Joe Biden’s victory as the next US president represents a significant setback for Turkey’s president. Recep Tayyip Erdogan had managed to establish a close and personal relationship with President Donald Trump that protected him from a Washington establishment, Republican and Democrat, increasingly critical of Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy and intensifying authoritarianism. Trump’s lackadaisical approach to Erdogan provided the latter with an opening for an aggressive and revisionist set of policies that pushed the boundaries of Turkey’s relations with America and Europe. Biden, on the other hand, is unlikely to countenance Erdogan’s belligerence. Thus, we should not be surprised if Turkish-American relations are subject to some serious and contentious disagreements.
In the four years since Trump became president, Turkish-American relations have been subject to some of the severest disagreements and clashes. The list is long and includes such issues as the Turkish intervention in Syria against America’s allies, the Syrian Kurds, who successfully and at great sacrifice fought against ISIS at Washington’s urging. Trump shocked and angered Congressional Republicans and Democrats for greenlighting Erdogan’s partial takeover of northern Syria and by reducing the presence of American troops there.
In contrast, Biden is on record saying “Turkey is the real problem,” and that he would tell “Erdogan that he will pay a heavy price.” So, chances are, the new administration will increase help for the Syrian Kurds, given that ISIS remains a serious threat.
Erdogan also has been intent on extending Turkish influence throughout the Mediterranean. In Libya, he intervened decisively on behalf of the Tripoli government by deploying his country’s highly effective drones, along with advisors and thousands of Syrian jihadists, turning the tide against the insurgent Khalifa Haftar. (These same tactics, down to the deployment of Syrian jihadists, are being employed in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan.)
Then, there is Turkey’s hawkish challenge to Greek and Cypriot exclusive economic zones in the Eastern Mediterranean – a development that has shaken the European Union to which both Cyprus and Greece belong. The maritime disputes are not new; what is new, however, is Ankara’s all-or-nothing approach that risks instigating a serious conflict with military ramifications.
Perhaps the most immediate challenge awaiting the Biden administration is a dispute for which there appears to be no immediate solution: Turkey’s decision to purchase the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, which it is claimed compromises America’s most modern, multi-purpose fighter aircraft, the F-35. It is important to understand this crisis because it is emblematic of the state of current relations between Ankara and Washington. Turkey was repeatedly warned by the US and its allies of severe consequences if it went ahead with the S-400.
But Erdogan was oblivious to those appeals. He assumed that its allies would eventually give in, as they had in the past, because “Turkey is simply too important,” and that Trump would find a way around this particular challenge. To his surprise, the US acted quickly to cast out Turkey from the F-35 program. It would not receive any of the planes that its air-force had counted on to refurbish its aging fleet. Turkey, which planned to earn billions of dollars by producing and exporting F-35 parts, now finds itself excluded from this as well, thereby also forsaking the benefits of technology transfer.
Yet, the S-400s needn’t be the most pressing problem, provided the Turks do not deploy them. But having paid the Russians almost $2.5 billion and invested much prestige in their acquisition, Erdogan does not have a face-saving exit. He cannot return them, like a buyer having second thoughts; Moscow is not Amazon. The absence of confidence in Erdogan means that even if the missiles were to remain undeployed in Turkey, the US would not countenance Ankara’s return to the F- 35 program.
The S-400s, which Turkey recently tested, have unified all segments of the Washington establishment in opposition, from Democrats and Republicans in Congress to the department of defense, usually an important supporter. Congress voted for further sanctions against Turkey that, were it not for Trump blocking it, would have augmented Ankara’s pain. A President Biden, who already has a fraught relationship with Turkey, is likely to be supportive of sanctions, certainly as a diplomatic tool.
Turkey’s leadership and its supporters, especially in the media, have made clear their dislike of Biden. His past statements suggesting that he would engage with the opposition have been repeatedly disseminated by government allies to insinuate that he would support “an overthrow” of the government. After all, Biden was US vice-president during the 2016 attempted coup that the Erdogan administration has consistently blamed on Washington. Turkey would very much like the US to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom it accuses of organizing the coup. Ankara has not been able to supply the requisite legal documents that America needs to begin an investigation. For Turkey, the apparent American reluctance is evidence of bad faith.
Erdogan has enjoyed unusual access to Trump, calling him often and succeeding in getting the American president to agree to requests that left the American bureaucracy aghast. In many ways, the two leaders are very much alike: they prefer the informal over the formal in conducting business, and both are bombastic personalities who fancy themselves as “mutinous” leaders intent on transforming the existing global system. They enjoy putting their opponents on the defensive, by constantly attacking and accusing them of outlandish wrongdoings, to shrewdly achieve political goals. The difference is that Erdogan could jail anyone he disliked, and Trump could not.
Biden is going to be a very different president. He is an institutionalist. Erdogan will be unable to circumvent the US government bureaucracy and go directly to Biden, nor will the new American president consider making side deals.
Henri J Barkey is the Cohen Professor of International Relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations. Among other roles, he previously served as a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, working primarily on issues related to the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean and intelligence.