What Will Biden Do About Turkey’s President Erdogan?

There’s a feverish discussion under way among foreign policy experts on what the President-elect should do about Turkey. It really has to be high up on his list of urgent worries, they seem to believe. Not least because Donald Trump’s approach was so incoherent and so apparently unfocused. That is, other than his rather arbitrarily indulgent attitude towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan (except for the one incident of jailed evangelist Andrew Brunson – more of which later). In the Trump era, Erdogan ramped up his egregious repression of civil society in Turkey, grounds enough for White House disapproval. His supine justice system continued to stifle outspoken media and journalists, imprison Kurdish politicians, persecute opposition voices like prominent businessman Osman Kavala. Here is a horrifying list of just this year’s abuses

But Erdogan also interfered militarily abroad not once, not twice, but thrice – in Syria, Libya and Armenia-Azerbaijan. He has done all that without a peep from Washington. As well as acquire Russian S-400 missiles and bully Greece with warships. Clearly, something needs to be done, goes the argument, to stabilize Nato’s eastern flank and bring Turkey back in line.

Some say, Biden must find a way to make nice with Turkey in order to do that. Here is a thoroughly competent essay that ends with the line, “the purpose of our actions should be to peel Ankara away from Moscow, rather than push it deeper in its embrace.”

Written by a respected policy wonk in Europe, it provides lots of excellent background and context on Turkey’s relations with Russia, Europe, and the US. What it doesn’t do is suggest anything concrete. What exactly should the West do to butter up Erdogan without buttressing his domestic power or freeing him to spread Turkish power abroad – thereby boosting his popularity at home and enhancing his brutish march toward full-blown state Putinism? Above all, the paper doesn’t address the central issue – why should the US make nice with Erdogan at all? Oddly enough, very few of the esteemed global experts expounding on the topic of Turkey deal with this. Does Turkey have much geo-strategic value anymore, and if so what and how much?

One could argue, like the above article, that the West needs to repair the alliance in order to keep Moscow and Ankara apart. But then you’d have to itemize the concrete benefits of doing so. As the author notes, the two nations’ interests are diagonally opposed in each of the conflict areas yet they’ve arrived consistently at a stable modus vivendi. In Syria, Putin supports the regime while Erdogan controls an enclave/safe-haven for the rebels. In Libya, the two have basically divided the country between them. In Karabagh, both leaders have emerged triumphant as hegemons on opposing sides. As a result they’re even more unassailable at home, offering citizens imperial nostalgia in place of a decent economy, basic human rights, or Covid competence. For sure, the West shouldn’t allow that kind of ‘post-liberal’ order (the author’s phrase) to succeed and proliferate. It will ultimately affect the stability and prosperity of the West and allies if, for example, Moscow and Ankara dominate major oil-resource locations such as Azerbaijan and Libya among other places. So the argument goes. But in that case, why not just make life difficult for Erdogan and indeed for Putin and other leaders of such regimes?

Here the crucial disparity of interests between Europe and the US becomes salient. It matters less domestically in the short-term to America, being self-sufficient in fuel, which anti-democratic ogre acts as hegemon over global oil supplies. But it does matter to Europe more immediately owing to the EU’s dependence on foreign pipelines and deliveries from abroad. It becomes America’s problem only if the US still intends to lead and protect the Western world and its global geo-strategic perimeter. For the US to prosper, it must create a blanket of protection and prosperity around those areas of the world that embrace its values. That includes Europe. In order to do so, it’s time to confront manifest adversaries adversarially. Moscow has in recent years perpetrated the recent great hack via Solar Winds, attacked American diplomats with directed-energy weapons, interfered in elections, launched a global assassination campaign and much else. Enough with resets. The new Cold War is here. It’s time to engage in it fully.

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