instead.
Thus, Mr. Biden informed Mr. Erdoğan that official state-to-state relations trump personal relations for the conduct of ties between Turkey and the United States. Managing disagreements will not depend on Erdoğan’s personal charisma or political stature, but on finding areas of cooperation for the mutual benefit of the two nations. Of course, as a chief executive with an electoral mandate from the people, Erdoğan retains considerable power in directing Turkey’s foreign policy, but in relations with the United States he must learn to work within the official protocols of diplomacy rather than going with his gut instincts.
For the Turkish people, this shift away from personalised foreign relations to more professional foreign relations is a good thing, The United States, and most authentic democratic states, do not bear ill-will towards Turkey and its people, though many of their political leaders have little time for Mr. Erdoğan or those Turks who support him. In particular, respect for human rights and strong democratic institutions (especially an independent judiciary) are areas of concern for most Western nations in relations with Turkey. To date, Mr. Erdoğan has been able to play the nationalist card at home to blunt criticism of his policies, something a few EU national leaders have also done.
Yet, it would be foolish to foresee the United States joining EU leaders to put pressure on Turkey, in particular Mr. Erdoğan, to put democratic institutions and human rights practices more in line with international standards. As we know from the debacle of the precipitous U.S. withdraw form Afghanistan, Mr. Biden talks a great deal about his concern for the status of women, mouths platitudes about respecting and protecting the members of the LGBTQ+ community, and calls for the rule of law - but they are only words. Mr. Biden is laser focused on portraying himself as a consequential president implementing the policies he believes the U.S. electorate supports. Perhaps even more importantly, Mr. Biden’s continued slide in the opinion polls puts members of the Senate in a more commanding position, giving him less room for maneuver on Turkey and other issues. No one should expect him to take actions to support human rights and democracy in Turkey absent a push from others leaders in the Democratic Party.