Political wisdom holds that US foreign policy does not change by the President’s personality. For that reason it is common judgment that irrespective of the winner of presidential polls, Turkish American relations remain basically the same. But because of Trump’s unique personality traits on one hand and the great transformation taking place both at the country level and worldwide on the other hand, this time the effect of the change of US president will be quite appreciable. Moreover, we can say that a new era will be entered in Turkish American relations.
Trump was a president who could follow policies in despite of the Establishment policies and replace personal relationships instead of institutional relations between countries. There has been times where Trump acted in the framework of his personal relations with President Erdoğan and conducted against the Establishment policies, making a breach in institutional Turkish American relations and avoiding some problems to grow further. On the other hand, the same Trump, in many instances took arbitrary steps that harmed the relations. In short the unpredictability that prevailed in Trump’s general policies, has been reflected into the Turkish American relations as uncertainty. In the Trump era, the progress in Turkish American bilateral relations was almost indexed to the improvement of the personal relations between President Erdoğan and Trump. In the Biden era, who is a specific representative of the Establishment, it is expected that institutional relations will prevail. In this respect, it is anticipated that the traditional policies of Pentagon and the State Department will determine the bilateral relations. Even if these foresights are substantially true, we can assume that Biden’s personality will effect the bilateral relations, at least as Trump did. In the meeting with New York Times Editorial Board, which has come into question in Turkey with Biden’s statements interpreted as direct intervention into Turkey’s internal affairs, Biden’s following words worth considering.
“I always said to Obama, ‘Barack, all politics is personal.’ It’s all personal, and international relations is personal.”
In the same meeting, Biden says that he has spent a lot of time with Erdoğan, and he goes on stating that he spent time more than anybody in Obama administration did and then comes his statements on direct involvement in Turkish politics that draw reaction. Biden is a politician who have visited Turkey frequently both during his 36 year duty in the Senate and during his vice presidency. Biden, who have come to Turkey just before September 12 coup d’etat, meeting with all the authorities including the government and opposition leaders besides Chief of General Staff, have visited Turkey 4 times only during his vice presidency. Biden, who have taken a stand against Turkey in most of the issues during his duty in the Senate, have tried to take a more balanced approach towards Turkey during his vice presidency. Analysts agree on Biden’s success as a flexible and empathetic leader, who has always taken pride in his ability to navigate sensitive issues. We can see the examples of these characteristics in his manners and attitudes during his Turkey visits as Vice President and when he apologized to Turkish President Erdoğan on 2 different occasions. If Biden apologizes to Turkey once again for his statements during the meeting with New York Times Editorial Board, it will be no surprise. On the other hand, it should be anticipated that Biden will go into personal relations not only with the President and the government, but also with the opposition parties, media, civil society and academia. Vice President Biden, during his visit to Turkey in January 2016, the year in which July 15 coup d’etat attempt took place, had invited the 4 parties in the Turkish Grand National Assembly to a “round table” meeting and all of those parties apart from MHP have responded to the invitation. Galip Ensarioğlu and Orhan Miroğlu from AKP, Fikri Sağlar and Sezgin Tanrıkulu from CHP, Leyla Zana, Ayhan Bilgen and Altan Tan from HDP had attended Joe Biden’s “round table” meeting and we have seen media headlines such as “Joe Biden acts as TBMM President!”. Biden’s meetings continued with civil society leaders like Osman Kavala and media and academia representing the liberal wing. Trump, who have always declared positive remarks about Erdoğan and referred to him as “my best friend”, on the other hand has broken up a tradition of 29 years by not visiting Turkey during his presidency. Consequently the huge difference between the personalities of the two US Presidents and the way they reflect their personalities on foreign relations, will inevitably evoke significant change in Turkish American relations.
