From personal to institutionalized relations

Although more than a week has lapsed since the Turkish President Erdogan and his American counterpart, President Biden met on the fringes of the G-20 Summit in Rome, debate continues to rage as regards what transpired at the meeting. It has become somewhat established by now that Turkey’s public statements about what happens at international meetings can be at considerable variance with comments emanating from the other side. This time was no exception. While Turkey’s President exuded optimism, American statements about the get- together have emphasized factual aspects, not supporting if not betraying Turkey’s optimistic tone.

Let us begin with the facts. Two aspects of the meeting are certain. First, the meeting was scheduled for 20 minutes which allows barely minimum time for the leaders to exchange pleasantries, particularly in light of the fact that the communication between the leaders requires the intermediation of interpreters. Though not initially planned, however, the meeting lasted more than an hour. Second, the parties agreed that a common mechanism should be established to work on the problems that plague their relationship. Evidently, many topics were discussed, but other than the establishment of a common mechanism, it seems that no concrete decisions or commitments were made.

The prolongation of the meeting has generally been interpreted as being good. It is assumed that the leaders, while making their initial remarks, discovered that there existed sufficient grounds to continue talking and explore possibilities for expanding cooperation and improving relations, or at minimum, clarifying mutual positions so as to eradicate possible misunderstandings or false expectations which, if ignored, could only lead to the worsening of relations. It was clear from the beginning that neither party wanted a rupture in the relationship and both were interested in reducing the potential for conflict.

Agreeing on the establishment of a mechanism that would focus on mutual problems and facilitate solutions may either mean that the current mechanisms are not sufficient or are not functioning properly, or alternatively it may mean that having failed to reach an agreement on any concrete issue, the parties simply invented the mechanism as a way to get out of the impasse with minimum damage. My hunch is that the decision reflects a little bit of both of these probabilities. Particularly in light of the fact that decision making in Turkey has become overly centralized during the recent years, the various government agencies involved in implementing external relations may have been reluctant to use their own initiatives and expect the “center” to take care of everything. The designation, for example, of a person close to the president who would assume leadership in coordinating policy might indeed be helpful in moving things along.

But there is another dimension to all this. The Turkish President, based on his own powers and experience, tends to conceptualize relations between states as relations between heads of government. Accordingly, he constantly seeks to hold personal meetings to address bilateral issues. Furthermore, these meetings provide opportunities for him to enhance his domestic stature as well as help achieve international visibility. Such a conceptualization has worked well with other populist leaders, notably with Mr. Trump and with Mr. Putin, who also enjoy displays of power in the international scene. Yet there is a difference. The political and administrative environment within which these leaders operate do not allow them to ignore the institutional and legal framework of foreign policy making. This is most clearly evident in the case of the U.S. where the U.S. Congress is an important independent actor that has much say in the making and implementation of policy. The less than institutional approach the Turkish President displays and the more institutional constraints on his counterparts do not match, reducing the effectiveness of person to person meetings and their ability to constitute a substitute to highly patterned, institutionalized foreign policy making and implementation. The result is that the effects of these meetings are exaggerated by the Turkish side but, in the long run, they do not produce sufficiently the intended results. The typical outcome of all this is frustration on the Turkish side.

Mr. Biden, coming from the American political establishment where he served as senator and later as vice president, tends more to rely on institutions than on exclusive personal contacts. It may be that the American President, by offering to establish a common mechanism, wanted to emphasize patterned, institutionalized relations rather than relying on frequent high-level meetings. The common mechanism might work toward the solution of some problems, and work to “manage” other conflicts in order that they do not get out of control. The critical question concerns the extent to which Turkey will subscribe to the solution to which it has presumably agreed.

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