How will the incoming Biden administration approach Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey – a former ally that turned increasingly autocratic and disruptive in pursuit of strategic autonomy from Nato? The short answer is very differently than the Trump administration.
For reasons to do with his personal financial interests and an apparent affection for autocrats, Donald Trump showed considerable patience with Erdogan. To be sure, there were impulsive and erratic tweets that kept Ankara on edge. But through it all, Erdogan always knew he could count on his chemistry with Trump to limit damage. Encouraged by the American president’s soft spot for him, Erdogan engaged in an even deeper “bromance” with Russia’s Vladimir Putin than he had with Trump. To the dismay of the US congress, he purchased Russia’s S-400 missile-defense system in defiance of Nato and avoided penalties for doing so.
Joe Biden will make sure Erdogan understands there’s a new sheriff in town. In stark contrast to Trump, Biden will be one of the most experienced presidents in American history, and one with deep knowledge of foreign policy. Also, unlike Trump’s cabinet, the Biden foreign-policy team will be composed of experienced people – individuals with great familiarity both with Erdogan’s instincts and Turkish negotiation tactics that tend to be maximalist.
Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan, tapped respectively to become secretary of state and national security advisor, have dealt with Turkey directly during the eight years of the Obama administration. They have witnessed at first hand the steady deterioration of Ankara’s relations with Washington because of Syria, American support for the Kurds, the failed Turkish coup of 2016 and Erdogan’s evolution into a power-hungry autocrat.
In any case, Biden will need little guidance in dealing with Erdogan. He has a reputation for following his own instincts, rather than the advice of his aides. And this, particularly, will be the case with foreign leaders like Erdogan that Biden knows well.
In an interview with The New York Times, Biden has called Erdogan an “autocrat who needs to pay a price.” Although his instincts will be to punish Turkey, my hunch is that Biden will not be impulsive. He is likely to give Erdogan one last chance before embarking on a course of coercive diplomacy with heavy sanctions.
Coercive diplomacy often depends on the credibility of the threat under consideration. Under Trump, such credibility was missing. But with Biden, it will be highly visible. In fact, there will be major pressure for economic and military sanctions on Turkey even before Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
US legislators finally agreed on December 2 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defense spending legislation, with language that legally compels the White House to impose sanctions on Turkey. According to the legislation, heavy measures in the framework of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) must be implemented within 30 days of the NDAA becoming law.
Trump has threatened to veto the budget, because of his opposition to renaming military bases that honor Confederate generals and because he wanted the legislation to include the repeal of a piece of telecommunications law. But the budget looks like it will survive any attempt at a veto. Then, even if Trump finds ways to delay sanctions, Biden still will have up his sleeve the “legal” inevitability of serious measures against Turkey. CAATSA sanctions were always a distant threat under Trump. With Biden, they will become immediate reality under US law.
So, in short, Biden will be much better equipped to play hard ball with Turkey. He will certainly speak up and criticize Erdogan’s deepening autocracy.
But let’s not forget that Biden also is a pragmatist. Given Turkey’s geostrategic importance, he may also be planning for a “conditional reset” as a last chance to salvage the Nato partnership.
Such a transactional approach would start with a public commitment by Erdogan not to activate the Russian missile-defense system. In return, the Biden administration could shelve the CAATSA sanctions and declare that Turkey is reintegrated in the F-35 program – the stealth fighter jet Turkey was on track to purchase and had helped build as a partner of the project. If Erdogan decides to cooperate with the new US administration and takes steps toward a more constructive policy in Syria, Biden could even offer Turkey financial and, potentially, technical incentives for the purchase of the US’s Patriot missile-defense system.
At the end, a new era of Turkish-American relations is upon us. Biden will have no illusions about working with Erdogan in the absence of major corrections in Turkish policies. The sooner Ankara comes to terms with the risk of approaching American sanctions, the better the chances are for a conditional reset.
The window for cooperation is fast closing, but there still is time to save what is left of the Turkish-American relationship. Biden will not wait too long before embarking on coercive diplomacy with heavy sanctions. It is up to Erdogan to make a choice between Russia and the United States. If he still nurtures hope of good relations with both, a very rough awakening awaits him.
Ömer Taşpınar is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a professor of national-security strategy at the National Defense University in Washington.