Blinken, Sullivan, and Erdoğan

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.”

Though this famous quotation from the 19th-century British statesman, Lord Palmerston, is as true now as it was then, demonstrated by its re-iteration in mangled form by many 20th and 21st-century statesmen, it is living men and women who formulate and implement policies in the interests of their nation. We now know that on the U.S. side of Turkish-U.S. relations those formulators and implementers, in addition to Joe Biden, will be led by Antony Blinken as Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as National Security Advisor. 

Both of these men have extensive experience in the U.S. foreign policy community, occasionally referred to as the Blob. One highly regarded commentator called their selection a victory of the Blob over the Squad, the latter being the four women Representatives aligned with the socialist or socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic Party. In addition to these two U.S. foreign policy chiefs, the other persons that Biden has announced or whose names have been leaked for his administration are considered Democratic Party centrists or moderates. This should give some comfort to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and to Turks in general, if for no other reason than the relatively predictability forthcoming after four years of personalised U.S. foreign policy. 

Though Blinken and Sullivan were part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy team, it would be foolish to see their prospective nominations as pointing to a continuation of the Obama years. That would have been the case if Susan Rice and Samantha Powers had been named respectively to the positions for Blinken and Sullivan. So those who feared or hoped for a wholesale return to Obama’s foreign policy can breathe a sigh of relief or of sadness and start looking at the writings and interviews with Blinken and Sullivan to see the outline of Team Biden’s foreign policy, to include towards Turkey.

In a July 9 interview with the Hudson Institute’s W. Russell Mead, Blinken revealed that he has a strong base of knowledge and understanding about Turkey and its foreign relations. He doesn’t go into the details, but he acknowledges that there are areas of significant disagreement, though suggesting the areas of agreement can serve to foster a more positive relationship. He also alludes to President Erdogan and soon-to-be President Biden as having a personal relationship, and that will be used for some very direct conversations (in this context, ‘direct conversations’ means pointed and brutally frank verbal exchanges). 

All of this to say that once President, Biden and his team will treat President Erdoğan with respect but not pretend everything is fine, nor reduce it to a solely President-President foreign policy relationship as occurred with Presidents Donald Trump and Erdoğan. Even those who recognize that Turkish-U.S. relations were never reduced solely to two kindred personalities’ interactions, relations based on shared or common interests are preferable to those largely shaped by two leaders getting along personally. 

But, there was a subtle yet sharp edge in Blinken’s remarks. Turkish foreign policy officials should pay attention to his comment that more a positive relationship “requires the Turkish government itself to want the same thing.” The message is loud and clear – if Turkey is willing to work with the United States, the relationship can become more positive and productive; if not, don’t blame the U.S. government for any negative consequences.

Sullivan did not discuss Turkey in his May 11 interview with Mead, but it is worth reading for a general sense of his view of national security issues facing the United States. Like many in the U.S. foreign affairs community, he sees an ineluctable shift in the centre of the world’s political gravity from Europe to the East Asia-Pacific region. In a sense, this means that Turkey will move from the periphery of the centre of U.S. geopolitical concerns to the distant hinterlands of U.S. concerns. To manage that will require greater coordination between the United States and Europe to shore up and strengthen their ability to have joint leverage when facing the growing economic power of China. It implies, though it is not certain, that Sullivan would have little time for European leaders, or those with pretensions to being a European leader, disrupting the building of consensus within the European space. 

And then, there is John Kerry, another septuagenarian, a former Secretary of State, a U.S. senator for many years, and like Biden, until this year, a failed candidate for president. One wonders why he was named to the National Security Council as a senior advisor for climate change. Was it to send the signal that climate change policy will be at the forefront of U.S. national security to mollify the aforementioned Squad, sponsors of the Green New Deal? Was it to tee up a nomination for a Nobel Prize after which Kerry has lusted (reportedly) for years? For whatever reason he was named, Turkish policymakers would be wise to put reports of progress on climate change into their briefing books for meetings between the United States and Turkish officials.

There is no doubt that the Biden Team is committed to what they see as the national interest of the United States, just as Erdoğan and his subordinates are committed to what he sees as the national interests of Turkey. Whether the areas of agreement can be leveraged to overcome the areas of disagreement – Syria, S400s, Iraq, Kurds, Human Rights, Press Freedom, NATO engagement, Libya, etc. will depend greatly, as Blinken indicated, on whether Erdoğan wants positive relations or not.