The Biden Transition: How Will This Affect U.S-Turkey Relations?

By Abdul Abbas

“We’ve been very good friends, we’ve been friends for a very long time, almost from day one.”  A statement from President Donald Trump remarking on his relationship with Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan during his last visit to the White House. 

With a presidential transition team now in place, preparing for President-Elect Biden’s inauguration, what changes can we expect from the U.S-Turkey relationship with the Biden-Harris administration? To answer this question, we must take a step back and examine the relationship President Trump and President Erdogan have had over the past four years. 

These two leaders have enjoyed a mostly positive relationship, not without its ups and downs of course. However, the friendly relationship between the two nations was more so between the leaders themselves rather than their governments. Erdogan’s problems with the U.S are not so much directed towards President Trump, on the contrary they got along fairly well, his dismay is/was with Congress and the Senate, who have been relentless in their looming S-400 related sanctions.

Proof of this “friendship” comes in the form of both leaders having direct phone lines to one another, sources say (Business Insider, 2020), enjoying an ongoing dialogue about matters relating to security and their economies. In addition, President Trump said in front of hundreds of reporters during President Erodgan’s last visit to Washington, that the two are “very good friends” (The White House, 2019), as quoted above. 

However, given the head-strong personalities of both leaders, they have experienced periods of tension and strong rhetoric. During the Turkish imprisonment of the American Pastor Andrew Brunson in 2018, President Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey for its unwillingness to release Brunson. Moreover, following the withdrawal of American troops in Northern Syria, a region plagued with American and Turkish military proxies, President Trump threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” (NBC, 2020) the Turkish economy should they attack American allies in the region. 

These grievances may indicate a bad relationship between the two, however in reality they were few and far between in comparison to the periods of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. 

With no real information on how President-Elect Biden will approach the U.S-Turkey relation, we can only speculate based upon Biden’s eight years as Vice President and his comments in recent months in regards to President Erdogan. 

To begin on a positive note, both countries have been experiencing an economic recession the likes of which have never been seen, due to the ongoing pandemic. This gives both leaders a reason to “play nice” and work together to ensure that both economies can recover, putting money back into the pockets of their people. 

To get a better understanding of President-Elect Biden’s attitude towards Turkey’s leader, look no further than his remarks to the New York Times last December. Biden called for the ousting of Erdogan through an election and encouraged his Kurdish opponents to vote him out of office (Al Jazeera, 2020). The Biden-Kurdish relationship is one that has lingered since his days as VP, where President Obama and himself supported the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) with weapons and military gear, assisting them in their goal of autonomy from Turkey. It is important to note that President Erdogan and his party have labeled the PKK a terror organization, which gives more perspective on how Erdogan may feel towards Biden.

In the same NYT article mentioned earlier, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat”, a strong term used to criticize his policy towards the Kurdish population. Interestingly enough, the same term has been used to describe President Trump (Foreign Policy, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The Guardian) after his reluctance to concede the election.

In 2016, when President Obama was leaving office, President Erdogan was quoted in saying that he was “disappointed” with the Obama-Biden administration in their handling of the Syria situation and other issues; “they failed to rise to the occasion” (Reuters, 2014). In a rare turn of events, where Erdogan had to deal with Biden for eight years as VP, once again has to deal with him for at least another four as President, which may give them time to improve their relationship and work together.

There’s potential here, the potential for these two leaders to put their past comments and rhetoric behind them and look at the big picture, which is to help their people and economies recover. They can both benefit from doing so, which would help both their public images in showing that these NATO members can work together. The main point of contention between these two is the policy surrounding the Kurdish population, where Erdogan wants to push back against their autonomy and Biden wants to liberate them. If they can find a compromise on this issue, however that may look, we could be seeing a relationship that fulfills the needs of both these leaders and their governments.

I predict that, for the sake of their people, both leaders will work together and put most of their differences aside for the first year or two of President Biden’s term, striving to recover the way of life both countries enjoyed pre-pandemic. What I think falls out of the “most of their differences” category are the long-anticipated sanctions. I believe that the implementation of the S-400 sanctions early on in the Biden presidency is an inevitability, with Biden refusing to inherit Trump’s lenient approach to this matter, as most other leaders would have already gone ahead with the sanctions. 

Will this ‘rock the boat’? Absolutely. But I believe both leaders currently have bigger matters to attend to rather than react to sanctions that should have been implemented months ago. Moreover, President Erdogan seems to already be prepared for the sanctions, as he was quoted in October saying “Impose the sanctions already, whatever they may be” (Daily Sabah, 2020). Given the amount of time the Turkish government has had to prepare for these sanctions, I believe the sanctions will do less damage than expected. 

But the truth of the matter still stands, the U.S needs one of their largest trading partners in the region, Turkey, to boost their foreign investments during this recession and protect their interests abroad, and vice versa. If either of them have an issue with the other - i.e Erdogan retaliating because of the sanctions or Biden taking action in the Kurdish dilemma -  it will be after this pandemic has passed.