How would a Biden presidency impact U.S.-Turkey relations?

The strategic relationship between NATO allies the United States and Turkey has deteriorated in recent years, but President Donald Trump maintains a positive connection with his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Trump’s challenger in the upcoming November elections, former Vice President Joe Biden, would likely approach Turkey policy very differently.

“Turkey has personalised the relationship with the U.S. and is dependent on Trump to hold back sanctions and to keep things from totally imploding,” Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Ahval.

"I get along very well with Erdoğan, even though you're not supposed to because everyone says “what a horrible guy”, but for me it works out good," Trump told author Bob Woodward in a recently released interview. Time and again, Erdoğan’s relationship with Trump has benefited Ankara when it acts against American interests.

Although Turkey was removed from the joint F-35 fighter jet programme last year for its acquisition of Russian S-400 missile systems, Trump ignored repeated bipartisan pressure from Congress to implement targeted sanctions mandated by U.S. law. Against the recommendations of his own Defense and State Departments, Trump greenlit Turkey’s October invasion of northeastern Syria after a phone call with Erdoğan and the Trump administration reportedly interfered with the ongoing Iran sanctions-busting case against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank. 

Trump’s motivations for eschewing U.S. national interests in favour of Turkey have drawn ongoing speculation. The American president once admitted, “I have a little conflict of interest because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” His business partner in that venture, Mehmet Ali Yalçındağ, has reportedly become a regular backdoor channel between Trump and Erdoğan.

“Over the past four years Erdoğan has succeeded in alienating pretty much everyone in Washington besides President Trump. If he loses, this will definitely pose a problem for Turkey,” Nicholas Danforth, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund, told Ahval.

“The corrupt nature of Ankara's outreach to Trump, as well as Trump's explicit praise for Erdoğan’s authoritarian persona, make pushing back against Erdoğan a high-profile way for Biden to distance himself from the worst elements of Trump's foreign policy,” he said.

In an interview published by the New York Times in January, Biden called Erdoğan an “autocrat”. At the time of publication there was no response from Turkey, but months later, in August, Turkish officials and media outlets resurrected Biden’s comments with harsh rebukes, underlining Ankara’s preference for Trump in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

İbrahim Kalın, the Turkish president’s spokesperson, accused Biden of ignorance, arrogance, and hypocrisy, tweeting, “The days of ordering Turkey around are over. But if you still think you can, be our guest. You will pay the price.”

The Erdoğan administration’s attacks on Biden indicate Ankara’s concern that the former vice president would take a much harder line against Turkey’s recent foreign policy machinations. In the New York Times interview, Biden said he would embolden Turkish opposition to defeat Erdoğan in elections and indicated that he would work with U.S. allies to isolate Ankara’s actions in the region, including disputes over hydrocarbons in the eastern Mediterranean.

Despite a preference for Trump, there are indications that Ankara is hedging its bets, replicating its 2016 strategy when it attempted to simultaneously gain influence in both the Clinton and Trump campaigns.

Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish-Dutch businessman with ties to the Turkish government, reportedly helped set up the Turkish Heritage Organization (THO), which was founded as a U.S. non-profit in 2014. Alptekin paid Trump’s first National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, over $500,000 for undisclosed lobbying on Ankara’s behalf. The organisation also has apparent links to the Biden campaign, with recent executive director, Elvir Klempic, now the National Affinity and Ethnic Engagement Director for Joe Biden.

The THO made former Turkish American Steering Committee (TASC) board member, Halil Danışmaz, its first president. Hacked emails revealed that Danışmaz had previously proposed a scheme to Erdoğan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, to create a covert lobbying effort that would skirt U.S. laws.

Whether or not Danışmaz’s scheme was fully implemented, the THO’s ongoing political activity may violate its 501(c)(3) non-profit and raises questions about whether it should be registered as a foreign agent of the Turkish government. Danışmaz resigned as THO president after the FBI interviewed him regarding his work for the Turkish government.

The FBI also questioned another TASC board member, Murat Güzel, after the hacked emails revealed he routinely reported to Albayrak and other Turkish officials on his political activities and asked for help coordinating them with Ankara. Güzel is a member of the Democratic National Committee and major party donor who contributed nearly $300,000 to committees supporting Hilary Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.

Güzel continues to be active in Democratic politics, donating the maximum amounts to the Biden campaign. He has met Biden in recent months and spoken with Turkish media to argue that Biden’s remarks to the New York Times will not guide his foreign policy if he is elected president.

The Biden campaign’s links to individuals with a history of connections to the Erdoğan administration are worth noting because they now have a foot in the door with a potential Biden administration, but they do not necessarily mean Biden will acquiesce to Turkish interests in the manner that Trump repeatedly has.

Danforth, the scholar from the German Marshall Fund, thinks that corruption will not be a means for Ankara to influence a potential Biden administration. He does wonder, however, “what aspects of the current crises Erdoğan will try to pin on Trump, the way Ankara told Trump the whole S-400 business started with Obama not selling the U.S.-made Patriot missiles? Of course, Biden is less likely to believe such arguments, but they could have some resonance”.

Although overall Danforth expects more friction between a Biden presidency and Turkey, he noted that “a certain institutional caution against “losing Turkey” or pushing the country into Russia's arms will help check (Biden’s impulse to push back against Erdoğan). And a Biden administration won't be as enthusiastic as Trump's in its embrace of countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia that are in conflict with Ankara”.

Stein, from the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said he expects the Biden administration to do a review of Turkey policy. “I do expect there to be some consideration of NATO and trying to entice Ankara to be a more collaborative ally, but they will inherit the S-400 issue and I don’t see that issue getting any better. In fact, I see it getting worse”, he said.

Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said a Biden administration would not have the “overt corruption” experienced from Trump’s term as president. “No businessman is going to bribe Jake Sullivan (a senior adviser to Biden) the way that Ekim Alptekin effectively bribed Michael Flynn,” Rubin told Ahval.

Nevertheless, Rubin does think Erdoğan may still be able to exert some influence over Biden’s decision-making. “A Biden administration will be more mindful of Congress unless Erdoğan is able to get Biden alone in a room or on the phone to solicit commitments in the way that he did with Obama and Trump,” he said.

“Biden wouldn't have the power to extradite someone like Gülen or interfere in the Halkbank case and, unlike Trump, he's smart enough to know that,” Rubin explained. “But Biden could just as easily be convinced in a one-on-one setting to waive or water down sanctions.”

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