As U.S.-Turkish relations have worsened in recent years, the conversation about how Washington can best support Turkish democracy has become ever more fraught. Congress’s growing willingness to sanction Turkey has encouraged those who believe that such measures will weaken Erdoğan and lay the groundwork for his electoral defeat. It has also created alarm among those who believe that Washington can best strengthen Turkish democracy through a policy of greater engagement. Advocates of engagement have argued that Turkey is more than just Erdoğan, and that aggressive sanctions will only alienate Erdoğan’s opponents.
Realistically, the debate is likely an academic one. Washington has shown little capacity for coherent policymaking and little interest in principled support for democracy. Congressional sanctions policy so far has been driven by a mix of narrow national interests, wounded pride and domestic politics, with concerns over democratic values at best tacked on as an afterthought. And, of course, the Trump administration still remains actively opposed to even these modest efforts.
Nonetheless, with many well-meaning people working to push government thinking, such as it is, in the most effective direction, it is worth reflecting on the broader challenges and contradictions Washington faces in trying to promote democratic change in Turkey. The following five arguments represent more a starting point than a coherent set of recommendations. But perhaps these caveats can contribute to the conversation as we try to salvage something positive from U.S. policy.
1) Turkey is more than just Erdoğan, but that won’t make things any easier. Indeed, Washington must resist the impulse to conflate Turkey with Erdoğan, remembering that at least half the country remains firmly opposed to him. Yet this is easier said than done. The problem is that for Erdoğan’s supporters, roughly half the population, Turkey is in fact Erdoğan. He is the democratically-elected embodiment of their national will, and any criticism of him is in fact criticism of the nation itself. For opponents who reject this, in turn, the problem is that Erdoğan remains the one running Turkey. This means that, often single-handedly, he is the one making decisions that shape their daily lives. As a result, the people who are most aware that Turkey is more than just Erdoğan are also the ones most painfully aware of how little this can mean in practical terms.
2) Anything Washington says or does can be used against it in the court of Turkish public opinion. Erdoğan’s opponents are also deeply divided on what sort of solidarity they want from Washington. Some have been vocal in insisting that “recognizing Turkey is more than Erdoğan” means continuing to engage with Turkey in spite of him. This involves moving forward to improve trade ties, promote EU accession and continue cooperation in other venues. Yet for others in the opposition, all of these efforts are tantamount to political support for Erdoğan. If Washington chooses to engage with an undemocratic Turkey, it should be prepared for the fact that this will subsequently be cited as proof of U.S. hypocrisy – just as Washington’s willingness to engage with previous undemocratic regimes in Turkey continues to be held against it today.
3) Conditionality is crucial, but unlikely to work. To avoid the dilemma laid out above, many policymakers have suggested Washington adopt a policy of rules-based engagement. The challenge is that if the U.S. truly conditions engagement on democratic norms, the result is likely to be no engagement. To take the most dramatic example, as part of the 2016 EU-Turkey Refugee Agreement, the European Union offered Turkish citizens visa-free travel to Europe. A key condition, however, was that Turkey reform its overly-broad anti-terror laws, which the government has systematically used to imprison its critics and political opponents. So far, Ankara has declined to make the necessary changes and as a result, Turkish citizens are no closer to achieving visa-free travel.
4) Instrumentalizing democratic rhetoric will backfire. Using intensified criticism of undemocratic behavior to express frustration with Turkish foreign policy, or withholding it to express approval, ultimately strips this criticism of its meaning. Both Washington and Brussels have tried this approach in the past. In 2015, for example, as the refugee crisis was mounting, the EU withheld a critical report on Turkey until after the country’s November 1 elections. Amidst sensitive negotiations over the future of northeastern Syria in 2016, Washington also withheld criticism over the arrest of leading Kurdish politicians. In neither case was the loss of Western credibility matched by any lasting strategic gains.
5) Consistency can still yield results. As Washington considers a host of different sanctions for a host of different reasons, policymakers should recognize that only steady, principled pressure can possibly bring lasting benefits. Sanctions imposed out of vindictiveness, domestic political considerations or a desire to bring down Erdoğan will likely prove destabilizing and ineffective. More measured but consistent sanctions, by contrast, can at the very least lay the groundwork for future administrations to link the normalization of U.S.-Turkish ties with the full normalization of Turkey’s democratic system. This won’t produce dramatic short-term change, but it could nonetheless play a positive role in the long run.