The results of the upcoming U.S. presidential elections are expected to influence both Turkey–United States relations and the country’s domestic and foreign policy.
With Turkey’s international position over the last four years significantly depending on Trump’s relationship with Erdogan, the Turkish government is strongly interested in his reelection. Biden’s victory is expected to lead to the U.S. adopting a harsher approach to Turkey’s ambiguous foreign policy and its interference in the country’s domestic affairs. A thorough understanding of both candidates’ strengths and weaknesses is required for Turkey to be prepared for the upcoming changes.
Turkey–United States relations have always been complicated, with the tensions increasing in recent decades. The relations started to deteriorate in 2003 when Turkey refused to allow the United States to use its airbase for the invasion of Iraq. In 2016, after the coup d’état attempt against President Erdogan, the country’s foreign policy shifted towards seeking partnerships with other powers, such as Russia (Tisdall). Suspecting the United Stated in being involved in the failed putsch, Erdogan’s government adopted a more authoritarian approach at home and a resurgent course abroad, fueled by the ambitions to turn the country into a global power (Aydintasbas). The relations between the two countries softened during Donald Trump’s presidency, who took a more accommodating approach by maintaining close personal relationships with President Erdogan and supporting his ambiguous political course.
The upcoming U.S. elections put Turkey under a lot of pressure, with the country depending on Trump’s reelection to protect both its foreign and domestic interests. As Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, notes, “Turkey has personalized the relationship with the U.S. and is dependent on Trump to keep things from totally exploding” (Lynch, para. 2). During his presidency, Donald Trump greenlighted Turkish incursion into Syria against U.S.-backed Kurdish factions and gave Turkey a pass on its purchase of the Russian air-defense missile system, despite Congress’s protests. He also helped to ward off a lawsuit against a Turkish state bank accused of busting Iran sanctions. Besides, what is particularly important, he has publicly and privately signaled that Washington would take no actions to intrude into the deteriorating human rights scene in Turkey (Aydintasbas). Over the last four years, Trump’s support for Erdogan resulted in him gaining more power and the establishment of more peaceful relations between the two countries at the expense of ordinary Turks’ plight for their democracy.
The primary matter of concern regarding Trump’s reelection is connected with the personalized nature of Turkey–United States relations during his presidency. According to experts, Erdogan managed to have good relations with Trump based on their dialogue rather than on the rules of international relations (Santamaria). They have regular conversations on the phone and, in light of their close connection, “over the past four years, Erdogan has succeeded in alienating pretty much everyone in Washington besides President Trump” (Lynch, para. 6). Under these circumstances, continuing the Trump administration is regarded as the most beneficial scenario for Erdogan’s government.
With Joe Biden’s victory, the balance in Turkey–United States relations are expected to shift. At the start of his campaign, the former vice-president expressed criticism of Erdogan’s policies and growing ties with Russia. In his December interview, he described the Turkish president as an “autocrat” and criticized his policy toward the Kurds (Aydintasbas). In another interview, he said that he would embolden the Turkish opposition to defeat Erdogan in elections and take measures to isolate Ankara’s actions in the region (Lynch). With Biden being a known advocate for human rights, his approach to Turkey–United States relations also seems to involve interference in Turkey’s domestic and foreign policies.
Considering his generally anti-Turkish position, Biden is expected to take a much harder line against the country’s ambiguous foreign policy actions. He is known to be against Turkey’s military operations in Syria, concerned about freedom of the press and human rights in the country, and insisting on Turkey’s withdrawal of Russian missiles. According to Roger Kelly, lead regional economist at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, “a Biden victory would certainly increase the risk of U.S. sanctions against Turkey” (Spicer, para. 11). According to Spicer, Biden is expected to toughen the U.S. stance against President Erdogan’s foreign military interventions and close cooperation with Russia. Generally, if Biden is elected, Turkey is expected to lose much of its current support and freedom of action and should be prepared for sanctions and U.S. interference in its domestic and foreign affairs.
However, Biden has said little specifically about the issue recently, and his campaign did not respond to a request to comment. According to some experts, if he is elected, no radical breakdown in U.S. policy should be expected: “Biden would cultivate a relationship with the Turkish leader and even curry favors in an attempt to keep the country in the NATO fold” (Aydintasbas, para. 11). According to Aydintasbas, although a Biden administration would likely encourage the country’s return to democracy and the rule of law, Turkey is too critical to U.S. strategic interests to implement radical measures. According to the most positive prognosis, if Biden is elected, he would try to establish balance, keep Turkey as an ally, and respect its electoral process while trying to improve the human rights situation (Aydintasbas). Overall, it is highly likely that Biden will adopt a softer approach than the one that he advocated for at the early stages of his campaign, and a compromise can be reached between the two nations.
Generally, Turkey should be prepared to face the results of the elections regardless of the outcome and develop a strategy for both cases. According to Lynch, despite a preference for Trump, there are indications that Ankara is hedging its bets, replicating its 2016 strategy when it attempted to simultaneously gain influence in both the Clinton and Trump campaigns. Placing the bets on Biden being too harsh in his criticism of Turkey and it unlikely to be the guiding factor in his future foreign policy should be accompanied by the attempts to establish contact with him. This strategy would benefit Erdogan’s government regardless of the election results.
With no resources to influence the results of the upcoming elections, Turkey should be prepared to face its results. With Trump’s reelection being preferable, it uncovers the weaknesses of Turkey’s foreign policy over the last four years that are too dependent on personal connections between Trump and Erdogan. If Biden is elected, a careful and considerate approach should be taken based on him being ready and willing to take harsh actions against Turkey’s controversial foreign policy and domestic human rights violations.
Aydintasbas, Asli. “Trump Has Accommodated Turkey and Erdogan. If he Wins, Biden Should Seek a Balance.” The Washington Post, 2020.
Lynch, Ian. “How Would a Biden Presidency Impact U.S.-Turkey Relations?” Ahval, 2020. Web.
Santamaria, Carlos. “US Election Seen from Turkey: Turkish People Have “A Very Negative Perception of Joe Biden.” Gzero, 2020.
Spicer, Jonathan. “Analysis: Biden Risk Looms for Turkey’s Erdogan and Beleaguered Lira.” Reuters, 2020.
Tisdall, Simon. “Turkey’s Ever-Closer Ties with Russia Leave US Lacking Key Ally on Syria.” The Guardian, 2018.