It Is Time to Let Turkey Go

It might be the best way to repair ties in the long run.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as prime minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington, DC on May 16, 2013
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks as prime minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks on during a luncheon at the State Department in Washington, DC on May 16, 2013 Alex Wong/Getty Images

If, as observers like to suggest, the U.S.-Turkish relationship resembles a slow-motion train wreck, the good news is that the trains have been moving more slowly than some expected. The bad news is that they are still heading toward each other on the same track. Present-elect Joe Biden is now in the unenviable position of brakeman… and he can’t expect much help from his counterpart in the oncoming train.

For Biden, the challenge will be to minimize the damage that Turkey can do to U.S. interests without provoking new conflicts or foreclosing the possibility of future cooperation. His work must begin with recognizing that Washington cannot single-handedly rescue the U.S.-Turkish alliance, nor will Erdogan ever offer any real or lasting reset—no matter how many times he seems to do so. The United States and Turkey will continue to work at cross purposes and there will continue to be more crises. If everyone is lucky, there will also be periods of respite and some progress on areas of common interest.

To best navigate this no-win situation, Washington should be clear-eyed about Turkey’s role in U.S. foreign policy, and also about its own role in Turkish domestic politics: It will be nearly impossible to cooperate with Turkey when the Turkish government sees the United States as a threat, and it will be difficult to support Turkish democracy when much of Turkey’s opposition does too.

A number of explanations have been offered as to why Turkey has taken a more combative approach toward the United States and its other Western allies in recent years. Some analysts have highlighted the domestic political benefits that Erdogan derives from his bellicose, anti-Western stance, particularly now that he is in an electoral alliance with Turkey’s ultra-nationalist party. Others have emphasized the role of Erdogan’s Islamist ideology and aspirations for leadership in the Muslim world. Still others point to a series of specific Turkish grievances, such as Washington’s support for Syrian Kurdish fighters or its refusal to extradite the Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen back to Turkey, and argue that these explain or justify Turkish hostility.

The more alarming reality is that ideology, grievances, and domestic politics have all come together to shape a new Turkish security doctrine that identifies the United States as a major threat.

There is a good deal of truth to all of these explanations. And that, in itself, is reason to suspect that rapprochement might be difficult. But taken alone, they still don’t convey the full extent of the challenge. The more alarming reality is that ideology, grievances, and domestic politics have all come together to shape a new Turkish security doctrine that, in coherent if not necessarily accurate terms, identifies the United States as a major threat to be overcome with aggressive countermeasures.

Turkish pro-government pundits have been eager to highlight the thinking behind Turkey’s new foreign policy. They believe that Western powers are alarmed by Turkey’s newfound independence and, as a result, are working on multiple fronts to check the country’s rise. And yet, because the West’s power is declining and the world is becoming more multipolar, they also believe that Turkey can use hard power and selective cooperation with Russia to rewrite the rules of the game in its favor.

This approach to the world is popular among Erdogan’s voters, fits well with the president’s ideological assumptions, and has received just enough external validation that it will be hard to discredit. For Washington, taking Turkey’s new foreign policy seriously means accepting that no combination of threats or incentives will restore a cooperative relationship any time soon. Instead, U.S. policymakers face a more long-term challenge in disproving the assumptions driving Turkish policy. This will require keeping up lasting pressure to show Ankara that antagonizing its former allies has consequences. But it also requires leaving the door open for Ankara to deescalate if it decides to. In other words, policymakers shouldn’t leap at every reconciliatory statement from Erdogan, or see his offers of a reset as a reason to give Ankara concessions. At the same time, they should recognize that negotiations and working groups can play a valuable role in putting problems on the backburner, even when neither side expects them to be solved any time soon.

Indeed, given Washington’s growing frustration with Erdogan, some have already concluded that real cooperation with Turkey will only be possible once Erdogan is voted out of office. There is certainly reason to hope that a government led by Turkey’s main opposition, the Republican People’s Party, would be less antagonistic toward the United States and the EU. Such a government might also prove more eager to reconcile with neighbors like Egypt, while showing less enthusiasm for other regional actors like Hamas. But there is also every reason to believe that the Turkish opposition shares many of the government’s suspicions about Washington and supports many of the Erdogan’s efforts to push back against it. Moreover, were they to find themselves in power, they would almost certainly face new political pressures, requiring them to prove their nationalist bona fides.

Of course, one of the main reasons both Erdogan and his opponents are suspicious of Washington is their shared belief that American support for democracy in Turkey has always hinged on what Turkey’s domestic system might mean for the United States. Washington’s Cold War record certainly shows that its approach to Turkish democracy often revolved around which parties they thought had America’s best interests at heart. The result is that, today, explicitly supporting Turkey’s opposition is not necessarily the best way to support Turkey’s opposition. Last summer, a video circulated showing Biden, in an earlier conversation with the New York Times editorial staff, calling for America embolden those within Turkey working to take on Erdogan through the electoral process. Almost as quickly as Erdogan, Turkey’s opposition leaders leapt to condemn Biden’s comments. They decried American interference in Turkey’s internal affairs and insisted they would not be party to Washington’s imperialist game.

This reaction speaks to a deeper divide among Turkey’s nationalist opposition over how they think Washington can best help their country. By insisting that “Turkey is bigger than Erdogan,” many of Erdogan’s opponents have argued that Western countries should not punish all of Turkey because of their anger at the man in charge. They claim that to avoid losing the 50 percent of Turkey that hates Erdogan, the United States and EU should offer Turkey improved trade opportunities instead of sanctions, while working to accommodate widely shared Turkish concerns over the Gulen movement, the YPG, and the Eastern Mediterranean. The problem, of course, is that other more outspoken members of the opposition insist that this approach would simply strengthen Erdogan at their expense. Giving Erdogan high-profile foreign-policy victories, they insist, only encourages him. And sparing Turkey from sanctions, much less offering measures like a revised EU customs union, gives Erdogan a vital economic lifeline that sustains his authoritarian role.

In the face of these contradictory expectations, Biden should simply be consistent in criticizing Erdogan’s undemocratic behavior. He should condemn the arrest of Erdogan’s democratic opponents and push for the release of political prisoners. That alone would be a welcome change, both from outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump’s gleefully amoral embrace of Erdogan but also from former President Barack Obama’s occasional willingness to withhold criticism in the hopes of securing Ankara’s cooperation. The president need not openly endorse the opposition, but he also shouldn’t hesitate to push back against Erdogan’s foreign-policy provocations in the hopes of winning their sympathy. Ultimately, divorcing the United States’ support for democracy from its specific geopolitical ambitions might be the best way to show that Americans really do support Turkish democracy for its own sake.

The United States has long been condemned for cooperating with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Trump added a twist to this, accommodating Erdogan’s authoritarianism and not even getting cooperation in return. Biden may have inherited a train wreck in the making, but at least he has no room for moral compromise. You can’t cooperate with an authoritarian regime that is dead set against cooperating with you.

Nicholas Danforth is Non-Resident Senior Research Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy, ELIAMEP.