What would the result of 2020 US election mean for Ankara?

There is a lot of speculation that a Biden presidency would be bad for Turkey and that President Erdoğan is among the heads of state that stand to lose the most with a Trump loss. However, one must not assume that everything will go swimmingly for Turkey and Erdoğan in a second Trump administration.

The election of a new U.S. president is always cause for much discussion and anticipation around the world. This year, with all the controversy surrounding the elections — largely due to President Trump — it will be some time before the final results of the election are in. The idea that President Trump is likely to be replaced by the former vice president is almost a universal cause for celebration. Almost, because in some countries like Turkey, a Biden presidency may not particularly be good news. At the same time, there are not many signs that Ankara considers it to be the end of the world.

There is a lot of speculation that a Biden presidency would be bad for Turkey and that President Erdoğan is among the heads of state that stand to lose the most with a Trump loss. However, one must not assume that everything will go swimmingly for Turkey and Erdoğan in a second Trump administration. Erdoğan might have a chummy relationship with Trump and be able to reach him whenever he likes, but the defiance displayed in testing the S-400 missile systems and the following challenge by Erdoğan that Trump “impose whatever sanctions [he likes]” are bound to catch up after the election, given the genuine concern and even anger in the U.S. Congress and other parts of the Trump administration against Turkey.

A Biden administration would hope to put down some markers from the beginning and would not be very enthusiastic about blocking sanctions. This would, of course, be far from a good start for the relationship with the Erdoğan government. However, Turkey might not be the foremost issue for the new U.S. government come January. Leaving aside domestic issues, on the international agenda there will be bigger fish to fry with China, Russia and Iran, among many others. 

In approaching these issues, the Biden foreign policy team has been emphasizing more diplomacy, engagement and return of the U.S. to the international stage to “lead by the power of our example, not the example of our power.” Biden promises to re-energize alliances and return to multilateral treaties and arrangements. In this sense, a Biden administration might be perceived as good news for the Western world in general, and from a security policy perspective, for NATO allies in particular. NATO members will have the pleasure of dealing with an administration that believes in the value of dialogue, cooperation, alliances and allies, and in its dealings with allies, employing appropriate policymaking processes. 

At the same time, many point out that it would be naive to expect a Biden administration to be able to quickly “right the wrongs” in the international order, as the “deterioration” (in question marks because right and wrong are all relative in this sense) of that order is due in no small part not only to the Trump administration, but the Obama administration as well — and Biden by implication. A lot of water has passed under the bridge. Just look at the rise of China, the invasion of Crimea by Russia, and the new realignments and relationships being established in the Middle East. All this is of course not the fault of the successive U.S. administrations, but if there is a crack in the international system, there will be consequences. 

Even some strong U.S. allies have gradually and largely given up hope and decided that they would be better off if they were to take matters into their own hands. In Europe, for instance, France acted first in Libya when Obama was still president, forcing the U.S. to follow; lately, France has treated Trump’s threats towards NATO allies as almost an opportunity to craft a more pronounced role for the EU in European defense. More hesitant allies like Germany have, in the end, come to the conclusion that there is no other alternative. 

Turkey, on the other hand, has been treating its NATO membership in an increasingly transactional manner, contributing sometimes more than many other allies in return for what it sees as what it is due, while not hesitating to take advantage of the increasingly fragmented system to advance its individual interests in many theaters in a way that was anathema to foreign policy makers only a decade ago. Trump and the personal relationship established between the two presidents has been an enabler for Erdoğan to become more and more aggressive internationally, particularly as he sees that it is imperative for him domestically to compensate for the various challenges posed by the economy and Covid-19, among others. 

It has come to the point that Turkey has alienated almost all its treaty allies as well as its traditional partners and friends. There are only a few countries with which Erdoğan has not entered into a spat. Turkish foreign policy has been in a continuous cycle of overreach followed by consolidation, by playing one actor against the other or taking advantage of divisions. Going forward, it seems that much depends on whether Ankara will continue to pursue this current foreign policy path, which is increasingly pushing Turkey into a corner and leaving it in international isolation. To balance out the lack of traditional alliances, Ankara has been able to find some room for cooperation and partnership with Russia in its international entanglements, even going as far as defining it as strategic, and sometimes playing Russia against the U.S. But there are signs that the relationship with Russia is also coming under increasing strain. However, given that Erdoğan’s challenges at home continue, there is not much reason to expect that he will choose to rectify his foreign policy choices if this is indeed a requirement as put forth by Antony Blinken, the Chief Foreign Policy Adviser for the Biden for President Campaign and former Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Adviser:

“Turkey is a NATO ally by its engagements, by its geographical position, by its interests. It’s a vitally important country and it winds up being in one way or another and often an essential way, critical to some issue, conflict, initiative.

We obviously want to find a way to have a more productive and positive relationship with Turkey, but that requires the Turkish government itself to want the same thing. We obviously have some real issues and differences but we also have areas where it would make good sense for us to find ways to work more effectively together, Syria, for example, being one of them.”

At the same time, it is a fact that, although the current period is particularly fraught,  Turkish-American relations have not always been smooth sailing, but they are still important to both sides. For all the talk of norms and values, concrete mutual interests have in the end allowed both countries to seek and find some common ground. The S400 issue is a very hard nut to crack. However, Turkey insists on presenting this as not a departure from the NATO alliance, but as an exigence brought on by the indifference of its allies. As Turkey brings up each time, Greece has S300 missile systems, which it received from Cyprus in 1998 due to Turkish objections and tested in 2013, that have been sitting in Crete ever since.

The Biden foreign policy team will have names that have at least some experience in dealing with Turkey as well as in-depth knowledge of Turkey’s problems and grievances. It is true that Ankara has quite a lot of baggage with at least some of those names. They were Ankara’s interlocutors when the Arab Spring started and have been battle-hardened in their dealings with Ankara. But they should also know that if they are to deal with Russia and Iran, they will need to deal with Turkey in ways that are not only punitive. If the Biden foreign policy team mean what they say when they talk about diplomacy and engagement, they will have a genuine test case in Turkey.