Leaving 2020 Behind: Looking Ahead to the Challenges of 2021

By THO Nonresident Fellow, John Simpson 

2020 was a year of extremes: a global pandemic, political instability, economic downturn, domestic unrest, etc. With 2020 behind us, reflection on the challenges of the past year can serve those who choose to reflect carefully, closely, and seriously. Winston Churchill, the reflective British statesman, for example, has been quoted as writing: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” According to the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Magazine, “Lessons from the past may not always ward off doom, but they can provide insights into the present and even the future.” Let us hope that we shall not repeat a 2020 in 2021; however, for the sake of U.S., Turkey, and NATO relations, let us also hope that we can recognize some of the challenges that face us in 2021.

2020 was particularly turbulent. The pandemic didn’t help, cutting off people physically and shunning diplomats and negotiators to their respective Zoom breakout rooms, denied face-to-face contact. In August of 2020, Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director of General of the World Health Organization, said that “For all our differences, we are one human race sharing the same planet and our security is interdependent - no country will be safe, until we’re all safe. I urge all leaders to choose the path of cooperation and act now to end this pandemic. It’s not just the smart choice, it's the right choice and it’s the only choice we have.” 

He warned and advised against “vaccine nationalism”, sharing that “there should be a global consensus to make a vaccine a global public product. And this is a political choice, a political commitment, and we want political leaders to decide on this. What we’re saying is sharing vaccines actually helps the world to recover together.” Will the new Biden administration work together with Turkey to help ensure bi-lateral or multi-lateral agreements to heed Director Ghebreyesus’ call for international cooperation? 2021 may tell. In 2020, The Alliance for Multilateralism published a press release titled “We need strong global cooperation and solidarity to fight COVID-19”, stating that “The COVID-19 pandemic is a wake-up call for multilateralism.” But not everyone wakes up from their wake-up calls. Snooze buttons are an easy and convenient distraction. 

Bi-literalism or even multi-literalism may be tall orders for the U.S., Turkey and NATO as they enter 2021. According to a recent article in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Biden and Erdogan Are Trapped in a Double Fantasy: Why Washington and Ankara don’t get each other at all—and need each other anyway,” writers Asli Aydintaşbaş and Jeremy Shapiro share that “Turkey has been a major headache for U.S. policymakers over the last few years. Not surprisingly, senior Biden foreign policy officials have already started scratching their heads to formulate a policy towards this difficult ally.” Aydintaşbaş and Shapiro go on to write that “The root of the problem lies in the two sides’ persistent fantasies about each other. This was a marriage shaped by the Cold War. Both America and Turkey have changed greatly since then, but their image of one other have not. Turkey continues to see America as seeking to control its domestic politics and play the role of kingmaker. America continues to see Turkey as a tool in its larger geopolitical struggle rather than an international actor in its own right. Correcting these fantasies will not heal their relationship, but it is a prerequisite for a more functional one.”

Perhaps this is what both parties should strive for - a more functional relationship rather than a “healed” one. “Healing” the bi-lateral relationship may take years, undoing the damage from an uncontrolled and sporadic soon-to-be-past Trump presidency; however, functioning is necessary immediately, especially as COVID rages and evolves around the world, bringing economies down with it. Biden may seek to formulate a reset in relations with Turkey.

But in resetting these relations, there is much to consider, COVID perhaps least of all. Economic sanctions and NATO may be more prevalent and may weigh more heavily with regards to policy in resetting international rapport. According to a recent article by Ahval News, “The U.S. government under incoming president Joe Biden will significantly expect Ankara to act as a NATO ally, as Washington would be in favor of normalizing relations with Turkey.” This sets Washington’s expectations with regards to NATO, but what about sanctions? According to Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı, director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States' office in Ankara, “U.S. sanctions will not determine the bilateral relationship, but its course will determine how sanctions are applied.” Before taking office, Biden’s plans already differ from those of former president Trump.

With such stark changes taking place in the leadership in Washington, it is hard to say just exactly how the next four year will look like in terms of relationship-building between the U.S. and Turkey. What will sanctions, if any, look like in four years? How will Biden pressure Erdogan to confront Turkey’s poor human rights records? And what about changing tensions and expectations? 

According to Politics writer Natasha Turak, “Tensions between the U.S. and Turkey have been mounting for a while. Looking ahead to a Joe Biden administration, there’s a chance that some of those tensions could blow up — but there is also chance for reconciliation. Whatever happens, the next four years for Turkey and its relationship with Washington are likely to look very different from the last four.” According to Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, “The only thing holding the relationship together for the last several years has been Trump’s personal relationship with Erdogan. With Trump removed, Erdogan should be very, very worried.”

With 2020 behind us, we can put to rest some of the challenges that it brought - the surprise of the pandemic being paramount; however, we must also prepare for the difficult challenges we face in 2021. COVID is not going away any time soon, nor are the trials and tribulations that still loom over U.S.-Turkey relations, including NATO, sanctions and regional conflicts. Let us learn from the challenges we have overcome in 2020 and put these lessons to good use in 2021.


“Global cooperation is our only choice against COVID-19, says WHO chief” UN NEWS, August 2020, https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/08/1069702

Alliance for Multilateralism - 2020 COVID Declaration: http://www.oas.org/fpdb/press/Declaration-AfM-COVID-final.pdf

“Biden and Erdogan Are Trapped in a Double Fantasy: Why Washington and Ankara don’t get each other at all—and need each other anyway. Foreign Policy magazine, Jan 6, 2021” https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/06/biden-america-and-erdogan-turkey-are-trapped-in-a-double-fantasy/

“U.S.-Turkey relations likely to turn over new leaf under Biden” Ahval News https://ahvalnews.com/turkey-us/us-turkey-relations-likely-turn-over-new-leaf-under-biden-analyst

Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Magazine, “History Repeating” https://liberalarts.vt.edu/magazine/2017/history-repeating.html#:~:text=Irish%20statesman%20Edmund%20Burke%20is,Churchill%20wrote%2C%20%E2%80%9CThose%20that%20fail