Can Turkey-US relations have a fresh start?

COLUMNS NOV 11, 2020

Joe Biden on Saturday declared victory in the 2020 United States presidential election, which was marked by a high voter turnout and angry rhetoric. Although the incumbent, Donald Trump, may challenge the result on the streets and in courts, those steps are unlikely to yield results – as reported calls from his family members to concede suggest. The U.S. Supreme Court is also unlikely to rule on mail-in ballots favorably. My sense is that Trump will seek to maintain his popularity through rallies to protect himself from potential legal action.

Right now, everyone is waiting for Biden to form his team and set policy priorities. The incoming administration’s top priority will be to mitigate rampant polarization at home. At the same time, Biden must focus first on the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and racism, taking into account his predecessor’s refusal to quit. Going forward, it would not be a huge surprise for the next administration to frame their policy of “healing” America as repairing the damage inflicted by Trump. Although that motto would work well for Biden, who was elected by a broad anti-Trump coalition, his administration will nonetheless need to score some wins on the domestic front. Keeping in mind that interagency politics will make a comeback in the U.S., it will take lots of negotiation to keep that electoral coalition happy.

In the international arena, the Biden administration’s main challenge will be to establish a new order. The U.S. cannot just roll back the tape, and it is not easy to tell an original story. The so-called liberal order, which Trump made more and more chaotic on a bilateral basis, was already crumbling under the Barack Obama administration. As such, the Biden presidency is less likely to be a third Obama term and more likely to be somewhere between Obama’s second term and the Trump presidency.

America’s stated purpose of strengthening international organizations and alliances will immediately clash with Washington’s national interests and its tradition of isolationism. The Biden administration is expected to pursue a new balance – with China, to some extent, and, more broadly, with Russia. Although the United States will strive to work more closely with the European Union, there is no reason to believe that the trans-Atlantic alliance can build a new liberal order. By extension, great power politics are likely to resume under the Biden administration with some revisions. In my view, Washington won’t go beyond a selective use of hard power – which, in turn, won’t be enough to build a new order.

The incoming U.S. administration’s policy on Turkey will reflect the global balance of power and Washington’s priorities in the Middle East. If Biden moves to empower NATO and confront Russia, Ankara will be crucial for intra-alliance solidarity and as a de facto counterweight against Moscow in Libya, Syria and the Caucasus. Turkey could exert more influence over Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region as well. If the S-400 crisis can be managed with success, Turkey’s relations with Russia may generate shared interests rather than tensions.

In the Middle East, Iran is highly likely to accept a fresh offer for a negotiated settlement from the Biden administration – after four years of Trump. Tehran’s partial reintegration into the international system, however, would unsettle Israel and the Gulf states. At the same time, that move may influence the balance of power between Turkey, Iran, Israel, Egypt and the Gulf.

Bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara must be managed carefully in the first six months. However triumphant, Biden must now grasp that there will be no return to the Obama presidency and that the Trump effect won’t be undone easily. What the Turkey-U.S. relationship needs is a fresh start – as opposed to Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions and daydreams about a PKK/YPG statelet in Syria. To accomplish that goal, the incoming administration must acknowledge Turkey’s active role in regional and global affairs and adopt a realistic approach. The bilateral relationship, which has been over-encumbered since 2013, must be sheltered from the campaign rhetoric.

At a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin manages to cooperate with Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, despite competing with him in a broad range of areas, the Biden administration’s moves that could fuel tensions with Ankara would amount to strategic blindness. It is in the U.S.’ and Turkey’s best interest for the Democrats to set aside “ideological” prejudice for a while.


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