Should Turkey worry about a Biden presidency?

If there’s one thing that needs little emphasis, it is that when a senior U.S. politician says something, the world generally listens and reacts. This was again demonstrated last week after a leaked video appeared to show Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden calling for the ouster of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkish media and Turkish politicians lit up with hot takes and hotter criticisms of the statement, made during a roundtable discussion with New York Times editors in December last year. What does Biden’s statement and the reactions to it tell us about the future of U.S.-Turkey relations?

Adnan R. Khan: Does this indicate an anti-Turkey strain in the Democratic Party and particularly in its candidate for president?

Ilter Turan: If we go strictly by the comments, we must conclude yes. But one has to view this with some perspective. When Biden made these comments, he was only one of the candidates competing for nomination by the Democratic party. He was talking to a that is identified as being on the left in American politics, so he was trying to make an impression on its editors for their support as well as its readers. We have to keep in mind this happened within an electoral context.

It is also known and not particularly surprising that Biden holds rather negative views of Turkey. We have to recognize, however, that if Biden is elected, the U.S. government will probably be working in a more institutionalized way. Said differently, Mr. Biden will not simply decide by himself what policy should be followed. He will consult the various agencies of government and will probably also rely on think tanks to help shape policy.

Furthermore, it’s not unusual for countries to be interested in what happens in the domestic politics of other countries. In fact, looking back in history, during the 1960’s and 1970’s NATO, and particularly the U.S., was actively involved in ensuring that the Communist Party did not win national elections in Italy because presumably NATO was fighting communism and there was concern that if the communists got into power in Italy, all NATO secrets would become available to the adversaries. We also know that Turkey extends support to some political parties in the Balkan countries during elections. It is also the case that the EU usually tags democratic conditionalities to programs that it develops with other countries, Turkey not excepted. So, we are not talking about something particularly unusual. Finally, Biden is known to be very prone to making gaffes. This time too, he has expressed himself in a careless, incautious and undiplomatic way, but what he says is relatively common stuff. Paying too much attention to what he has said is doing him a favor, making it appear as if he has made profound remarks.

Adnan R. Khan: Turning to the Trump administration: Is Turkey better off with Trump in the White House?

Ilter Turan: I am not persuaded that we could say that. Trump sometimes makes kind remarks about Turkey, but at other times he has not been so kind. He is not consistent and easily shifts positions. So, despite the fact that at this time the Turkish president has easy access to Mr. Trump, and they both have a style of conducting policy in a very personal way, there is no guarantee that if Trump continues to occupy the White House that will be the best for Turkey. In fact, Biden’s institutional approach to poliy making and implementation would probably be much more predictable, and one could rely on his commitments more than those made by Mr. Trump.

Adnan R. Khan: Turning to Turkey’s response, what we’ve seen is unity across the political spectrum. Both the government and the opposition roundly condemned Biden’s statements. What do you make of that?

Ilter Turan: I’m going to offer the cynical point of view: There’s a trend that when the ruling party reacts in a particular way, the opposition feels it must take up the matter in a similar vein and engage in a game of one-upmanship. The opposition seems to feel that if it doesn’t come out strong in its criticism, the government will criticize it for not being sensitive enough about Turkish national interests and Turkish independence, etc.

What I would rather like to see is that we leave this debate behind and start preparing for the day when Biden might win the election. This is very important because as we have discussed in our earlier conversations, American policymaking is a highly complicated process in which many actors involved. The Turkish government should immediately initiate measures to build bridges with the U.S. Congress, both the Senate and the House, and also try to improve its relations with think tanks and some lobbies in Washington, including those that are closely linked with the Democratic Party and are likely to offer personnel or staff to Biden.

One thing we have to keep in mind is that although Biden may have some reservations about Turkey, the American system operates through communication and persuasion. One should never give up making his case and one should also never neglect communicating with the various agencies of government and private actors that are involved in policy making.

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