No more special privileges for Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The then Vice President Joe Biden (l) attends a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on 31 March 2016.
The then Vice President Joe Biden (l) attends a bilateral meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Washington on 31 March 2016.

The foreign policy direction favoured by Washington's new incumbent is putting a strain on relations with Turkey. The two nations look set to clash over a whole host of issues, from human rights concerns to the S 400 Russian missile system, Ronald Meinardus writes in his analysis for

By Ronald Meinardus

Recep Tayyip Erdogan sees himself up there with the giants of global politics, on a level with the likes of Putin, Macron and Merkel – and of course with the President of the United States of America. Erdogan and Trump's male bonding overtures were plain for all to see.

The special relationship had far-reaching implications for Turkish domestic and foreign policy: "The bilateral relationship became so personalised at the leader level that it has been difficult to tease out where U.S. and Turkish government policy stops and the personal preferences of the Erdogan and Trump families begin," is how Turkey specialist Max Hoffmann from the Center for American Progress described the ties.

Since taking office, the new president has been cautious about making any public comments on the subject of Turkey. Biden has so far not sought any direct exchange with his counterpart in Ankara. If Turkish newspaper commentaries are to be believed, this silence is causing irritation at the top level in Ankara. In any case, it is only a matter of time before Biden and Erdogan will conduct direct talks with each other; in the meantime the exchange is happening at a lower level.

Turkish media reported extensively on a telephone call between the new national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin in early February. That both sides came away with different readings of the conversation says everything about the state of relations between the two countries.

The election of Joe Biden wasn’t met with outpourings of joy in Ankara – after all, things with Trump had been just fine. Turkey – writes Burhanettin Duran, director of the public thinktank SETA in a recent newspaper article – profited from the turbulences of the Trump presidency more than other nations. Now – the Erdogan confidante sets the course – Ankara is keen "to cement the political and military gains of the past four years through diplomacy".

UK NATO meeting in London l Donald Trump and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: Reuters/Presidential Press Office/M. Cetinmuhurdar)
Ende einer „Männerfreundschaft“: Die Sonderbeziehung der beiden Staatsmänner hatte weitreichende Implikationen für die Innen- und Außenpolitik der Türkei, schreibt Ronald Meinardus in seiner Analyse. Das bilaterale Verhältnis war derart von der persönlichen Beziehung der beiden Politiker geprägt, dass es schwierig war zu bestimmen, wo die Regierungspolitik der US und der türkischen Regierung endete und wo die persönlichen Vorlieben der Familien Erdogan und Trump begannen.

Duran names Syria, Libya and the eastern Mediterranean as the international flashpoints that Erdogan could successfully use to advance his power ambitions. The Erdogan apologist Duran admits to something that foreign experts on Turkey have been claiming for a long time: the de facto withdrawal of Washington from the region during the Trump years created the vacuum exploited by the power-conscious Turkish president for his advancement strategy.

In doing so, Erdogan didn’t just make friends. Turkey has rubbed a lot of countries up the wrong way, primarily in the West and including traditional allies of the United States. "Turkey has increasingly found itself on the wrong side of almost all of Washington’s friends," writes Nicholas Danforth in a current policy paper from the Brookings Institution. The U.S. expert draws a grim picture of the state of bilateral relations: "The Turkish government views the United States as a strategic threat rather than an ally, and a growing majority in Washington has come to view Turkey the same way."

Erdogan’s Turkey has an image problem, and not just with members of the Washington thinktank community. When it comes to the question of loyalty, the new U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken doesn’t trust Ankara an inch either. During his confirmation hearing in the Senate, he referred to the NATO member as a "so-called partner", thereby unmistakeably questioning Turkey’s credibility as an ally.

"The root of all tensions"

It is indicative of the new style in Washington that Blinken called a spade a spade and avoided diplomatic window dressing. After all, the fact that relations between Turkey and the West aren’t the best right now is not headline news. There’s talk of Ankara drifting away from the western alliance, of a downward spiral almost at its end point, warn political observers.

The process is concerned with fundamental questions far beyond differences over general political issues: "As the world heads towards a multi-polar system, Turkey now pursues an 'independent' foreign policy," Yahya Bostan outlines Ankara’s strategic thinking in a commentary in the pro-government Daily Sabah. "What the U.S. wants from Turkey as a partner is for us to be as dependent as we were in the Cold War," Bostan continues. "The fundamental disagreement is the root of all tensions between the U.S. and Turkey."

Under Donald Trump, Washington mostly left Ankara to its own devices, at any rate there was no discernible attempt to resolve this "fundamental disagreement", or in other words to clarify relations in principle. It can be assumed that the Biden administration will be pro-active on this matter. With regard to foreign policy, the new president has also declared a radical break with the past.


In his first foreign policy keynote speech in early February, Biden may not have said a word about Turkey. But his underlining of democracy, freedom and the rule of law as universal values and guiding principles of American foreign policy provided indications of how his administration also intends to interact with Ankara.

We didn’t have to wait long for decisive evidence of this political change of tack. The harsh Turkish security forces crackdown on students at Bogazici University furnished Washington with the first opportunity to express this new tonality. Early this year, to the annoyance of students and teaching staff, President Erdogan issued a decree appointing a former AKP politician to the post of university rector.

