Biden's watershed moment in U.S.-Turkey relations

A year ago, Joe Biden threw down the gauntlet in Foreign Affairs magazine. In his view, democracy is under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s, and NATO, an alliance of values, is the bulwark of the liberal democratic ideal.

A few months earlier, French President Emmanuel Macron, the enfant terrible of European politics, demolished that view and declared NATO to be brain dead. Strategically and politically, he stated, we need to recognize we have a problem.

Nevertheless, at the Munich Security Conference in February President Biden sent a clear message to the world: “America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back”. But this begs the question, back for what?

According to Macron the rise of radical political Islam is undoubtedly the foremost enemy of European humanist values, which is embodied by the Islamic State (ISIS) and Turkey under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There is also the imminent threat from Russia, with which Macron calls for Europe to reopen a strategic dialogue, while becoming autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability.

This is hardly likely because of the foot-dragging by some European NATO member states. For example, Denmark, which plays a critical role in the defence of the Baltic region, is unable to muster a battle-ready brigade by 2024 and has not yet met a commitment for a defense budget of two percent of its GNP. 

Biden has expressed determination to reengage with Europe and has halted the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Germany. Both Macron and Biden share concerns about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and competition with China. But the immediate issue is Turkey and its unholy alliance with Russia and Iran.

Turkey was previously a staunch member of NATO, but this has changed with the rise in influence of the Eurasianist faction in the military and Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system. The United States sanctions under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act and the ongoing case brought by federal persecutors in New York against a Turkish state bank, Halkbank, for transferring $20 billion in funds to Iran, will play a key role in determining future U.S. - Turkey relations.

A participant in a recent Atlantic Council webinar concluded that a common defence and security policy will depend on whether Turkey decides to look west or east. And as Hamlet would say, ay, there’s the rub.    

Turkey, however, has expressed its intention to have its cake and eat it. Three years ago, Erdoğan’s head of international relations, Ayşe Sözen Usluer, stated that Turkey for the last 10 to 15 years had preferred to diversify its foreign policy choices, and no longer saw them within the framework of the Cold War or East versus West alliances. Yet in a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution, it was pointed out that economically Turkey has nowhere else to go but the West.

This is borne out by the fact that Erdoğan in January, after having vilified the European Union and its leaders for years, convinced EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen that Turkey saw its future in Europe and wanted to “turn a new page”. The quid pro quo was that the EU should update its Customs Union with Turkey, liberalise, visa restrictions, and continue to finance the upkeep of Syrian refugees in the country.

In 2015, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had, in a Mother Teresa moment, flung open the doors of Europe to the Middle East’s poor and huddled masses, and when the enormity of her misjudgement dawned on her, had to hurry to Istanbul to secure Erdoğan’s support to stem the flood.

Erdoğan has skillfully weaponised this dependence to Europe’s detriment, and Merkel has cajoled the EU into an appeasement policy towards Turkey, disguised as “a constructive dialogue” and “a positive agenda”. Germany also has lucrative arms exports deals with Turkey, including tanks and submarines, and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has opposed an arms embargo on the country as “strategically incorrect”.    

A fortnight ago, the EU got its comeuppance when the president of the European Council, former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, and von der Leyen were admitted to an audience with Erdoğan at his presidential palace in Ankara. In what has now been dubbed “Sofagate”, the EU Commission President was literally left standing.

So where does this leave the United States? A year ago, as a presidential candidate, Joe Biden promised: “If elected, I pledge to support a resolution recognizing the Armenian Genocide and will make universal human rights a top priority.” As Michael Rubin has pointed out, the end of this week, when the Armenian Genocide is commemorated on April 24, will be the litmus test. Barack Obama dodged the issue and used the Armenian term, Meds Yeghern (Great Disaster), but will Biden call a spade a spade?

Strategically, there is another issue. How far is the United States prepared to be the strategic backbone of a new defence alliance in the eastern Mediterranean? There is already one in the making. The U.S. Congress recently passed the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, where Greece is considered a valuable NATO member, Israel a steadfast ally and Cyprus a key strategic partner.

Souda Bay in Crete is already a key U.S. naval base. The question is, given the standoff with Turkey over İncirlik airbase, will the United States draw the consequences and relocate its air force to Greece?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.