US decision-making institutions are confused at how they should work with Turkey. Although the latter has been an ally and partner of the United States for decades, there is a lack of trust between the two sides, strikingly overshadowing the discourse of Biden and his team when it comes to contentious issues.
Turkey may be one of the middle-eastern countries – with the exception of Iran – that is most referred to in Biden's speeches and statements during his campaign. As analyses of the shape and future of the relationship have increased, the attempt of perceiving it through a thorough understanding of the content of statements and speeches may be important.
In order to provide a broader vision, it is important to link Biden's approaches, drawn from his remarks, with the realist US foreign policy. Thus, this analysis may provide a better understanding of the fundamental dynamics of the US-Turkish relations under Biden administration.
Biden Administration Approaches to Relations with Turkey
Specific issues have defined the course of US-Turkish relations. These particular issues have been focused on by Biden’s team, and they are related to the following aspects:
First: Democracy and human rights
Biden seeks to link democratic values and human rights with his foreign policy approach. It is contrary to the policies of the ex-President, Donald Trump, who has given little importance to these issues, especially in his dealings with Middle Eastern countries, particularly Turkey.
Biden's initial views on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan were to call him a "tyrant," calling for a new US approach toward Turkey, namely supporting the opposition. Biden seems to be seeking to support the chances of different parties winning the 2023 presidential election, at the expense of the Justice and Development Party.
Second: S-400 missile defense system
When it comes to the Biden administration's review of Turkey's purchase of the S-400 – a major point of contention between the two sides – it will be based on US institutional consensus, including Democrats and Republicans in Congress, as it is a threat to the strategic partnership between the two countries and a violation of NATO's defense strategies. This was made clear by US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, who considered that the so-called "US strategic partner" would be in line with Russia, the matter which is unacceptable, adding that imposing more sanctions on Turkey may be needed.
Third: The conflict in the Eastern Mediterranean
The turn to the Eastern Mediterranean, the Greek-Turkish tensions, the Cyprus issue, and the maritime agreement with the Government of National Accord in Libya, are all a test of the US diplomacy that Biden has advocated. Earlier, Biden called on the ex-President Trump to press Turkey to allow diplomacy as the only option. The current National Security Adviser, Jack Sullivan, has stressed that Turkey-related issues – including the Eastern Mediterranean – will be subject to consultation and work with the EU.
Diplomacy will be present in the Cyprus issue, where Biden opposes the Turkish presence in Northern Cyprus and calls for a comprehensive settlement that unites the island within a federal system that is fair to the two sides in political affairs. The same can be said regarding Libya, for while the United States recognizes the Government of National Accord, which is backed by Ankara, Biden opposes the maritime agreement signed between the two sides. Foreign Policy Adviser, Michael Carpenter, described Turkey's intervention in Libya as “undermining common interests."
Fourth: The Kurdish question
Given Biden's history of supporting the Kurds, he may be the most loyal and supportive president in US history, describing Trump's decision to withdraw from northern Syria in 2019, which implicitly gave way to the Turkish incursion, as a "complete failure."
In fact, the Biden team as a whole has a record of supporting the Kurds, most notably the current Middle East presidential envoy, Brett McGurk. When he was an envoy to the international coalition to fight ISIS, he resigned as a result of his opposition to Trump's decision to withdraw from northern Syria. The same applies to the Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, who has good knowledge of the Kurds and played an important role in developing strategies to work with the SDF to fight ISIS.
Although the Biden team agrees to support the Kurds, the degree of such support varies. Austin and Blinken may side with supporting the Kurds, providing that the main purpose remains fighting ISIS. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has made clear his position in a series of recommendations he made in 2017 to ex-President Trump on how to deal with the Kurds; most notably: restricting military support to the task required, ensuring that weapons are not used outside the fight against ISIS, the need for the Kurds to respect Syrian sovereignty, and distancing themselves from the PKK.
1. There is consensus within the Biden administration on the Kurdish issue, the issue of Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s missile defense system and the position towards the eastern Mediterranean.
