Coming out as an authoritarian might be the best thing for Turkey's relationship with the United States — and his own legacy.
- By Nick DanforthNicholas Danforth has been a Senior Analyst in the Bipartisan Policy Center's National Security Program since January 2016.
One day after Turkey’s presidential referendum, with allegations of fraud mounting and the opposition still contesting the results, U.S. President Donald Trump called to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his victory and discuss the campaign against the Islamic State. In one sense, this was nothing new. Washington has often put strategic interests ahead of democratic ideals and cultivated plenty of authoritarian allies; indeed, at various points over the past half-century, Turkey has been one of them. But Washington’s relationship with post-referendum Turkey promises something new and potentially trickier: an undemocratic ally completely committed to its own democratic rhetoric.
It’s not that Erdogan and his party never had grounds to call themselves democrats. In past years, they consistently won free and fair elections while confronting a number of undemocratic opponents: the military, the secular bureaucracy, and most recently, it seems, the Gulen movement. But Erdogan has built this history into a much more grandiose narrative, one in which his success finally marks modern Turkey’s revolutionary transformation into a full democracy. Now, after the world watched a sustained and systematic crackdown on dissent in the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Erdogan insists that Turkey just held the “most democratic election … ever seen in any Western country.” Why, Turkey’s prime minister asked, did the world see Turkey’s referendum as any less legitimate than the Brexit vote?
This sort of delusional rhetoric will make smooth U.S.-Turkish relations impossible. Ironically, by insisting so fervently that he’s a democrat, Erdogan precludes the conventional hypocrisy that has worked so well for Washington in the past.
When it comes to many of the considerably worse authoritarian regimes the United States works with, there is, for all the hypocrisy and euphemism, a general sense that everyone is on the same page. Some, like Jordan and Saudi Arabia, are proudly monarchical. Others, like Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt, hold elections and pay some limited lip service to democratic norms but do not rely heavily on this rhetoric for their domestic or international legitimacy. And in countries that, unlike Turkey, have no sustained democratic history to speak of, expectations are correspondingly lower. The result is that bilateral relations can be carried out with a degree of cynical candor, couched in a shared vocabulary of order, stability, and mutual interests.
Meanwhile, the regimes most committed to defending their democratic credentials in the face of all evidence have historically been revolutionary or left-wing ones rather than U.S. allies. When it came to Venezuela under Hugo Chávez or the not-so-democratic German Democratic Republic, Washington was contesting their ideological claims rather than accommodating them.
So why will this matter for the United States and Turkey, especially if Trump and Erdogan seem eager to get along? The problem is that when the United States and Turkey inevitably butt heads over policy differences, as they often have in the past, a fundamental disagreement over the legitimacy of Turkey’s democracy, and divergent perceptions of basic political realities, will make these disputes that much more explosive and harder to resolve. The more Turkish leaders talk about their democracy, the more Western observers will, too. And this focus on democracy, rather than security or stability, will ensure a steady stream of criticism from the U.S. media and Congress. That will oblige Erdogan, fragile as his own domestic legitimacy is, to maintain his own steady criticism of the West. Such mutually escalating rhetoric could eventually provoke a breakdown in relations that neither side fully intends.
This dynamic already began to take a toll well before the referendum. With the Western media increasingly vocal in criticizing Erdogan’s democratic credentials, Erdogan, by necessity, has become increasingly vocal in his own efforts to discredit the West. Explaining to supporters why the world’s established democracies refuse to accept Turkey among their ranks requires a consistent diet of anti-Western rhetoric. Thus Erdogan and his propagandists have regularly charged the West with hypocrisy and promoted a host of conspiracy theories in which Western powers are trying to bring Turkey down through sinister means. Explaining why European observers condemned the referendum, for example, Erdogan said on CNN that “the Western world played certain games with Turkey, and the games failed. Now they’re having difficulty digesting it.” When protestors came out on the streets to contest the referendum results, the Turkish government again saw foreign provocation. Western leaders can certainly tolerate a degree of inflammatory rhetoric between friends. But when you call enough Europeans Nazis, or accuse enough prominent Americans of trying to kill you, bilateral relations reach a level of awkwardness that has strategic implications.
