Understanding Biden's disinterest in Erdoğan
After over two months in office, President Biden has still not reached out to speak with his Turkish counterpart. While one must be careful not to read too much into this, the non-calling and other signals from the White House and the State Department indicate that Team Biden sees no reason to prioritize improved relations with President Erdoğan.
Turkey is the second or third most populous member of NATO. Even with the economic challenges confronting it now, it remains one of the 20 largest economies in the world. It connects Europe and the Middle East, with three bridges spanning the Bosphorous testifying to its geo-strategic, commercial, and cultural binding of those two regions. Istanbul sits almost equidistant from California to the west and Japan to the East, ensuring that in the post-Covid period when air travel returns to pre-Covid levels, it will rank among the one of the most important air transportation hubs in the world. One need hardly mention that Turkey borders several countries in which the U.S. has a great deal of interest – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece – and is near to others that count heavily in U.S. concerns – Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon, Egypt. (The listings are illustrative, not exhaustive.)
For these aforementioned reasons, a call from the President of the U.S. to the President of Turkey soon after the former took office would be expected. Yet, after two months, no call. I offer three main reasons why this is so.
First, the perception of necessity has been reduced. For years, President Erdoğan has behaved as if the U.S. and the West in general had greater need of Turkey, and of his leadership of Turkey, than Turkey and he had need of the West, in particular of the U.S. This perception was fed over the years by numerous Americans in positions of authority acquiescing to Turkish actions that would have gotten a strong rebuke if done by another less significant partner.
But Biden and his national security team have no interests in pretending any longer that the U.S. has needs and interests that depend upon the good will of Turkey’s leaders. While there might be some downgrading of capabilities by the removal of U.S. facilities and equipment from Incirlik or Malatya, other options do exist. The improved U.S. relations with Greece and the improving Israeli-Arab states relations have created options that reduce the necessity for access to Turkish military facilities. The Turkish facilities may remain the first choice, but they are no longer perceived as the only acceptable option.
Second, the conversation promises to be unpleasant. Public reporting of an eventual conversation will almost certainly include the observation that it was “a frank and honest exchange of views”. This diplomatic language would hide the fact that on most issues of importance, the U.S. under Biden and Turkey under Erdoğan are not singing from the same song sheet.
Candidate Biden made clear that respect for Human Rights - LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, freedom of the press, etc. - would be a center-piece of U.S. foreign policy. His words so far on this have reinforced that undertaking. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have also made strong statements in support of human rights, almost as often as mentioning Russian air defense systems.
Positive conversations on Turkish involvement in the recent Armenian-Azerbaijani fighting, activities in Libya or Syria, rhetoric about the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean look equally unlikely. Efforts to suppress the HDP and place the press under de facto government control also would not lead to fruitful conversations. And with no likelihood of a meeting of minds on the issues, and less on the ability of Mr Biden to persuade Mr Erdoğan to change direction, why bother with a phone call that would only exacerbate the existing areas of disagreement, to include mentioning S-400s.
Third, President Biden is obsessed with undoing everything his predecessor, Donald Trump, did. This includes how Mr Trump conducted foreign affairs. His signing of dozens of Executive Orders and comments made in a recent press conference revealed this obsession. President Erdoğan enjoyed then President Trump’s favor, but Trump has left the building. If for no other reason than that, Mr Biden has no interest in conversing with someone who he likely perceives as a Turkish Trump – a populist demagogue with authoritarian tendencies who does little to benefit U.S. national interests.
In sum, for reasons tactical, strategic, and personal, President Biden is not likely to invest as much time and energy in a relationship with President Erdoğan, delegating that task to his able subordinates, and only engaging when the heft of his office is necessary. This welcome de-personalization of foreign relations, ironically due in part to his personal animus to all things Trumpian, may or may not yield benefits for U.S.-Turkey relations in the near term, for President Erdoğan has a large role to play in the future direction of U.S.-Turkey relations. But if it signals a more consensus and less personal approach to foreign relations, the greater predictability will be most welcome for building stronger U.S.-Turkish relations over time.