2. The Biden administration will rely on diplomacy, particularly multilateral ones, to resolve contentious issues with Turkey. Therefore, it is expected that there will be threats of sanctions and pressure to serve this approach.
3. If rationality is excluded and the US President insists on his positions, already fractured relations are expected to become at their worst.
However, foreign policy analysis may be incomplete if only to read the content of statements and speeches, not to mention that much of the Biden team's views may be mixed with official discourse, especially since many of them were not part of the government bureaucracy during the Trump presidency.
It is therefore important to expand on other aspects that take into account the rational reading of bilateral relations, including the broad international environment, foreign policy requirements, the US domestic environment and personal and institutional relationships.
Approaching the relationship from a Biden foreign policy perspective
Biden has a broad and elusive global orientation, especially in light of the complex circumstances of the American interior and the limited desire in institutional and grassroots circles to dominate abroad. His vision includes returning to the forefront of the world stage, restoring relations with allies and partners, and returning to the global system of alignments that it had in the 1980s and 1990s to counter the Russian rise.
According to this vision, Biden is likely to take a convergent and conciliatory approach with Turkey, especially since there is a personal history that brings the two leaders together. To serve this purpose, we will highlight a range of dimensions and issues that require bilateral cooperation between the two countries:
First: The personal dimension of the relationship between the two leaders
Biden's tenure in the White House as Obama's vice president has given him the opportunity to establish personal relationships with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He said he has spent more time with Erdogan than anyone else in the Obama administration, visiting Turkey four times, including after the failed coup attempt in 2016.
Personal relationships play a role in political decision-making. Biden himself summed up his foreign policy experience as an extension of personal relationships, according to Washington Institute quoting former Deputy National Security Advisor to Obama, Ben Rhodes, in his book The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. This personal knowledge that brought Biden and Erdogan together may be combined to bring the two countries closer together.
Biden, on the other hand, will find himself the first to make decisions, and now he has to be the “tough guy” as Trump described him, unlike before when he was vice president when he has shown reluctance on pressing issues, such as his refusal to intervene in Libya in 2011, his opposition to an increase in US forces in Afghanistan, his opposition to the military operation that killed Osama bin Laden. In this regard, a study entitled "The Political Personality of the Former US Vice President Joe Biden,” published in 2019 by St. Benedict's College in collaboration with St. John's University, has found that the important personal qualities that any leader must have, namely domination and power, are lower for Biden than others. His official apology in 2014 to President Erdogan after accusing Turkey of facilitating the rise of ISIS, is an indicator of the shape of future relations.
Second: The bureaucratic dimension
Personal relationship between Trump and Erdogan has played an important role in the relations between the two countries. The Turkish president has in several cases managed to bypass the US bureaucracy and reach direct understandings with the US President, as was the case when the latter announced withdrawal from northern Syria after a phone call with Erdogan, unexpectedly enough to many US institutions, including the Pentagon and Congress.
Today, however, the bureaucratic dimension is expected to have its say in the form of the relationship, with analysis suggesting that Biden will rely heavily on his foreign policy advisers and secretaries, particularly in relation to the Middle East, including Turkey. Turkish diplomacy will therefore have to deal with those officials who it was familiar with under former President Barack Obama, including Anthony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, Jake Sullivan, Wendy Sherman, Victoria Nuland and Brett McGurk.
Although the Biden administration's team members are in tune with Turkey's approaches as we have said earlier, they are working – as Biden has shown – on the basis that the United States lost many allies during the Trump presidency. Thus, there are clear intentions to improve and restore their relations with partners and allies, and accordingly, the new administration may seek to improve its relations with Turkey.
Third: Biden's policies toward Russia
There is a correlation between how Turkey is judged and US policies toward Russia. There are those who believe that Turkey's foreign policy plays a role in serving US objectives by balancing Russia's role on issues such as Syria, Karabakh, Libya, and the Black Sea. Others see that the intersection of Turkish and Russian activity is bringing the two parties to understandings that will eventually lead to a strategic, anti-US relationship.
