U.S.-Turkey relations: Something old, new, and borrowed

There is an old saying that for a wedding, the bride should wear: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” It provides a useful metaphor for U.S. policy towards Turkey once Joe Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20. 

We can dispense with the blue quickly. The U.S. media uses blue on electoral maps to represent the Democratic Party and red for the Republican party. U.S. foreign policy is now Democratic Party blue.

What are the most influential old elements that will continue to form the basis of U.S. policy on Turkey? 

First, geography. Regardless of the new Biden team’s attitude, the geostrategic importance of Turkey remains unavoidable. Formulating U.S. policy towards Turkey therefore means understanding and considering its relations with regional neighbors, especially Iran, Russia, and Arab states. While relations with Israel matter most in the negative, that is, good Turkey-Israel relations can help U.S.-Turkey relations a bit, but bad ones can hurt a great deal. 

Second, Given that Turkey has been a member of NATO for almost 70 years, the traditional measure of a human lifespan, we must now count that too as something old and, if not permanent, indefinite. President-elect Biden and his team have already indicated a desire to raise the profile of NATO in U.S. national security policy. This could benefit Turkey - but only if it becomes more cooperative with the other members and turns away from actions that harm NATO solidarity - such as the purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia, sabre-rattling against Greece in the eastern Mediterranean, and treating NATO allies like rivals and competitors.

Which brings us to the author of that ambivalent relationship with NATO, our third old and continuing element, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan has directed Turkish foreign relations for a bit more than twenty years, and will continue to do so for several more. As noted by others, he has dominated Turkey through three, soon to be four, U.S. Presidential administrations. 

What’s new?

First, Turkey’s economic interests and accompanying political interests have grown beyond its immediate region. Regardless of recent economic difficulties, Turkey’s connection to, and participation, in the global economy makes its relations with countries both within and beyond the region more dynamic.

Second, the environment (climate change) and global health (pandemics) will have a greater impact on U.S.-Turkey relations under a Biden administration than they did during the administration of his predecessors. How best to manage both crises, without wrecking the economy and creating unemployment, will have a place in U.S. foreign policy, including with Turkey, like never before. 

Third, Biden’s focus on Human Rights will mark a shift away from the Trump administration’s emphasis on freedom of conscience and religion, and towards greater concern for press freedom and LGBT+ rights. However, while these priorities will influence U.S.-Turkey relations, especially relative to the last four years, they are unlikely to top the agenda.   

Something borrowed? How much of the Trump administration’s foreign policy will be retained?

Feelings matters, but should not dominate actions. Biden has a visceral hatred of Trump, still believes Russian interference in the 2016 election cost Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton the election, and resents Trump for having claimed the mantle of friend of the working class from the Democrats. Add to this Biden’s likely conviction that Trump incited an insurrection on Jan 6, and it would be understandable if he rejected and overturned all of his predecessor’s foreign policy initiatives without consideration. It would also be a major error.

First, the success of the Abraham Accord in bringing together Arab states and Israel cannot be denied. Former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, designated as the next CIA Director, grudgingly admitted that the Trump team deserves praise for its efforts in this area (though he quickly added the foreign policy gains were likely to be wasted). Biden’s designated National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan reportedly met with Trump’s senior advisor Jared Kuchner to get a full briefing on the efforts at reconciliation between Israel and multiple Arab states. Accepting these reports as true, Turkey would do well to work at mending fences with both Israel and Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, with whom recent relations have suffered severe strain.

Second, the Biden team’s public commitment to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran deal, might need to be tempered given Iran’s continued malign behaviour inside and outside its borders. Whether the new U.S. administration shows any concern for the murderous behaviour of the Iranian regime towards as it tries to re-animate the JCPOA will reveal to what extend the Biden team will match its words on Human Rights with deeds. Erdoğan will surely be watching to see if action matches the rhetoric. 

Third, Trump finally signed off sanctions against Turkey for purchasing the S-400 missile system from a Russia. Given the number of Democratic senators that had clamored for the impositions of sanctions, Biden will stay the course, that is, neither remove nor enhance the sanctions. (There is some argument his hands are tied in any case, but every president argues against congressional limits on his action in foreign affairs.)  

In sum, Biden faces a very different context for U.S.-Turkey relations than his immediate and earlier predecessors. Key elements - geography, economic growth, and political leadership - remain in place, but Turkey and its region are not aligned quite as neatly as they were when Biden was vice-president. Most importantly, not everything Trump did in his overly-personalised policy initiatives with his Turkish counterpart needs to be overturned without careful consideration. What does need to be rejected immediately, in both countries, is the formulation of foreign policy based on personal feelings and preferences instead of one based on a thoughtful determination of national interests.


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

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