Joe Biden spent the first month of his presidency making routine calls to world leaders. For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the call never came.
The quiet phone line became a major news story in Ankara, despite—or perhaps because of—years of perceived slights between the NATO allies, from jostling over Syria to Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense system. But interviews with over a dozen officials, lawmakers, and other experts make clear that the U.S. president’s radio silence is indicative of a tougher American tone toward Turkey: Ankara will keep getting the cold shoulder unless it cleans up its act—and fast.
“The relationship is very challenged, and we are not in a position where we can rely on Turkey in the same way that we’ve relied on, or that we feel confident that we can rely on, other NATO allies,” said Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Yet most agree there are few good answers to stop ties from spiraling further downward, even as Biden’s secretary of state and some of his top aides call up their Turkish counterparts, and few policy options for Biden beyond continuing to pressure Erdogan on human rights.
“This is the lowest point in U.S.-Turkish relations,” said Aykan Erdemir, a former member of the Turkish parliament now with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank.
Biden is no stranger to Erdogan. As U.S. vice president, he guided the relationship through a then-low point following an attempted coup against Erdogan in 2016, which the Turkish leader has long blamed in some way on the United States. But how Biden navigates the diplomatic minefield of U.S.-Turkey relations as commander in chief will be a major test for his overarching foreign-policy agenda, showing whether he can both repair ties with a longtime NATO ally and temper Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian leanings.
Turkey’s aggressive approach to foreign policy creates a potential crisis in waiting for the Biden administration. Erdogan is stuck in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s clutches after the Turkish purchase of the $2.5 billion S-400 air defense system, and he is at odds with U.S. foreign policy across the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa. Turkey remains under U.S. sanctions against purchasers of Russian defense equipment, though former U.S. officials and experts said the penalties were not designed to hurt the Turkish economy.
“This is the second rodeo for most of the people in the Biden administration,” said Aaron Stein, the director of research at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. “I just find that people are sick of it. Everyone comes in clear-eyed that this isn’t going well, but the ball is in Ankara’s court.”
When approached for comment on the story, the Turkish Embassy in Washington said Ankara attaches “the utmost importance” to relations with the United States and will work to strengthen ties with the Biden administration.
“Turkey has been a NATO Ally for nearly 7 decades. The S-400 procurement does not signify in any way a strategic change of course for Turkey. Turkey continues to be a responsible and reliable member of NATO,” the Turkish Embassy said. “For over two years, Turkey has been proposing to establish a working group with the inclusion of NATO, to address concerns regarding the S-400s.”
So far, the Biden administration seems to be searching for a balanced approach—but appears unwilling to let Turkey’s problematic behavior go unchecked.
“They’re obviously not trying to blow up the relationship, they’re not being hostile. They’re not being obsequious either,” said Nicholas Danforth, a senior nonresident fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy. “They’re making clear that if engagement is going to happen it’s going to be on U.S. terms.”
Turkey has offered an olive branch, with Defense Minister Hulusi Akar floating a model that would allow Turkey to store the S-400s offshore—the first apparent show of good faith on Ankara’s part.
To some extent that reflects Erdogan’s growing political vulnerability, which is only exacerbated by U.S. sanctions. The Turkish economy, which weathered the COVID-19 downturn last year thanks to a spate of generous state lending, consequently suffers from high inflation, a plunging currency, and stagnant job growth. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, which faces a reelection campaign in 2023, was defeated in local elections in Istanbul two years ago, underscoring his political weakness in some parts of the country—if he allows free and fair elections, that is.
“If there were elections now he wouldn’t win,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “And if he decides to pull a Trump, there’s no way after what happened in the U.S. that Biden will look the other way,” referring to former U.S. President Donald Trump’s baseless allegations of vote fraud in the 2020 campaign.
The trick for the Biden administration is to maintain pressure on Turkey while preserving a decades-old military alliance. Some former U.S. officials are uneasy with the early makings of the Biden strategy, as they still view Turkey as a critical bulwark on NATO’s southern flank and don’t see Erdogan’s flirtation with Russia as a lasting trend.
Defense ties between the United States and Turkey run deep: The U.S. Defense Department houses nuclear weapons at Incirlik Air Base, less than 40 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, and a NATO early warning radar system is set up in Turkey to defend against ballistic missile attacks further to the east. It remains an important actor in the Black Sea region, where West-Russia tensions have run high ever since Moscow illegally annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
A former senior U.S. official who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity called Turkey a “natural foe” of Russia and a potential bulwark against Iranian expansionism in the Middle East.
The Biden administration insists it can both hold Turkey to account on backsliding democratic values and maintain a close relationship as NATO allies. “We have shared interests in countering terrorism, ending the conflict in Syria, and deterring malign influence in the region,” a State Department spokesperson said. “We can uphold our values, including human rights and rule of law, and protect our interests while also keeping Turkey aligned with the transatlantic alliance on critical issues.”
The Turkish embassy insists the country maintains democratic values. “[F]undamental rights and freedoms are guaranteed by the Constitution. Turkey continues to implement democratic reforms,” the Turkish embassy said. “In this vein, a comprehensive Human Rights Action Plan was announced just yesterday, emphasizing once again Turkey’s will in this respect.”