In particular, Turkey’s July 2016 coup attempt created a rift in perceptions that continues to poison U.S.-Turkish relations. While Turks saw the widespread post-coup purges as necessary to preserve the country’s democratic government, many foreign observers saw it instead as a dangerous step toward dictatorship. On top of this, the West’s refusal to accept Erdogan’s claims that the coup had been single-handedly organized and carried out by the movement loyal to the cleric Fethullah Gulen, currently residing in the United States, created deep anger and suspicion in Ankara. The Turkish government’s fervent commitment to its own narrative has proved an added obstacle to effective public relations: Several months ago, a group of U.S. journalists invited to Ankara on a government-organized press trip ended up writing a series of articles that focused not on telling Turkey’s story but instead on the surreal experience and bizarre propaganda they encountered there. Now, the issue of Gulen’s extradition has escalated from a legal matter that could be resolved through established channels into a serious source of bilateral tension. With Turkey promoting its own version of summary justice against Gulenists as a necessary defense of democracy, Ankara will see Washington’s ongoing inability to extradite Gulen as proof of U.S. hostility rather than the inevitable result of due process and an independent judiciary.
Frustration over issues like these may also make the United States more dismissive even when Ankara raises legitimate concerns. Turkish public opinion has been understandably furious over U.S. cooperation with Syrian Kurdish fighters whose partners are setting off car bombs in Istanbul and Ankara. But Turkish efforts to convey this anger to Washington have been lost and discredited amid increasingly implausible explanations for why arresting Kurdish politicians and pro-peace academics is all perfectly legitimate. When Turkey’s diplomatic and media spokespeople are forced to peddle falsehoods about the state of their democracy, they can’t effectively call out America’s callous disregard for Turkey’s own terrorism threat.
Making this disconnect worse, though, is Washington’s willingness to humor Erdogan’s democratic rhetoric to avoid addressing Turkish concerns in Syria. Trump’s congratulatory call to Erdogan might buy a little more Turkish acquiescence on this front as Washington pushes ahead toward the Syrian city of Raqqa with the Kurds. But now that the U.S. government has cynically endorsed Erdogan’s democratic credentials in the hope of foreign-policy cooperation, any subsequent criticism, from the government or even the U.S. press, will be seen as a bargaining tactic rather than potentially sincere. And if Washington does in fact choose to use this criticism instrumentally, suddenly remembering the importance of democracy following a future political spat, Ankara’s narrative about the West will be reaffirmed.
Ankara’s narrative is also bolstered by Western criticism that conflates Islam with authoritarianism and secularism with democracy. The fact that, for example, Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, seemed to cheer last summer’s attempted coup as a U.S. congressman when he thought it was a purely anti-Islamist affair does not bode well for the administration’s ability to offer convincing criticism of Erdogan’s undemocratic behavior. Just as, during the Cold War, left-wing dictators sought self-justification in Washington’s hypocritical support for their right-wing counterparts, Turkey will make similar use of U.S. support for secular dictators like Sisi.
The Turkish government may indeed find other sources of legitimacy in Washington and at home. It’s far from certain that Erdogan, facing a long-predicted economic crisis and an ongoing Kurdish insurgency, will actually be able to bring Turkey stability. If he fails to achieve even the autocratic stability of which dictators love to boast, all bets are off. If he succeeds though, perhaps in time the United States and Turkey can revert to the established authoritarian-allies script. Turkey has also been trying to present itself, not unsuccessfully, as a potential ally if the United States moves toward a regional confrontation with Iran. And, paradoxically, if Turkey becomes more authoritarian and Erdogan, as a result, has even less to worry about from domestic political opinion, he may become less invested in his own democratic rhetoric as well.
Until then, though, U.S.-Turkish relations will be beset by their own particular source of stress. Erdogan, as should be abundantly clear by now, is not inclined to be anyone’s “son of a bitch,” and most certainly not Washington’s.
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