Biden and Erdoğan: Do not expect much

U.S. President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are meeting in Brussels on Monday. There is little likelihood of a major breakthrough on any of the differences confronting U.S.-Turkish relations.

The acquisition by Turkey of the Russian S-400 air defence system, its subsequent suspension from the F-35 stealth fighter jet programme, human rights issues, Ankara’s negative attitude towards Israel and tensions over Turkey’s territorial claims in the eastern Mediterranean will likely continue to be sources of tension between the two NATO allies.

We can expect better management of the issues, at least from the U.S. side, as personality-driven diplomacy is out and national interests, as interpreted by career professionals, is in. There also remains the possibility that Biden will allow himself to be charmed by Erdoğan. Both men have a history of bullying others to get their way - both men realise that in this situation, bullying will not work. Better to go on a charm offensive of forceful but mutually respectful expressions of opinions.  

A successful meeting depends on how much each leader plays to his base of political support. This will be easier for Biden – he needs only to reiterate the U.S. position to establish with his political base that he still stands by the promises made in his election campaign, which touched only in a small way on foreign affairs. Biden will make the right comments on LGBTQ rights (it is Pride Month, how could he not) and say something about the suppression of the free press and individual civil liberties, but not so vociferously as to alienate Erdoğan or generate vitriol from Turkey’s largely state-controlled or influenced media.

For his part, Erdoğan should avoid any suggestion that he harbours ill feelings for Israel or for Jews and leave the Palestinian/Jerusalem issue for others to discuss. Likewise, he should present the S-400 deal as a necessary response to the lack of Western support for Turkey’s defence needs.

Erdoğan will probably fall back on calling for bilateral working groups to tackle the common issues facing the two countries. If he is wise, he will avoid getting into a tit-for-tat with Biden or condemning the United States, as the Chinese did in a meeting with Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. As important a NATO ally and regional security partner as Turkey is, it is not China, which has a great deal more trade and financial leverage over the United States.

The Turkish opposition, clearly happy to see Erdoğan’s protector in the White House gone, should not get its hopes up too much. Certainly, the policy goals of Biden - on human rights, climate change, more just economic structures, a focus on international cooperation over unilateral action - are more to their liking than those of Biden’s immediate predecessor, but Biden’s influence with Erdoğan is limited in many ways. One bright spot for the opposition, however, is that while Trump had to stand up for Erdoğan against Congressional calls for sanctions, etc., Biden enjoys the support of Congress in dealing with Erdoğan, that is, he is not operating alone.

What is most important is that the meeting is even happening, and both sides are clearly seeking to avoid the unpleasant public sniping that occurred during the recent Hamas-Israel fighting. Diplomacy from the podiums rarely if ever leads to positive outcomes.

Each president will seek to present their meeting in the best possible light, going out of their way to establish a mutually respectful if not friendly tone to the relationship. By now, the staffs of each leader have fully prepared their bosses to have a cordial if not pleasant meeting. Subsequently, the details on many of the issues will be delegated to their respective leading diplomatic and national security personnel.

The post-meeting spin via readouts should be examined carefully to determine if we are on the path to a more professional management of the relationship or if there was a clash of personalities and the current U.S. leadership is adopting a “wait him out” attitude towards Erdoğan as they did with Netanyahu. For Erdoğan the 2023 elections in Turkey are not near. As dire as the internal political situation looks for Erdoğan at this juncture, history teaches us that he has a remarkable ability to surprise his opponents.

One last bit of advice for Erdoğan - Biden won the election on anti-Trump sentiment and a promise of normalcy and with little to no public debate on the issues - perceptions of success mean more to Biden and his team than does policy substance best left to his subordinates.