The magic moment has come and Turkey is a-buzz: What will happen when Presidents Tayyip Erdoğan and Joe Biden sit down face to face for the first time at the June 14 NATO Summit? Breaths are bated, hands wringing, but our chief political scientist cautions: Stay calm and carry on; not much will happen just yet. That doesn’t mean the meeting is irrelevant; indeed, it is supremely necessary at a time when Turkish-American relations are at a nadir. The road to better ties must start somewhere and that somewhere could well be Brussels. But if not a breakthrough, what can we expect from the first meeting between the Turkey and U.S. leaders?
Adnan R. Khan: No one is expecting any commitments emerging from this meeting. What are some of the major challenges standing in the way and are there any points of convergence?
Ilter Turan: The challenges are wellknown. Topping the list for the U.S. is the presence of S-400s on Turkish soil; for Turkey, U.S. support for the YPG in Syria. Other critical issues for the Biden administration are human rights and democracy, problems in the Eastern Mediterranean and containing Russia, as well as the challenge China poses. What America sees as problems are, in fact, problematical in Turkey’s relations with the U.S. After all, Turkey’s record on human rights and democracy has not been particularly stellar. And it has a very important economic relationship with Russia, which it would not like to maintain. With China, Turkey is looking ahead to more cooperation. It hopes to become a major terminal for the Belt and Road project as well as a target for Chinese investments. These are some of the major and contentious issues, though not all will necessarily come up for discussion in this initial meeting.
As for points of convergence, since the U.S. decided to withdraw from Afghanistan, a number of potential problems have arisen, including logistical issues like who will provide security for Kabul airport or for diplomatic missions in Kabul. Turkey has indicated that it may be willing provide those services. And, of course, there is the on-again-off-again Istanbul peace conference, in which Biden has shown interest. There is also common interest in containing Russia in Libya and Syria. Finally, there is the broader question of the extent to which Turkey is still strategically important for the US and NATO. Expressed differently, to what extent would Turkey’s worsening relations with the US and other NATO allies expose all parties to increased security risks.
Adnan R. Khan: Clearly, they ’re not going to solve all of these issues in one meeting, but Erdoğan and Biden have met before. What can we expect now?
Ilter Turan: This is the first time the two are meeting as top leaders of their countries. The Turkish president has made it no secret that he wants to talk with Biden but there are challenges related to the way the two leaders approach politics. Erdoğan is a strongman. He can make decisions on the spot. He has the notion that the best way to conduct international relations is through personal relationships between leaders. His perception is likely to be that Biden, like himself, can make decisions on the spot and command that they be implemented. But the fact is that Biden is an institutional man. He has come through the ranks of the highly institutionalized American political system and he is trying to restore that institutionalized framework after Trump’s attempts to dismantle it. Biden is the kind of leader who prefers not to make commitments on his own which might put him in difficulty at home and which he may not be able to implement. He is already having difficulties getting his programs through the Congress. He is unlikely to take risks and break out of this institutional fold.
Erdoğan sees politics very differently and this lack of convergence between how to conduct politics where Erdoğan tries constantly to improve personal relations while Biden pursues a more disciplined, institutionalized approach may turn out to be an impediment to the advancement of relations.
Adnan R. Khan: As you mentioned, Biden is facing a lot of challenges at home which limits his ability to negotiate internationally. Where does President Erdoğan stand domestically? Is he free to wheel and deal as he pleases?
Ilter Turan: One limiting factor Erdoğan faces is that he has pursued a foreign policy in which the government, in addition to other actors, has mobilized the public to become highly anti-American. Consequently, any concessions to the U.S. are likely to generate political costs at home. On the S-400 front, he has pursued a very hard line, treating their purchase and operationalization as non-negotiable. So, if the key to improving the relationship with the U.S. is to concede to American demands on the S-400s, Erdoğan will need a face-saving exercise. It will clearly be a challenge but there may be compensatory possibilities on the economic front. To compromise on the S-400s, he will probably expect economic concessions from the U.S.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The reality is that this first meeting is mostly a tone-setter. I think what we will learn from it is whether forward progress is possible and to what extent. It’s only a start but starts are important in determining where relations will go from there.