Regardless of Biden's position on both sides, he has previously stressed the importance of working with allies to achieve his foreign policy objectives, including forming a united front against Russia. The development of Turkey-US relations could facilitate the return of the Western camp. Hence, the only mechanism the Biden administration should follow is to adjust its relations with Turkey on a path that serves the United States and to ensure that failure to do so would entail geopolitical and strategic risks of Turkey aligning itself with Moscow.
Fourth: Repositioning and ending "eternal wars"
Biden seems determined to end the "eternal wars" of the United States, and plans for the Department of Defense to reposition the US military have recently been announced. But these promises were also present in Obama and Trump's speeches; nevertheless, the United States was dragged into global conflicts, particularly in the Middle East.
Officials in Washington often overlook that withdrawal and repositioning requires a sustainable policy that allows a limited force to control conflict situations without having to be reinforced in the future. If Biden wants to do so, he will need to cooperate with his regional partners, including Turkey.
Given Turkey's potential – being a strong country in the region, with strategic access to the US fields of operations in the region, a NATO partner, having the world's sixth largest network of diplomatic missions, and ranked first in the world in terms of humanitarian assistance targeting Syrian refugees, as well as providing aid to Afghanistan and Somalia – winning Turkey could help Biden deliver on his promises to "end eternal wars."
In addition, Turkey's role in any nuclear deal could end Iran-US tensions. Given the reluctance of the Gulf states and Israel, Biden needs the best possible mobilization from Middle Eastern countries to ensure the success and support of the agreement.
The bottom line
A number of determinants that will shape US-Turkey relations can be drawn:
First, while Biden believes in civil rights and democracy, he is at the same time a "pragmatist" who is well-versed in foreign policy principles. Therefore, he will not keep his electoral promises at the expense of his relations with the countries of the Middle East, especially since he has promised a new US approach to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel. US strategic contexts cannot afford to lose all these allies to apply only a set of principles, and there is no precedent in American history to suggest so.
A clear example of this is that when asked in 2017 why he didn't exert much efforts to help the Kurds, he replied by saying that this is because of Turkey, adding that realist policy will remain the priority, and it is likely that he will maintain this approach even after becoming president, not to mention a number of new variables:
1. After the success of three Turkish military operations against the Kurdish Protection Units, they are expected to be minor and less effective.
2. Biden is unlikely to risk US strategic relations with Ankara, to protect the "temporary and tactical" relationship with the Kurdish Protection Units, as former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Jonathan Cohen has put it.
3. The exclusion of the possibility of US reinforcements in Syria and the Pentagon's announcement that its forces are no longer responsible for protecting oil and their duty is limited to fighting ISIS may suggest that Biden has abandoned support for the Kurdish self-administration.
Second: The US-Russian relationship has a role in determining US attitudes toward Turkey. In the past, President Trump has had a somewhat friendly relationship with Russia, and he has little regard for Russia's approach to Turkey, even on the issue of the S-400 missile defense system. Biden, on the other hand, seems determined to counter the Russian ascent, and he is well aware of how important the Turkish side is in supporting his policies. He has previously made it clear that the S-400 issue is exacerbating the rift between the United States and Turkey, reinforcing Russian President Vladimir Putin's goal of dismantling NATO. These ideas will lead to the exclusion of Biden's emphasis on sanctions against Turkey, as this poses a risk that the Turkish side is tilting toward Russia and consolidating its strategic position with it at the expense of the West and NATO.
Third: the position of NATO member states, particularly the European Union, will have an impact on Biden's positions on Turkey. The latter has repeatedly emphasized his approach based on multilateral diplomacy. His own approaches may be highlighted in the files of tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya, and Cyprus in line with the European position.
Fourth: Bilateral relations, both at the level of leaders and institutions, will play a role in this relationship. The previous history of relations shows that Biden has the ability to draw pragmatic policies while Erdogan can embark on a policy that is in line with Biden's direction. The Turkish defense minister's announcement of his country's willingness to negotiate the S-400 missile defense system is a clear example of the pragmatism of both sides. On the other hand, Biden is aware of the fact that punitive measures have not played a role in dissuading Turkey from its policies as was the case with Iran.