Biden and Erdogan Are Trapped in a Double Fantasy
Why Washington and Ankara don’t get each other at all—and need each other anyway.
This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.
A year ago, then-presidential candidate Joe Biden sat with the New York Times editorial board and said “I am very concerned about [Turkey],” according to a video that caused controversy in Turkey over the summer a few months ago. Biden said the United States should take a different approach from the Trump administration and engage with a broad cross-section of Turkish society, promote the opposition and “speak out about what we think is wrong.” Biden seemed to think it was possible to bring Turkey back into the transatlantic community and even improve its worrisome human rights record.
Biden’s tough words reflect the fact that Turkey has been a major headache for U.S. policymakers over the last few years. Not surprisingly, senior Biden foreign policy officials have already started scratching their heads to formulate a policy towards this difficult ally.
The United States and Turkey do have an odd sort of relationship. As officials from both sides frequently aver, they deeply value their decade-long alliance, recognize that they need each other for key priorities, and cooperate on a wide variety of foreign-policy issues stretching from Iraq to the Islamic State to the Balkans. But at the same time, they deeply distrust each other, sanction and condemn each other publicly, and fight bitterly over a range of issues from the Kurds to NATO to Israel.
These contradictory facts demonstrate the profound illogic and deep dysfunction of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Despite a decades-long history and the clear usefulness of the alliance for both sides in a time of increasing geopolitical strife, both sides seem intent on sabotaging it. At times, the relationship appears like a bad marriage in which both partners, cheat, lie, and use their intimacy to hurt one another. So, the United States gives shelter to Turkey’s most wanted domestic figure, Fethullah Gulen, and provides arms to subsidiaries of the Turkish’s state most feared militia threat, the PKK. Meanwhile, Turkey buys anti-aircraft systems from America’s geopolitical foe, Russia, plays footsie with Islamist forces in Syria and Libya, while oppressing and imprisoning journalists, civil society actors, and even U.S. consulate employees.
Biden’s incoming national security team has an intense familiarity with this bad marriage from their time in Obama administration. Since that experience, both incoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken and incoming national security advisor Jake Sullivan have penned articles advocating tough love for Turkey and continued support of the Syrian Kurds regardless of Turkey’s misgivings.
The diplomatic meetings between the two consist of a ritual list of grievances, threats of sanctions and escalations, and counterproductive assignments of blame to the other side for “starting it.” If a psychotherapist were in the room for one of these meetings, he would tap his pipe and say: “Clearly, we need to get to the root of the problem.” The surface issues such as the S-400 missile system and the fate of Fethullah Gulen matter greatly, of course, but from the standpoint of the overall relationship even resolving them will simply cause new disputes to appear.
The root of the problem lies in the two sides’ persistent fantasies about each other. This was a marriage shaped by the Cold War. Both America and Turkey have changed greatly since then, but their image of one other have not. Turkey continues to see America as seeking to control its domestic politics and play the role of kingmaker. America continues to see Turkey as a tool in its larger geopolitical struggle rather than an international actor in its own right. Correcting these fantasies will not heal their relationship, but it is a prerequisite for a more functional one.
From politicians to pundits, when Turks discuss their country’s relationship with the United States, it is often with no sense of proportion or comparative examination—with the notion of Ankara at the center of the universe and U.S. officials waking up every morning thinking, strategizing, or scheming about Turkey. Turkey is too important, too strategic, and too consequential, according to Turkey’s own historiography, for the United States to treat it as just one of a dozen of key allies.
This belief in Turkey’s exceptionalism create the assumption of a certain level of U.S. obsession with the country’s politics. Turkish politicians and political commentators assume that American decision-makers are busy picking victors or losers in Turkey’s electoral races—and not the other way around, with Washington gravitating towards whoever ends up winning the elections. For an up-and-coming politician preparing for a national role, a trip to Washington, D.C. is seen as a necessary seal of approval (“icazet”), and when it happens, raises eyebrows, even though countless Turkish politicians have passed through Washington, D.C., Brussels, or London with no real impact on their political lives.
This notion of the United States as the kingmaker in Turkish politics is likely a residue from the Cold War, when Turkish military exerted an oversized influence over politics, staged three coups between 1960-80, and all along continued to enjoy U.S. patronage. The Cold War conditions led to Washington’s acquiescence on the behavior of Turkey’s military, which often described its domestic repression as fight against terrorism or communism. Today, a large cross section of the Turkish society also believes that the failed coup attempt of July 2016 was supported, if not organized, by the United States—a view that the present government has cultivated.