But the institutional relationships that once helped the two countries weather past storms are fraying. “Traditionally, institutions played a huge role in Turkey-U.S. ties,” said Gonul Tol, director of Turkish studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. Tol noted that the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and U.S. State Department in the past worked closely together even as their leaders clashed.
That habit fell by the wayside under Trump, when the State Department sometimes found itself sidelined by a president who mistrusted career diplomats and bypassed his advisors to forge a personal rapport with Erdogan.
The frustrations began to boil over late in the Trump administration as then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began to lose patience with Ankara, former Trump officials said, despite Trump and Erdogan’s personal rapport. The former senior official said that Pompeo’s counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu was seen as difficult to work with, which hampered ties, as did pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which made the case to former officials that Turkey was a bullying power in the region because of Erdogan’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
In one instance in late October 2020, the State Department prepared a routine statement to release marking Republic Day in Turkey, a major national holiday, but Pompeo’s office prevented the statement from ever going out, according to several officials familiar with the matter. (The State Department declined to comment.)
The same goes for the military, other experts and former officials said, particularly after Erdogan’s government accused many in Turkey’s military establishment who had close ties with U.S. and NATO counterparts of taking part in the attempted coup. Over two dozen Turkish officers, including those based at a NATO command in Virginia, have sought asylum in the United States in recent years after facing such accusations, which they insist are false. U.S. military support for Kurdish groups fighting the Islamic State in Syria further soured the institutional relationship.
In the past, “the U.S. military would always come to the support of Turkey, and was one of Turkey’s biggest defenders when Congress or the White House would turn against Turkey,” said Merve Tahiroglu, an expert on Turkey with the Project on Middle East Democracy. “That’s no longer the case.”
Washington’s more hard-line push on Ankara, illustrated by Trump authorizing sanctions for the S-400 purchase after more than a year of deliberations, may have hardened even further with the new administration. Asked to identify who in the incoming administration might hold pro-Turkey views, the former senior official could not name a single new appointee they saw as sympathetic to Ankara.
But the mistrust goes both ways. Erdogan has repeatedly railed against the West for supporting armed Kurdish groups in Syria. Turkish public opinion has steadily soured on both NATO and the United States as allies, fueled in part by Erdogan’s baseless claims that the United States played a role in fomenting the botched coup attempt against him.
Some Turkish experts point to other U.S. missteps that exacerbated tensions from Turkey’s point of view: disputes over NATO withdrawing some Patriot missile defense systems when Turkey-Russia tensions spiked in 2015; U.S. policies on the Syrian civil war; and continued U.S. support for Kurdish groups that fought the Islamic State—groups that Turkey labeled terrorist organizations.
“What kind of a NATO alliance is this? Their issue is not to support refugees. Their issue is something else. They still act with terrorists. We, on the other hand, maintain our fight against terrorism and terrorists everywhere, and we will continue to do so,” Erdogan said in a speech last month. “We open our hearts so long as friends act like a friend. Otherwise, we will do whatever we have done thus far.”
Despite the bad blood, though, most experts say the relationship isn’t about to shatter. For the West, it’s still—as it was almost 70 years ago when Turkey joined NATO—a matter of geopolitics: Turkey is just too important geographically and too critical for U.S. force posture in the Middle East. Even American and European officials who fume about Turkey’s antics in NATO never go as far as to seriously question whether Turkey belongs in the alliance.
For Ankara, it’s a matter of security and economics. Turkey’s economy needs links to Western markets and investment, and despite the flare-up in tensions, Erdogan isn’t ready to abandon its deep ties with the West for autocratic rivals in Moscow or Beijing.
Some experts believe that Erdogan’s pragmatism will ultimately outweigh his anti-Western platform. “Erdogan, ever the pragmatist, doesn’t really have many options other than to have a working relationship with the United States,” Tahiroglu said. “Turkey is not energy independent, its economy is not booming, it is militarily becoming more independent, but its entire successful indigenous military industrial complex is still very much dependent on U.S. licenses.
“It does need good relations with the EU and the United States.”
Interspersed between anti-Western tirades, Erdogan has sent some warmer diplomatic overtures to Washington. “As Turkey, we believe our common interests with the United States far outweigh our differences in opinion,” he said in televised remarks on Feb. 20. “Turkey will continue to do its part in a manner worthy of the allied and strategic partnership ties between the two countries,” he said, while noting ties with Washington have been “seriously tested.” Erdogan also unveiled a reform package Tuesday meant to forestall criticism of the country’s democratic backsliding.
But even those in Washington most fed up with Erdogan aren’t taking the relationship for granted, and say there need to be ways for the two countries to work together, lest Ankara definitively turn toward Moscow or Beijing.
“We have to show real clear lines in the sand, but we also have to ensure that there’s a path for Turkey to kind of hit reset with us and with the rest of our NATO allies,” Spanberger said. “Certainly, we don’t want the Turks to turn toward Russia to any greater degree. We don’t want that relationship to become stronger.”