Interview with Kristian Ulrichsen: Turkey & the U.S. in Biden Middle East Policy, COVID, & Moving Forward

By THO Non-Resident Fellow, John Simpson

I had the pleasure of speaking with Kristian Ulrichsen, an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics and Fellow for the Middle East at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. We discussed (1) strategies of the Biden administration versus the former Trump administration in negotiating with Turkey; (2) the hypothetical consequences of a potential NATO fallout - or “cracks,” as Professor Ulrichsen put it; (3) Turkey’s role in the larger U.S. foreign policy toward the Middle East; and (4) challenges presented by COVID, repercussions, and looking forward. 

Professor, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions regarding Turkey, the U.S., and some of the greater overall challenges in the region today. If we talk about U.S.-Turkish relations at the moment, one thing I’m really curious about is what are some of the challenges that you foresee in the future with a new Biden presidency compared to a former Trump presidency? 

I think some of the issues that were issues under Trump will continue – Turkey’s S-400 issue, Russian-Turkish relations, NATO commitments, the U.S. Airbase at Incirlik. They’ve been very problematic in recent years – obviously with the F-35s. So, I don’t see that stopping. I see that continuing – one administration into the next. I don’t think the Biden administration will be any less willing to compromise than the Trump administration was. I think they’ll be more diplomatic and expressive, but ultimately, I don’t think that will become less of an issue because under Trump you had this sort of great power competition – Trump called it ‘great power rivalry’ – Biden calls it ‘strategic competition’, which basically means the same thing. So, I think that will still be a key issue. Obviously, a continuing presence of [Fethullah] Gülen in the U.S. will remain an issue as long as Erdogan is in power and as long as he continues to perceive Gülen as a threat that he can blame everything on, he is less likely to try and pressure Biden to get his way. I think they [Turkey] have realized they won’t be able to do that under Biden – but still, it remains an issue.

If we switch the conversation a little towards Turkey and NATO – almost as a thought exercise – what would it look like, or what might be the fallout, if Turkey decided to leave NATO? I don’t foresee that happening, but if it were to happen, what do you think might be some of the consequences?

I don’t see it happening either. Turkey would probably be more isolated because they don’t have huge numbers of regional partners willing to replace NATO in any meaningful way. Turkey and Qatar, for example, have a good relationship, but they don’t necessarily have a partnership they can balance or offset NATO in any way. I think Turkey would lose a lot – a Turkey without a NATO would be much more isolated. Turkey and Russia could potentially get closer together. Obviously, it would be in Russia’s interests to kind of create these cracks in NATO and potentially widen those cracks to an outright split. That could be a Russian objective if they felt it was something they could work on – they’ve been trying for years to undermine and create cracks in U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world, but would that be enough for Turkey? Would it be an offset? Could Turkey join some sort of Russian-led regional security organization? I don’t know. Russia and China, for example, have the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. So, they [Turkey] might have options, I suppose, but I don’t think anything would provide the degree of collective security that NATO has. 

Biden recently conducted some air-strikes in neighboring Syria, and the region is quite volatile, certainly in the Kurdish-dominated areas and along the Syrian border. What would you say are some of the greatest regional challenges and what is the role of the U.S. in helping mitigate those challenges?

I think in terms of U.S.-Middle East policy, it’s focusing mostly on ending the war in Yemen and trying to figure out what to do with the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known commonly as the “Iran Deal”). I think they are probably the two most pressing Middle East issues that are taking up most Middle East policy discussion. In general, the Middle East is less of a policy focus for Biden than it was under Trump, and I think it was a concerted decision to try and move beyond the Middle East and a lot of the international foreign policy making. Whether or not they can, is another issue. 

Those air strikes were, I suppose, an illustration that it’s going to be harder to disengage from the Middle East than the Biden administration think. I think they will continue to face pushback from U.S. military leadership who continue to say “well, we shouldn’t be withdrawing or disengaging because it will leave spaces that could threaten regional security.” So, you could see a battle between political and military leaders in the U.S. as to whether or not to try and disengage from the Middle East, and whether it is necessary or desirable. I think even now we’re seeing military leaders saying, for example, “we can’t withdraw from Afghanistan by the first of May because it’s not practical,” so I suspect this in Syria as well. I think we’ll see a desire from the military side to at least be more visible and remain to some extent on the ground. We may also see struggle within the administration – political elements who want to disengage from the Middle East. I don’t see that happening. I think the Biden administration is caught between its more progressive left-wing elements which do want to disengage, and the more hard-nosed realpolitik figures who say, “well, this isn’t in our interest.” Just in the first two months in the administration they’ve been very clear that they’re not going to take any sudden actions, and to some extent they’re going to be much more realpolitik than idealistic or progressive. 

