“America is back”

By Zeynep Gurcanli

That expression dominated the first international speech given by U.S. President Joe Biden. Biden emphasized it several times during his speech at the Munich Security Conference.

The first element of the ‘comeback’ is the restart of close cooperation with U.S.’s historical allies, notably Europe, a sharp reversal of the America First policies pursued by former President Trump. Indeed, there were numerous occasions on which Biden mentioned working together with NATO and the European Union.


The U.S. President also put forward a ‘goal’ for this close cooperation in his speech: to protect democratic values that have been under the attack by autocratic leaders. “Democratic progress is under assault both in the U.S. and Europe,” Biden said, naming the most egregious transgressors – China and Russia.,

He highlighted that the international economic system needs to be strengthened in order to counter China. “We have to push back against the Chinese government’s economic abuses and coercion that undercut the foundations of the international economic system. Everyone – everyone – in the economy must play by the same rules,” he said.

Singling out Russia’s penchant for weaponizing corruption, he added: “Russian leaders want people to think that our system is more corrupt or as corrupt as theirs. But the world knows that it isn’t true, including Russia’s own citizens.”

Mentioning Putin by name, Biden also highlighted that the Russian leader’s project is “to weaken the NATO Alliance”.

One of striking elements in the speech was Biden’s willingness to re-engage in dialogue with Iran over its nuclear program. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency declared that it had reached a compromise with Iran within hours of the U.S. President finishing his speech.


Biden’s stance on Turkey, meanwhile, emerged by insinuation. For instance, it was clear that Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system was included in the U.S. president’s statement about Putin’s efforts to weaken the NATO alliance. The implication for Ankara is that there will be no negotiation on S-400s as long as Biden is in power. Even if he softens his attitude and comes to the table, it’s unlikely that the U.S.

Congress, which is mostly united in its opposition to Turkey, will agree to lift sanctions.
Another oblique reference to Turkey was Biden’s emphasis on democratic values. Apparently, Biden will continue to speak out during his presidency against steps that trample on democratic values and human rights through the use of powerful lobbies in the U.S., oil wealth or geopolitical power, all forms of influence countries in the Middle East, including Turkey, deploy.

Early signs are already emerging that things will be different under Biden. Biden waited a month before speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, during which time Netanyahu’s calls to the U.S. president were reportedly re-directed to the “rejection hotline.” Administration officials also announced last week that Biden will no longer be dealing Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and will instead speak directly to his father, King Salman.

Instead, the Crown Prince, who is also Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, received a call U.S. Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin, underlining the point that the U.S. intends to engage with Mohammad bin Salman based his official rank, not his unofficial domination of the Kingdom. (U.S. intelligence agencies are expected to submit reports directly blaming Mohammed bin Salman for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi to the Congress; they are also expected to release them to the public).

To date, there still not been a phone call to Turkey’s president.


The problem between the White House and Ankara isn’t just S -400s or the democratic backsliding in Turkey.

Apparently, when the Biden administration said “America is back”, it also meant returning to Iraq, which had been left mostly unattended by Trump, and to Syria, where troops withdrew during the previous president’s term.

The first sign of this was the decision taken at the NAT• Defense Ministers’ meeting to raise the number of NATO troops in Iraq 8-fold, from 500 to 4,000. Interestingly, the decision was made exactly when Turkey talked about the Gara operation in the northern Iraq.

During Trump’s term, Turkey had a relatively easy time launching operations and inflicting heavy losses on the PKK terrorist organization in northern Iraq. Apparently, Ankara will need wake a very thin line to maintain its counterterrorism operations with the backdrop of increasing NATO troops – although those troops will be largely training forces.

In Syria, the Biden administration will ramp up U.S. presence with a military base, whereas Trump withdrew the American military presence to a large extent. Moreover, the military base will be located near Hasakah, under the control of the PKK’s Syrian proxy, the PYD-YPG, at the intersection point of the Turkish-Iraqi-Syrian border, which is no doubt going to irk Ankara. In doing so, the Biden administration is sending a clear message: it will protect the PYD-YPG against Turkey’s possible new counterterrorism operations in Syria.

As the U.S. comes back to its role policing the international system, relations between Washington and Ankara seem to be even more strained than expected.

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