There is no doubt that, with the beginning of the Biden’s presidency, Turkish American relations will be shaped according to his general foreign policy approach besides his personality. Biden, who is anticipated to follow the US Establishment’s policies, had declared during his candidacy that his first foreign policy move will be to call foreign leaders and say, “America’s back: you can count on us,” and he has laid out plans for reversing U.S. withdrawals from international bodies, revoking harmful policies, ending “forever wars,” and restoring alliances. It should be expected that with Biden’s foreign policy, Trump’s withdrawal policy summarized as “Make America Great Again” slogan will be left behind and interventionism will be adopted aiming to make the US, the world leader again. Even though there are huge problems in domestic policy issues awaiting Biden, resetting US foreign policy will also be one of Biden’s priorities during his first term in the office. In one of his conversations during his candidacy, Biden stated “political wisdom holds that the American public doesn’t vote on foreign policy – but that’s an old way of thinking” and gave the signal that he is going to give priority to foreign policy issues, in which he has a long career, beginning with the first days of his presidency. Biden declared, “In 2019, foreign policy is domestic policy, and domestic policy is foreign policy.” During the same conversation Biden complained about authoritarianism in countries including Turkey by the words, “the rapid advance of authoritarianism, nationalism, and illiberal tendencies around the world – not just in Russia and China, but also among our allies, places like Turkey, the Philippines, Hungary”. Having emphasized that democracy is under more pressure than at any time since the 1930s; Biden expressed his plans as follows; “During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world. It will bring together the world’s democracies to strengthen our democratic institutions, honestly confront nations that are backsliding, and forge a common agenda.”
Besides the traditional US policies emphasized in his election campaign discourse, Biden’s personal approach to issues specifically related to Turkey will have an effect upon Turkish American relations. Biden, whose acquaintance with the Greek lobby is very well known, have stated his acquaintance with the Jewish lobby with his own words: “I am a Zionist, it is not necessary to be Jewish to be Zionist.” He has repeated the imperialist lie about the so called “Armenian genocide” number of times. Biden have been identified as “America’s most pro-Kurdish President” in one of the articles issued by the US based think tank “Foundation for Defense of Democracies”. Obama tapped him to oversee the administration’s policy in Iraq and Biden visited Iraq twent-four times between 2010 and 2012. Investing in the personal dimension of diplomacy, he has developed close relationship with Barzani. During Kurdish Regional Government Leader Barzani’s visit to Washington, Vice President Biden have entertained Barzani by these word; “Both of us will be able to see the establishment of Kurdistan during our life times.” Today short after the US presidential election, 143 Kurdish journalists and civilian activists from KRG have issued an open congratulation letter(1) to President-Elect Joseph Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris. In this letter the Kurdish representatives complain about the Trump era and Turkey and express their hope with expectations from Biden. In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor issued under the heading “Syrian Kurdish commander sees chance to ease tensions with Turkey under Biden”(2); Mazlum Kobane, the commander-in-chief of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said the former vice president’s victory may well spell change in Ankara’s behavior. Condemning Trump’s policies, which according to them has green lighted Turkey’s “Peace Spring” operation on October 2019, Kobane expressed high expectations from Biden. In the same interview another subject was the ongoing unity talks between the Democratic Unity Party (PYD) and a group of opposition parties gathered under the umbrella of the Kurdish National Council (KNC), co-facilitated by the US Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, who has just recently resigned, together with SDF. It has been stated that the talks keep getting hung up over the issue of the PKK, the KNC is demanding that any final agreement must contain a paragraph saying that the PYD is committed to severing its ties with the PKK or for the PKK to be expelled from Rojava. In response, Kobane says that they refuse to name any group in this context. “I believe that Turkey’s options are shrinking. Conditions no longer favor a continuation of its aggressive stance.” says Kobane, and gives reference to Öcalan, saying that “he could play a constructive role in helping to mend ties between Turkey and Rojava”. We understand from this interview that the victory of Biden in the US presidential election has raised expectations on the side of the Kurdish groups for renewed and constructive US engagement to force Turkey for a new “rapprochement period” with the terrorist organization. Consequently, Biden is an hawk follower of the Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Kurdish policies of the US Establishment.
Even though there is no change in the US Establishment’s policy, the geopolitical shifts in the world will definitely make things difficult for Biden. The unipolar world order has come to an end and the US policies to regain its ‘world leader’ position have no chance for success. Biden, who is expected to follow more rigid policies towards Turkey than Trump, will come up against the new world reality. If we look at the main issues between Turkey and the US, taking into account the changing internal dynamics of our country; it can not be expected from Turkey to discuss the activation of S-400’s with America or to make a concession in her Blue Homeland doctrine and East Mediterranean policies, to allow the establishment of a “terrorist state” in Syria and to step back from her Cyprus and Azerbaijan policies. It is expected that the containment of Russia with NATO will be one of the main policies of Biden’s foreign policy portfolio. It is apparent that Biden, in spite of his long career and experience in foreign policy an his investment in personal dimension of diplomacy, will be hard pressed between Russia containment policy and his policy on Turkey, who is the most important country of NATO’s southeast flank.