Turkey’s polarized political class agrees on little except the idea that the United States is trying to control Turkish politics. Secular Turks accuse the United States of bringing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) into power, and Islamists in power worry that it is trying to topple Erdogan. For them, the long-awaited S-400 sanctions legislation from the U.S. Congress or the criminal inquiry by New York prosecutors into a state-owned Turkish bank, Halkbank, suspected of bypassing Iranian sanctions are further proof that the American deep state is targeting Erdogan. The notion that any one of the several power centers in the Turkish body politics—whether it is nationalists, Gulenists, Transatlanticists, or Kemalists—could seek a power grab without active U.S. participation in their plot—defies the conventional wisdom in Turkish politics. In several recent high-profile political trials—including the imprisonment of civil society leader Osman Kavala, U.S. consular employees, or Andrew Brunson, an American pastor living in Turkey—prosecutors made explicit references to the contacts with Americans as proof of attempts to overthrow the Turkish government.
One of the reasons the fantasy of “Amerika” as the puppet master has survived over time is the expediency of this argument in Turkish domestic politics. For decades Turkey’s leaders have blamed Turkey’s Kurdish insurgency on “outside powers” (dis gucler)—as opposed to the sorry state of democratic standards and ethnic rights in Turkey. For Turkey’s secularist opposition parties, it was easier to explain Erdogan’s ascent to power as a U.S. design—ostensibly to create a “green belt” of moderate Islamists in the Middle East—than admit incompetence.
Since the secular urban uprising of 2013, the Gezi Park demonstrations, Erdogan has also resorted to blaming outsiders as the instigator of domestic dissent, economic downturn, and other ills. He has often peppered his speeches with references to ust akil (a higher mind) a nebulous global force—presumably the United States—which acts as the puppet master for Gulenists, the PKK, and even the opposition in its attempts to bring him down. In a documentary for A Haber, a network controlled by the Erdogan family, experts interviewed ascribed responsibility to ust akil for many of the dramatic episodes in Turkey’s recent history. In the run up to the elections in 2015, Erdogan explained the growing popularity of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) with the intervention of ust akil, erroneously suggesting that former campaign managers of then President Barack Obama were advising the Kurdish party. Returning from a NATO summit in 2015 where he met Obama, Erdogan was asked, “Is the U.S. administration pressuring Turkey on freedom of expression?”—to which he replied, “This is what I mean by ust akil. Ust akil plays games with Turkey—wants to divide, carve up, if it can, devour Turkey.”
But Turkey is not alone in its fantasies. Even if U.S. leaders do not spend their spare time organizing conspiracies in Ankara, Turkey does play an important, arguably oversized, role in U.S. foreign policy. For U.S. foreign-policy leaders, Turkey is forever poised at the crossroads, constantly bridging gaps, and always its role as a sort of geopolitical swing state that has the potential to move between Europe and the Middle East or between the United States and Russia. By virtue of its strategic location, its status as a (struggling) Muslim democracy, and its willingness to flirt with U.S. competitors, Turkey’s allegiance remains for many U.S. officials the ultimate prize in the new great game in Eurasia and the Middle East.
Turkey certainly has played an important and sometimes troubling role in a wide variety of foreign-policy issues that have preoccupied Washington over the last several decades. Turkey held up NATO’s southern flank during the Cold War, supported its factions in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, denied the prospect of a second front in the 2003 war against Iraq, and served as the front line in the campaign launched in 2014 against the Islamic State. It has played key roles in Afghanistan as a NATO partner, in the Cyprus and the East Mediterranean as a protagonist, and even at times attempted to mediate between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In recent years, it has started to participate in proxy wars in Somalia, Syria, and Libya. In all these efforts, from a Washington perspective, Turkey failed to fully align with U.S. efforts and proved, at best, a troublesome ally.
These roles in key U.S. foreign-policy priorities justifies attention to Turkey. But even with (or perhaps because of) all the attention, U.S. officials tend to interpret Turkish actions through their impact on U.S. foreign policy rather than as the policy of an actor in its own right. U.S. officials show little regard for the idea that Turkey, like nearly all countries, sees itself as a destination rather than a bridge. As Turkey grows more self-confident, it sees itself not as a geopolitical prize but as an independent actor, seeking to hedge against dependence of all sorts and carve out a foreign policy that speaks to its own domestic political needs rather than its role in some American-defined global struggle.
Turkish leaders, for example, saw the struggle against the Islamic State primarily through the lens of their struggle against the PKK. U.S. frustration that they would not privilege the more “global” struggle against the Islamic State showed little understanding that Turkey could have other priorities. Similarly, the Turkish decision to buy a Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system—a decision that inspired sanctions from the U.S. Congress—reflected more Erdogan’s fears of another coup by his own air force than an effort to align with Russia. The system is not compatible with NATO hardware precisely because it was intended as a shield against a NATO army.