Do you think that strategy may hinder potential progress? You mentioned earlier that the policy toward Turkey probably won’t change, but do you think that if the Biden administration took a different approach to dealing with Turkey – perhaps a more strongman approach, or perhaps even a third, alternative approach – they might be more successful in negotiations? 

I think they will place more emphasis on negotiations. I think there will be more emphasis on diplomacy, at least at a surface level, than was the case in the past four years, especially if there is a desire to disengage in some shape or form. And I think politically there is, at least to some extent. They want regional partners to be able to step up and be more involved. It’s true that you have to engage in diplomacy and negotiation. 

What if we put all this in the context of COVID and limited mobility? I know that Turkey has significant challenges facing it – not only from Syria, not only from Kurdish areas – but also regionally regarding refugees and forced migration. If you factor COVID into all of this, what do you think the landscape looks like for new and emerging challenges for Turkey in the next year?

I think the immediate challenge would be toward post-pandemic economic and social recovery – trying to chart a way out of the pandemic and trying to find a way of balancing public health and economic considerations. Turkey to some extent seems to have been hit quite hard by COVID, and so finding that balance and then eventually finding a way to readapt and rebuild the economic aspects of what was damaged and hit by the pandemic, which in Turkey’s case includes tourism, obviously. I think we’ve seen Turkey and the U.K., for example, trying to establish a relationship which will allow British people to go to Turkey in the summer, which, obviously for them is quite important. 

I think countries like Turkey that have been hit hard by COVID need to find a way out. It’s been a year already and I don’t think that we can all afford another year of this sort of trade off where you either have public health or economic considerations. You try and find a balance, and for that you have to get numbers down and find a way of keeping them down. I just think that will continue to focus a lot of policy because that’s the most important element of governmental priorities, especially governments like Erdogan’s that have been in power a long time. You don’t want to lose legitimacy or lose popular support because you screw something up. To some extent we’re seeing that in Brazil with Bolsonaro – the way he’s mishandled it. And obviously with Trump – I think Trump would have probably been reelected had it not been for the pandemic, but obviously the miscalculation – a complete catastrophe that he made, I think probably swung the election. 

Governments can be damaged if they are seen to be falling behind or not adapting as well as other countries are. People in Turkey, if they look at other countries in the region, like Israel, which are doing pretty well in terms of getting everyone vaccinated and trying to reopen. If that works, people might say, “well, why are other countries doing better than we are?” And so, governments can be judged harshly if they may be seen to be either getting it wrong or not doing as well as neighboring counties, and I think some of those instances may become more obvious over the next year, just as countries begin to reopen. Countries like the U.K. and the U.S., which seem to be doing better in terms of getting vaccines out – if they’re better able to reopen their economies, regardless of the fact that they’ve been disastrous so far, at least in both cases in terms of numbers of deaths – but in the future they move forward faster. We see that with the U.K and Europe – we see so much tension now between U.K.-European relations because European states are way behind on their vaccine strategies and they’re blaming the U.K. on it to some extent, trying to deflect and distract blame. So, especially as countries begin to reopen, if some countries to do much better than others, and if, hypothetically, Turkey is one of the countries that is lagging behind, people might ask, “well, what’s the government doing and who’s to blame?” So, I think that’s the width they could run – that’s the focus. 

Do you think that the Turkish population will have the intuition to hold Erdogan accountable given his reaction to the pandemic? Do you think that there will be some voicing of popular opinion regarding how he handled the pandemic and do you think that might be seen in any potential policy changes in Turkey?

I think leaders who have been seen to not take it seriously, to some extent, if they continue to not do so, at least to produce results with vaccines and strategies to be open, that could come back to hit them. If, say, in 2022 or 2023 there are still high numbers of cases in Turkey when other countries around the world have moved on, that leaves them quite vulnerable. Not saying that will happen, but that is a risk. Countries that are left behind, in a sense, for whatever reason, there could be a backlash.

Kristian Ulrichsen is an Advisor at Gulf State Analytics and Fellow for the Middle East at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University in Houston, Texas. His research examines political, economic, and security trends in the Middle East and, in particular, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states’ changing position within a global order itself in a state of flux following the global financial and economic crisis and a regional order facing the upheaval of the Arab Spring. It explores the nature of their engagement in reshaping international institutions and assesses the implications for structures of global governance. He currently is writing three books; one entitled Qatar and the Arab Spring, another entitled The Gulf States in International Political Economy, and the third entitled Kuwait: A Political History.