What Biden's presidency would mean for Erdoğan

Now that the broad outlines of U.S. President elect Joe Biden's foreign policy team are coming into focus, we can move from speculation to supposition regarding the near-term future of U.S.-Turkey relations. We will not arrive at anything approaching serious analysis until after Biden is formally designated the president elect, which could be delayed until mid-December, as occurred in 2000. Nonetheless, once he begins to publicly name those he intends to nominate to Foreign Affairs and National Security positions after his formal swearing-in on Jan. 20, we will be able to have a more definite view of his foreign policy, to include relations with Turkey.

For now, the names being thrown out, either as "trial balloons" or as hints of near certain future nominees, reveal a strong likelihood of a return to the foreign policy of Barack Obama with its emphasis on action in concert with others and devising solutions to major problems such as climate change. Biden has spoken of "Principled Diplomacy", without having provided details of what this might mean in practice. But as a conceptual framework, it will likely result in a greater focus on human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

Should Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan be concerned about the impact on relations with the United States by such a focus on human rights? Yes, if he is not willing to cooperate in other areas. For though much will be made rhetorically about Principled Diplomacy, the reality is that U.S. foreign policy will remain focused on U.S. interests as the U.S. president determines them. There may be a greater willingness by State Department and White House officials to denounce human rights abuses, but only those of a particular type and those that do not conflict with other more pressing interests. 

Over the last few years, the State Department has taken an interest in the fundamental human right of freedom of belief and religious practice, especially on the right of religious minorities to freely worship and to be treated equally by the state. At the same time, less has been said about press freedom and freedom of association. Thus, outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visits Istanbul to meet with religious leaders but does not go out of his way to decry the suppression of a free press in Turkey or denial of citizens' right to organise peaceful demonstrations. This will change under a Biden administration.

In the near future, we can expect members of Biden's administration to speak out in defence of a free press, of peaceful assembly, association, and for equal rights for racial, ethnic, and social minorities, LBGTQ groups in particular. Such interest will not solely drive U.S. relations with Turkey, though it will be a more prominent element than over the last four years during which the United States embraced the notion of non-interference in the domestic policies of other nations as part of its America First agenda. 

It remains to be determined to what degree human rights ideals will supplant realpolitik concerns in U.S.-Turkey relations. Biden showed himself as vice president quite willing to bully and browbeat the leaders of other countries, when the United States had the leverage to do so. The tactics used on Ukraine and other smaller or less important nations might not work with Turkey. 

President Erdoğan has shown himself adept at portraying Turkey (not himself) as the victim of Western powers that seek to keep Turkey down, to prevent its rise to rightful pre-eminence in the region, to weaken its unity and social cohesion by spreading anti-Islamic values. Though his rhetorical excesses have secured for him only a thin majority of support, he has made clever use of proxies to maintain that thin majority (it's the judges and prosecutors sending journalists, academics, and others to jail, not him; it's Syrians or other non-Turkish irregular dying on the battlefield, not the sons of the fatherland). 

Given its location, the United States can ill-afford to get thoroughly at odds with Turkey, something Erdoğan knows and has exploited well for over a decade. He also knows, or should by now, that the incoming Biden team is likely to be split between advisors and staff returning from the Obama years, joining from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, and commenting from think tanks and academia. And there is the Senate.

Control of the U.S. Senate (the Upper Chamber of Congress) is yet to be determined. Both Senate seats from Georgia remain to be determined in runoff elections to be held Jan. 5, a day after the other newly elected Senators take their seats. If both seats are won by Democrats, they will control the White House and Congress; if not, then Republicans will control the Senate and be able to force compromise upon the Democrats, complicating to some degree Biden's freedom of action in foreign policy. 

It is tempting to see in the election of Biden a chance for relief for Turks from the financial mismanagement and cronyism, the suppression of the press, the disregard of rights for minorities, the military adventurism, etc. of President Erdoğan's years in office. Biden will certainly pursue a less personality-driven foreign policy than President Trump, but he will continue to put U.S. interests first, though defined less narrowly. Over time, Erdoğan may be induced to refrain from some of his more egregious actions, but substantial relief from his misrule remains over the horizon. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.