The United States has a well-earned reputation for solipsism and a lack of understanding foreign cultures. As a continent-straddling superpower with few direct threats to its security, the United States can afford ignorance of the world and geopolitical fantasies more than most countries. But as America’s relative power wanes, these fantasies become ever more expensive. The new Biden administration seems to be recasting a new type of Cold War, a global struggle of democracies against an authoritarian challenge led by China and Russia. And so, it needs the fantasy that the America’s Cold War allies will once again rally to its leadership (or the fear that they will go over to the other side.) But Turkey, for one, no longer sees the world in such bipolar terms. It is not interested in allying for or against the United States in the next global struggle. It wants to be a pole of its own.
Turkish and U.S. officials like to describe their relationship in grandiose slogans. They regularly employ the mantra “staunch ally” to describe the role Turkey plays for the United States and NATO. On his memorable visit to Turkey in 1999, then President Bill Clinton described Turkey as a “strategic ally”. President Bush talked about “a strategic partnership” and so, year after year, Turkish officials asked their U.S. counterparts to repeat the term at every opportunity. When Obama visited Turkey on his first official tour abroad in 2009, he switched to “model partnership”. The Turkish public debated whether this slogan constituted an upgrade—and largely concluded that it did.
Grandiose slogans make good diplomatic summits. But the fantasies in the Turkish-American relationship have created nothing but disappointment and tension over the last few years. The reality is that Turkey and the United States have divergent interests and do not even seem to like one another. So, a good place to start addressing bilateral problems would be doing away with the myths and paranoia. Instead of paying lip service to the everlasting strategic alliance, they can start with a sobering definition of their ties and accept its transactional nature.
For Washington, this means a new understanding of Turkey as an independent power with an interest in expanding its regional influence—and often pursuing policies that are no longer coordinated with NATO allies. Turkey’s military footprint now expands from the Caucasus to Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and its focus on domestic defense capabilities means that over time, it will be less reliant on U.S. defense exports and security guarantees.
The incoming Biden administration should certainly attempt to formulate a reset in relations with Turkey but not obsess over the relationship as the ultimate prize in a geopolitical competition. Turkey is not a bridge to the Middle East nor a model for the Muslim world. Biden has committed to ending the forever wars and dramatically reducing the U.S. footprint in the region. In this context, Turkey is a country pursuing its own path in a region to which the United States is less and less committed.
Biden, as is his wont, will seek to relate to Erdogan on an interpersonal level. In the Obama administration, when Turkey and the United States started falling out, Biden emerged as the “Erdogan-whisperer” for Washington. He visited Turkey’s strongman in his home in 2011 and flew to Ankara to mend relations with the Turkish government after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
But as the furious anti-American reaction to the coup attempt showed, such an approach has its limits. Biden will have to square this effort with a call greater support for democracy in Turkey both from within the administration and from the Congress. His administration will be forced to seek a balance between pragmatic, personal relations with Erdogan and efforts to save Turkey’s democracy. A renewed focus on Turkey’s deteriorating record on human rights and democracy would certainly be welcomed by a large cross section of Turkish society that has regularly shown a preference for a return to rule of law. Over the past four years, Trump administration policy has ignored human rights and civil society in Turkey. Biden’s notion of engaging with the opposition, as described to the New York Times editorial board, represents a welcome return to conventional U.S. diplomacy.
But there are limits to what the US can accomplish. Other than consistently stating its core democratic principles on preference for reform, Washington should not expect to serve as a change agent inside the country. It can make a difference on a limited number of symbolic cases, such as the imprisonment of U.S. consular employees or civil society leader Osman Kavala—neither of which was picked up by the Trump administration. America cannot anoint the opposition or impact Turkey’s elections. Nor does it have the magic wand to reverse the authoritarian drift inside Turkey—or replace its ruling cadres. At best, it can state its own principles of free elections so that Turkey’s leaders do not try to “pull a Belarus” next time.
Ankara in turn needs to understand that by choosing a new and independent path, it is inevitably signing on to a more distant and transactional relationship with the United States. It’s not surprising that president-elect Jor Biden has still not responded to Erdogan’s demand for a congratulatory call. Turkish politicians must see the limits in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and stop fantasizing that the American “deep state” is trying to design, split and reshape Turkey—or create a Kurdish state on its borders. More importantly, Ankara needs to reach its own assessment about the value its partnership with the United States. Historically, the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey sought western support against its powerful neighbor to the east—Russia—and Turkey, too, might seek U.S. support to hedge against Russian expansion or its own regional isolation.
Fantasies have their roles—they sustain optimism through hard times, and they express our fondest desires, if not always our starkest reality. The Turkish-U.S. double fantasy once had its uses, but now it only serves to delude and embitter both sides. It is time to introduce a dose or realism—or find some updated fantasies—to bring stability and predictability to the U.S.-Turkish relationship.
Aslı Aydıntaşbaş is a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.