President-elect Joseph Biden’s electoral victory comes with countless foreign policy implications. A safe bet is that Biden’s administration will try hard to mend ties with the rest of NATO—a transnational organization which has suffered greatly under Trump’s presidency. Biden will soon be in touch with many officials of countries within the alliance to discuss what this change in US leadership means for Trans-Atlantic relations. He and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will focus on efforts to regain some of Washington’s traditional allies’ confidence—a tall order that will require hard work given how much US credibility has eroded with Trump at the helm.
Yet not all NATO members necessarily welcome Trump’s loss. Turkey in particular wanted to see Trump re-elected. This is true in terms of both the Turkish government and most of the public at large. Trump’s personal relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been important to the US-Turkey alliance in recent years, especially during the period of time in which Washington and Ankara have had conflicting interests vis-à-vis Turkey’s defense relationship with Russia, US support for the Peoples’ Protection Unit (YPG) in Syria, and other sensitive issues.
“Ankara settled into the new Trumpian normal and has made its foreign policy calculations in line with these conditions.”
Notwithstanding the immense challenges to US-Turkey relations and strains put on the alliance, “Ankara settled into the new Trumpian normal and has made its foreign policy calculations in line with these conditions,” as TRT World’s Yusuf Erim explained shortly before the US election. “A new administration in the White House would mean a recalibration in some aspects of its foreign policy. I believe the Erdoğan administration would prefer to continue working with who and what they have become accustomed to.”
Turkey has also had its share of concerns about Biden. In the mid-2000s, while serving as a US Senator, Biden was in favor of possibly dividing Iraq into three de facto states with one being Kurdish in its identity. This has fed into fears in Ankara about Biden having a vision that threatens Turkey’s territorial integrity. Remarks Biden made in December 2019 which resurfaced in August about Erdoğan and the Turkish opposition enraged the Turks who saw such words as part of an agenda aimed at undermining Turkey’s national sovereignty. These suspicions did not begin this year. Biden was Vice President (VP) in July 2016, when the failed coup plot (which most Turks believe involved America) occurred. He was also the VP when Washington began supporting the YPG. Both the Obama administration’s reaction to the attempted coup and the US’ partnership with a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) offshoot severely harmed US-Turkey relations.
There are various institutions and agencies in Washington—namely the US Congress—that do not get along too well with the current leadership in Ankara.
There are various institutions and agencies in Washington—namely the US Congress—that do not get along too well with the current leadership in Ankara. A major concern for the Turks is that without Trump in the White House, Erdoğan—and by extension all of Turkey—will have a tougher time dealing with the US. “Trump has been the only link basically between Turkey and Washington,” said Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, a Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “The [bilateral] relations have been so bad over the past couple of years. But the Erdoğan-Trump phoneline—what’s called the ‘bromance’—between the two have actually been the only link that prevented a full rupture in many ways.”
Biden has also indicated that he may take a harder line against Turkey’s government when it comes to human rights issues. This would be in line with the policies advocated by many democrats who believe that Trump’s administration has been too transactional and too quick to abandon “American values” pertaining to human rights. A common criticism from Trump’s liberal critics is that he has cozied up too much to “autocrats” and “dictators” with many pointing to his relationship with Erdoğan, plus Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and so on. Biden may try to demonstrate that he does not share Trump’s personal affinity for Erdoğan, although the US president-elect knows that he has no choice but to work closely with the Turkish leadership on many challenging issues along Turkey’s doorstep, from Syria and Iraq to Nagorno-Karabakh and Iran.
Bright Side for Turkey
To be sure, Biden’s win is far from being all bad news for Ankara. To the contrary, with Biden in the Oval Office, the US and Turkey could enhance cooperation and strengthen ties in certain ways that would matter significantly to both Washington and Ankara. When it comes to US policies in relation to five MENA countries—Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Qatar, and Iran—Biden will possibly make foreign policy changes which could easily align his administration with certain Turkish interests.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Qatar, and Iran, Biden will possibly make foreign policy changes which could align his administration with certain Turkish interests.
As tensions in Turkish-Saudi relations heat up, Ankara might benefit from a new US administration that does not bend over backwards to give Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) the benefit of the doubt and protection from US lawmakers vis-à-vis the Khashoggi saga, the Saudi-led war in Yemen, and other issues. As a presidential candidate, Biden spoke about the need to make the oil-rich kingdom a “pariah” state. It is safe to expect Turkey to welcome any steps the next administration takes which push back against Saudi Arabia’s regional conduct, especially considering the extent to which Riyadh’s foreign policy agenda has recently become anti-Turkish.
Libya’s UN-recognized and Turkish-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli may receive more US support with Biden in power. The next administration might be more assertive than Trump’s when it comes to challenging Russian influence in Libya, which would almost inevitably push Washington closer to Turkey—the external actor responsible for the GNA’s survival. If Biden works with other NATO members to enforce the arms embargo on Libya and take action against Abu Dhabi for violating it, Ankara would be most pleased. Such a development could enhance Turkey’s ability to remain “kingmaker” in the war-torn North African country.
Syria’s nearly decade-old conflict could be another area where Biden’s administration moves the US into greater alignment with Ankara’s agendas, namely in Idlib. Six months ago, Biden’s foreign policy advisor and veteran of the Obama administration, Antony Blinken, said that as president, Biden would keep Syria’s northwestern province under rebel control. He also explained that the president-elect would refuse to negotiate with Bashar al-Assad’s government until Washington uses its “points of leverage to try to effectuate some more positive developments.”
Biden may push for Turkey’s Arab adversaries—Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt—to end, or at least ease, their blockade of Qatar. Although the Trump administration tried to bring the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis to an amicable resolution, such efforts always proved futile. Biden will probably push harder on the blockading states to end the siege of Qatar, according to Michael Eisner and Sarah Leah Whitson of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN). “A Biden administration will not have the same patience for their antics and might well employ levers to pressure them to end the blockade that President Trump wouldn’t consider, including blocking or delaying arms shipments,” Eisner and Whitson wrote in a Doha News article. As Ankara has thrown around its weight to stand up for Qatar while its Arabian neighbors blockaded the gas-rich country, Turkey would welcome greater pressure from the US on Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Cairo to reconcile with Doha.
Ankara would like to see Biden reverse Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Ankara would like to see Biden reverse Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a move strongly condemned by Erdoğan. Sharing a border and a significant trade relationship with Iran, Turkey could naturally benefit from a lifting of US sanctions on Tehran which have harmed Turkey’s economy. The possibility of Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure” spiraling out of control leaves officials in Ankara nervous because of such a scenario’s security and economic risks for Turkey. Yet if Washington extends an olive branch to the Islamic Republic after Biden’s presidency begins, Ankara will find such a development to be a relief given the extent to which US-Iran brinkmanship leaves Turkey vulnerable to widespread chaos and destruction.
Looking ahead to a reset in US-Turkey relations, which will begin early next year, Washington and Ankara’s alliance will face new challenges. In any event, with a new American president to be sworn in on January 20, 2021, Ankara will need to make major adjustments to Biden’s foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere. Not every aspect of the reset will be easy. Biden and Erdoğan will not be on the same page on all important issues, which will require compromises from both sides amid a period of recalibration. Particularly difficult discussions will surround Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system and Washington’s support for the YPG corridor in Syria. Yet Turkey could prove flexible in terms of finding ways to work with Biden’s administration and making the decades-old alliance between Ankara and Washington of growing geopolitical importance to the administration of the 46th American president.