Biden's foreign policy team shares an approach to Turkey

United States President-Elect Joe Biden announced his picks for foreign policy positions in his administration.

Included among those selected are former deputy secretary of state Anthony Blinken and Biden's former national security advisor Jake Sullivan. Blinken is set to be Biden's nominee to run the Department of State and Sullivan is going to reprise his old role in Biden's new White House. 

In a statement announcing his team, Biden said the country had "no time to lose when it comes to our national security and foreign policy." He reiterated his pledge to be ready by "day one" and praised his choices as the ones best set to "reclaim America's seat at the head of the table." 

Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris also spoke positively about the new choices, who she described as "crisis tested national security and foreign policy leaders" that represent "the best of America."   



Blinken was in some ways no surprise to head the State Department. A seasoned diplomat, Blinken has experience working with Biden on foreign policy with some going so far to refer to him as the former vice president's "alter ego" because of their close working relationship. He is not expected to be a controversial nominee who can win enough Republican support for confirmation in the Senate. 

On Turkey, Blinken has experience with Turkey. He accompanied then Vice President Biden to Ankara in August 2016, a month after the failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan where they expressed the U.S' continued commitment to its NATO ally.

After Donald Trump was sworn into office, Blinken was critical of the new president's catering to Turkey, particularly on Syria where he encouraged Washington to continue supporting Syria's Kurds regardless of Turkey's misgivings. Ankara considers the Syrian Kurdish militias to be an extension of its sworn enemy, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

With Blinken now expected to go to Foggy Bottom and Sullivan at the White House, the contours of Biden's potential approach to Turkey has grown more clear. Sullivan has for years now advocated a clear-eyed, more transactional approach to Ankara and Blinken has similarly pushed for the U.S to assert its own interests strongly in its dealings with Turkish officials. 

In a Politco article co-written with former U.S Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman in February 2018, the two encouraged the U.S to take a "clear and tough minded approach to Turkey" after Erdogan threatened to attack American forces in Syria.  

They wrote that "a longstanding tendency to treat Turkey gingerly, has convinced Erdogan that Washington sees its relationship with Ankara as too important to fail. This only increases his appetite for risk—and thus the potential for conflict." They advocated the U.S push back strongly against Turkish intransigence by putting the prospect of multi-sector sanctions on the table to discourage further aggression against American interests. 

Edelman, the former ambassador, was also rumoured to be under consideration for a position in a Biden administration. Reached for a comment, Edelman told Ahval he had no plans to return to government service.  

"I wish my friends in the incoming Biden Administration well but I have no expectation and no intention of returning to government. They have plenty of good folks to fill up the government without me," Edelman wrote in an email.  

On Turkey's purchase of the S-400 and its cooperation with Russia in its neighborhood, Sullivan acknowledged in remarks to the U.S Institute for Peace (USIP) that this relationship will likely continue in its current form, but Washington should make clear the risks of turning towards its adversaries.

He added that the Turkey should be responsible for negotiating with the Kurds on its own territory and that the U.S would continue working to separate the Kurdish YPG from the PKK while encouraging Turkish-Kurdish talks. 

"We need Turkey to recognize that at the end of the day, the Syrian Kurds need to have some confidence in their political future within post-conflict Syria," Sullivan said at the USIP event in 2018. He cautioned that the Kurds would have to be reasonable in their demands for autonomy and that "we need to be transparent with the Turks about how we're helping to address their ongoing concerns." 

"The U.S. should continue to work to try to show Turkey that going down the path it’s going down is going to start creating significant operational challenges, as well as political and diplomatic challenges," Sullivan said

However, Sullivan's advocated approach to Turkey is aimed less at punishing it as many in Congress may want and instead engage with Ankara in a way it understands. In his Politico, he encourages the U.S to seek high-level engagement with Turkey to make clear both the limits of what it will tolerate and areas they can forge a compromise. 

These instincts pair well with the president elect's. Like Sullivan, Biden is a stated believer in a clear-eyed and frank approach to foreign policy and in a 2016 interview, Biden described his philosophy as emphasising personal rapport with counterparts that Erdogan has tended to prefer. 

"It all gets down to the conduct of foreign policy being personal," Biden told The Atlantic's Steve Clemons about his foreign policy beliefs. "I think its vitally important that not only you know and have as hard a read as you can get on the foreign leader with whim you're dealing...but that leaders know what you say, what you do, what you propose is real..."   

Sullivan's approach may mesh well too with Anthony Blinken at the State Department. 

In July, Blinken told an audience at the Hudson Institute that Biden's personal experience with Erdogan showed interpersonal diplomacy to be the most effective when dealing with the Turkish leader. Following Sullivan's line of thinking on a clearly emphasised U.S position, Blinken too advocated a kind of tough mindedness on Turkey in a New York Times op-ed in 2018 when he urged Washington to make clear its support for the Syrian Kurds because it was in America's best interest there.

Turkish media outlets commenting on the likely shape of a Biden administration expressed misgivings about both Blinken and Sullivan for being cut from the cloth of establishment foreign policy in Washington. Turkish officials have publicly stated they are ready to work Biden's administration, pointing to at least a familiarity with the former vice president himself. 

In his letter congratulating Biden on his election victory, Erdogan pointed to their past experience together and said Biden understands the "strategic quality" of the U.S-Turkey relationship. 

Speaking to the Halifax International Security Forum over the weekend, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said he was looking forward to working together with Biden's administration.