Where do the U.S. and Turkey go from here?
The U.S. presidential election is poised to be consequential for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his administration. During President Donald J. Trump’s tenure as the American president, the Turkish government has undergone a dramatic transformation.
Erdoğan faced little criticism from the Trump administration as he spun a sprawling narrative of terrorism built around the failed coup attempt in 2016 to crackdown on all forms of domestic opposition in the academy, the media, the military, and the judiciary. Narrowly pushing through the 2017 constitutional referendum, shifting Turkey from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdoğan greatly expanded his control over the military and the judiciary.
Trump not only ignored Erdoğan’s domestic campaign of repression, but also took unprecedented steps to interfere in American judicial and legislative processes on Ankara’s behalf.
Recent reporting from the New York Times reveals that several Department of Justice officials, including Attorney General Bill Barr, put inappropriate pressure on the prosecutors of Turkey’s Halkbank, which is accused of a massive Iran sanctions busting scheme that implicates core members of the Erdoğan administration and his family.
Trump has also failed to implement sanctions against Turkey for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, despite repeated calls from Congress for the president to do so as required by law.
Trump’s Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joe Biden, is unlikely to remain silent on the extensive human rights violations and illiberal policies of the Erdoğan administration. Biden is also likely to impose the S-400 sanctions required by the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) that Trump has eschewed.
With Biden leading in the polls, Ankara is at risk of losing the impunity it enjoyed as a result of the Trump-Erdoğan “bromance” and Trump’s general disinterest in the threats Turkish actions have posed to American interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Middle East, and North Africa in recent years.
A senior Erdoğan advisor, Burhanettin Duran, wrote last week that, “Going forward, there would be room for a new balance in the Turkey-U.S. relationship because Erdoğan and Biden know each other well enough.”
But the Turkish government today is very different from the one Biden interacted with as vice president. In addition to targeting Gülenists accused of participating in the attempted coup in 2016, Erdoğan’s purge of the bureaucracy also removed many decision-makers that favour Western engagement.
Erdoğan has also remade the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK). Using the expanded presidential powers instituted by the 2017 constitutional referendum, Erdoğan has cashiered or involuntarily retired 46 percent of the military’s general and flag officers, according to one assessment.
The Turkish administration is in the process of recruiting tens of thousands of new military personnel to replenish the ranks. The effort to remake the armed forces includes the reform of professional military education with the intent to dismantle the TSK’s long tradition as the guardians of secularism. Recruitment commercials have adopted a fervent bravado and similar themes of militant nationalism are core to many recent Turkish television productions.
At the same time, Erdoğan has inserted Turkey into conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus that may help forge a military culture that matches his vision of Turkey’s role as a regional power.
Stoking nationalism around foreign military adventures helps Erdoğan maintain his domestic support, but it has weakened the strength and breadth of military-military ties between American and Turkish officers within the NATO alliance, just as the purge of the broader Turkish bureaucracy has severed many diplomatic connections between American and Turkish officials.
Ankara may be eager to seek balance with an incoming Biden administration, but it is unclear who the interlocutors between the two governments will be. Under Biden, there will be no normalisation to the status quo ante Trump. Rather, there will be a return to normalcy in America’s diplomatic approach to its relationship with Turkey.
There will be a strong recommitment to American rule of law, clearing the way for the Halkbank case to duly proceed in American courts and for the congressionally mandated CAATSA sanctions to take effect. American diplomats will also place consistent criticism on Turkish authorities for ongoing and future violations of human rights in Turkey.
Other changes in Washington’s response to Turkey’s aggressive foreign policy moves may be slower to take effect, as the Biden administration is likely to conduct a strategic review of the relationship.
In his article last week, Duran envisions a U.S.-Turkey relationship akin to the current Russia-Turkey relationship, wherein competition and cooperation occur simultaneously in compartmentalised areas. He is right that a Biden administration could generate new cooperation, but not if Turkey continues to fuel conflicts across its neighboring regions. If Biden wins, Erdoğan can no longer have his proverbial cake and eat it too as he did during the Trump era.
Rebuilding a U.S.-Turkey relationship that reflects the two countries’ formal status as treaty allies will require a reconstitution of extensive ties between officials at all levels of the two governments’ ministries. Turkish authorities will need to take confidence-building steps to indicate to American officials that Turkey can be a constructive partner again.
However, Erdoğan may decide to continue his illiberal policies at home to silence dissent and his revisionist foreign policies to burnish nationalist support for his administration, regardless of a change in American administration. Should he fail to foster improved ties with Washington, the prosecution of Halkbank and sanctions tied to the S-400s could be just the beginning of punitive responses from a Biden-led United States.