Protests have been ongoing ever since, with arrests and violent clashes between police and demonstrators. Observers are comparing the rallies to the Gezi Park protests of 2013. Back then, widespread opposition to a government construction project initially manifested itself in the heart of Istanbul and quickly spread across the country before Erdogan restored "calm and order" with an iron fist

Washington stands "shoulder-to-shoulder" with the students

"The U.S. prioritises the protection of human rights and stands shoulder-to-shoulder with all those fighting for their democratic freedoms," said a government spokesman in Washington with a beady eye on the repression of student protests. Just a short time later, the State Department issued a written statement demanding the "immediate release" of Osman Kavala.

The philanthropist and activist has been in detention since 2017 on a number of spurious charges including being one of the masterminds behind the Gezi protests. Kavala is one of the most prominent figureheads of Turkish civil society; known for many years far beyond the country’s borders as a symbol of the peaceful resistance against a government that behaves in an increasingly authoritarian manner.   

Ankara’s response to the American appeal was abrupt: "Turkey is a state of law. No state can give orders to Turkish courts on judicial proceedings," was the statement issued by the Turkish foreign ministry. The president’s response was even more drastic and bereft of any diplomatic consideration.

In comments aimed squarely at Washington, Erdogan said: "Do you not feel any shame in the name of democracy over the events that took place in the U.S. before the elections? You hit a record high in racism. How are you going to explain this?" the president fumed in typical style, responding to criticism of Turkey by hurling counter accusations and sometimes even insults at the opposing side.

In a tit-for-tat response – diplomats would call it reciprocity – Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu chose this precise moment to dust off the old accusation that Washington was behind the failed coup attempt of July 2016. These "unfounded and irresponsible" claims are not consistent with Turkey’s status as NATO member and strategic partner of the U.S., was Washington’s immediate rejoinder.

Police presence in front of Bogazici University (photo: Fatima Celik/DW)
Polizei-Aufgebot vor der Bogazici-Uni in Istanbul: Nach der Ernennung eines islamisch-konservativen AKP-Mannes zum neuen Rektor der Universität im Januar 2021 protestierten die Studenten. Der türkische Staat reagierte mit Festnahmen, Razzien und Polizeigewalt. Die neue US-Administration stellte sich hinter die Studenten. „Für die Vereinigten Staaten stellt der Schutz der Menschenrechte eine Priorität dar, und wir stehen Schulter an Schulter mit all jenen, die für ihre demokratischen Freiheiten kämpfen“, sagte ein Regierungssprecher in Washington mit Blick auf die Unterdrückung der Studentenproteste.

Red rag: missiles from Moscow

The war of words between the two government documents the decline in bilateral relations. A point of contention that radiates beyond the interstate level and generally overshadows Turkey’s relationship with the western defence alliance is the Russian S 400 missile defence system. In defiance of the Americans, Ankara acquired the modern weapons system and put it into operation last October.

For Washington, Erdogan’s arms deal with Putin was a red rag from the outset. The Americans fear that commissioning the missiles may grant Moscow insights into western military technology. During the final days of the Trump administration, Congress imposed economic sanctions on Ankara in response.

In the sum of all parts, the row over the S 400 probably weighs most heavily on an already strained relationship. "We continue to urge Turkey not to retain the system," a U.S. government spokesman insisted. The Americans were swift to reject a Turkish proposal to set up a working group to consider a compromise.

The S 400 episode is emblematic of the advanced stages of estrangement between Ankara and Washington. The Americans view the weapons acquisition in Moscow as a serious blunder that must be addressed before normal business can be resumed. The Turks say they bought the Russian weapons because the West prevented them from acquiring similarly powerful military equipment – or in other words Patriot missiles.

At the present time, it remains to be seen how Ankara will react to Washington’s tougher stance. What is apparent is that the Turkish government aims to steer its equally strained relationship with the European Union into calmer waters with a diplomatic "charm offensive".

Erdogan is also in the Europeans’ bad books – not least because of Ankara’s aggressive policies in the eastern Mediterranean. Under threat of sanctions, the situation on Europe’s southeastern border has now eased. The Greeks and the Turks are back at the negotiating table largely due to mediation by the German government.

While Ankara can prepare for a more conciliatory stance from the Europeans in the coming weeks and months, a significantly brusquer tone must be expected in interactions with Washington.

But whether Biden’s new policy approach will induce a political change of heart in Turkey, is an entirely different matter. A retrospective appraisal of the Obama years shows that Ankara is fully able to resist western pressure.

Moreover, President Erdogan can also reap positive benefits from the looming political confrontation with Biden. It first and foremost bolsters his ambitions to present Turkey as emergent independent regional power. The row with Washington fits nicely into the friend-foe mindset prevalent in Turkey. A recent opinion poll showed that more than 60 per cent of Turks view the U.S. as the most dangerous threat to their nation.

Crossing swords with Washington brings domestic policy advantages.

Ronald Meinardus

© 2021

Translated from the German by Nina Coon