When Joe Biden takes office as US President in late January, one of the toughest foreign policy challenges he will inherit is not his predecessor's creation. Indeed, the problem of US relations with Turkey has misled US administrations of both parties for the past two decades.
From Ankara's refusal to allow US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border in 2003, to sharp bilateral disagreements over Syria policy during the Obama administration, to Turkey's recent takeover of Russian air defense systems despite its NATO membership, the US-Turkish relationship has is a headache for a long line of American presidents.
However, the ongoing threats to the region and the increasing global risks underscore the enduring value of US-Turkish cooperation for both countries and underscore the importance that a Biden administration has in rescuing the relationship from the serious deterioration it took under President Donald Trump has further exacerbated disagreements over Turkey's incursion into northeast Syria and its opposition to Arab normalization agreements with Israel.
Turkey, which connects Europe and Asia, is also on the fault line of seismic change in US foreign policy. The US strategy is deliberately shifting from a focus on combating terrorism and non-state actors to a focus on competition for great powers, particularly with Russia and China. Washington and Ankara fought on both fronts under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and disagreed on how, for example, to fight terrorism in Syria and manage relations with Moscow.
The coronavirus pandemic may not usher in a new world, but it has accelerated a transition in the global order. The crisis has exacerbated tensions between the US and China, highlighting for many states the risks of supply chains that depend heavily on Beijing. While the resulting shift in US foreign policy is evident in East Asia, its implications for US strategy have not been clear elsewhere.
In the Middle East, which was the focus of US foreign policy for the first few decades of this century, it is unclear whether Washington will pursue the same strategy – defending a wide range of US interests, particularly counter-terrorism, through direct intervention and strong support for allies – with fewer resources or to develop a new regional strategy.
This new strategy would deliberately aim to view the Middle East's problems through a lens of competition between the great powers – maintaining close ties with the region's medium-sized powers and preventing Moscow and Beijing from entering, even at the expense of other causes such as terrorism as the Trump administration's national defense strategy was hinted at.
The likely answer is a bit of both. Given the need to move resources to Asia, the US government will increasingly seek to outsource mutual interests to its regional partners. However, attempts are also being made to recruit these partners in order to strengthen the global order and norms against the increasingly bold challenges of great power competitors.
With such a reformulation of US policy in the Middle East, the role of Turkey will be important – for better or for worse. It is the largest economy in the region with a GDP of $ 750 billion.
It has shown a willingness to use hard force to influence regional dynamics, often to Washington's dismay these days. It shares borders with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and borders Russia across the Black Sea. Turkey is therefore a logical stop on the Chinese belt and road network. Turkey is both physically and politically capable of influencing the projection of Russian power south or Chinese power west.
What has long made Turkey an important partner of the United States has also caught the attention of Russia and China. Indeed, for any outside actor, Ankara's cooperation would greatly enhance its ability to achieve Middle East policy goals. For Moscow and Beijing, the opportunity to use the current differences between Ankara and Washington to widen the growing divide within NATO is an added attraction. The most recent example of this is the fossil fuel showdown in the Eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece, which divided NATO members and even hampered efforts by the European Union to reach consensus on unrelated issues such as Belarus.
Lately the attraction has been mutual. After nearly finalizing a deal on a Chinese radar system, Turkey took over the Russian S-400 air defense system and tested it on Washington's objections, raising sharp concerns and the real threat of sanctions from Washington across the NATO alliance. With the prospect of an economic downturn and mounting difficulties with external financing, Ankara is keen to attract more Chinese investments and financing.
This has proven to be an elusive goal so far: Beijing's share of FDI in Turkey is a meager 1 percent, and only 960 of the 61,449 foreign capital firms registered in Turkey in 2018 were Chinese. However, Ankara remains confident that China's Belt and Road Initiative will bring further capital – especially in light of the growing economic and tourism crisis resulting from the pandemic in Turkey – and has shown no willingness to accept Washington's warnings about Huawei's adoption of 5G technology note. for example.
However, Ankara should be aware that any relationship between Turkey and China or Russia has its limits. Relations between Turkey and China continue to be hampered by China's policies of repression towards the Uyghur minority, who share cultural and linguistic ties with other Turkish ethnic groups. Turkey and Russia remain at odds on regional issues such as Syria, Libya and Armenia and are divided by centuries of distrust of Russian efforts to expand their security situation south.
Even in the Nagorno-Karabakh peace agreement recently brokered by Russia, Moscow and Ankara disagreed on the issue of Turkish peacekeeping forces. And neither Russia nor China can offer Turkey the security or economic advantages that Ankara's deep commitment to the West over the decades has brought – an imbalance that has turned Chinese efforts to diplomatic public health aid after the coronavirus pandemic To convert favors, only likely are tagging.
However, this does not mean that a return to the status quo ante of the US-Turkish partnership is possible. Turkish policies such as the S-400 audit and tough statements by Turkish leaders on issues such as normalization with Israel have raised serious questions in Washington about the future of relations with Ankara.
These moves have also increased tensions between Turkey and other US partners in the Middle East, particularly the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, which are at great contradiction to Ankara in various regional disputes, both rhetorically and locally.
In addition to this dynamic, the reformulation of US policy in the Middle East has changed the calculation of its partners in the region. Instead of waiting for the US government to formulate a new regional strategy, the strongest of these partners are increasingly acting on their own initiative, often in contradiction to one another – for example Turkey and the UAE support opposing sides in the Libyan civil war in the face of a diffuse United States and a divided Europe. More active US engagement could help ease Arab-Turkish tensions and open channels of communication, but the basic pattern is unlikely to change.
For all problems that weigh on their relations, the interests of the United States and Turkey are still better served by cooperation than antagonism. While the nostalgia for the US-Turkey alliance would be misguided in the past, one would also assume that the only alternative is enmity.
Despite all the serious disputes, the Americans and Turks share an interest in limiting Russian influence in the region, counteracting Iranian adventurism and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and missilesamong other goals.
The reality, however, is that for the foreseeable future, US-Turkey relations, even if they can be stabilized, will be more transactional than in the past. This requires a greater willingness than at present to set priorities, work out compromises quietly, consult early to avoid disputes and prevent any disagreement from becoming an existential threat to the relationship.
In his years as senator and vice president, Biden gained a reputation for working out compromises behind the scenes. Quiet consultation may not be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's usual stance toward the West, but the election of a new Democratic U.S. President could give him enough break to seek the friendlier, more expert relationship with Washington that both the United States and Washington have Turkey would also serve interests.