For Donald Trump, the past couple of weeks have proven a statistical nightmare. By virtually every measure, he is destined to lose the presidential election scheduled for November. In Turkey, the dire projections have elicited some handwringing among those who believe losing Trump as an ally will hurt Turkey’s interests. They point to evidence from John Bolton’s recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened, to argue that President Erdogan’s personal relationship with the U.S. president offers Turkey strategic advantages, which it would lose under a Biden presidency. But our chief political scientist argues that Turkey’s interests may be better served if it engages more broadly with American political institutions and doesn’t rely on the whims of what appears to be an unstable president.
Adnan R. Khan: What do you see as the inherent risks in placing your hopes on Donald Trump?
Ilter Turan: There are a number of problems with this approach. To begin with, it’s never prudent for a government to express a preference in the elections of another country. And given all indications that Mr. Trump might lose, it is better to formulate a set of policies that will be somewhat independent of who wins. With that said, we might focus on the two candidates and, from a Turkish perspective, try to analyze what would be good for Turkey in case Trump wins and what would be good for Turkey if Biden wins.
Let’s start with Trump. It’s well known that the Turkish and American presidents have a collegial relationship. Bolton’s revelations indicate that they may have had telephone conversations more than once a week and the Turkish president appeared often to influence Mr. Trump’s decisions. That’s good for Turkey.
At the same time, however, a cautious approach has to be adopted for a number of reasons. Firstly, the American system is such that there is no single center of decision making. Trump has to contend with both the Congress and the judiciary, any one of which might produce decisions that he doesn’t like, and there is not much he can do about it. So it would be extremely limiting for Turkey to neglect other branches of American government, in particular the U.S. Congress, and put all its bets on Trump.
Adnan R. Khan: As you say, there has been a deep personalization of the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. What risks are involved in that kind of relationship?
Ilter Turan: We know that Trump makes rash decisions, which he then often has to backtrack. He uses exaggerated terminology – one day he will call someone his greatest friend; the next day he may call him a good for nothing. There is this constant shifting of ground according to Trump’s moods and the stimuli he receives from the political environment.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, will likely be more capable of getting agencies of government to work together to produce a national policy. His government will be more predictable and trustworthy. It is also very likely that there will probably be greater harmony between Biden and Congress. Current polls predict that Democrats will achieve majorities in both the House and the Senate, an outcome that achieve predictability.
Adnan R. Khan: What does institutional engagement look like in practice?
Ilter Turan: Let’s take relations with the U.S. Congress as an example: Historically, there has always been a friends of Turkey group in the U.S. Congress. This group has become much smaller and less committed in recent years. It’s important to get this group to be more active again. One has to realize that when an issue comes up with regard to Turkey, many senators and representatives don’t really have any preference one way or the other. They look for signals from their colleagues who are more interested; who they deem to be more important; and colleagues from whom they have received favors in the past and would like to repay. Therefore, it is important to be on good terms with members of Congress and have a strong representation that is sensitive to Turkey’s concerns..
Adnan R. Khan: Is reviving these institutional relationships possible after all the damage Trump has done to them?
Ilter Turan: I know no other way but to try. We are not talking about personal relationships – and the lasting resentments that come when they sour; we’re talking about politics. I think in politics, people deal with interests and sometimes what seems to be difficult at the individual level seems to be more practical and possible at the institutional level.