Joe Biden, by any credible measure, has become the president-elect of the United States. Though it looks like President Donald Trump will not concede easily and will surely attempt some form of legal or constitutional acrobatics to challenge the result, the margin is far too great for any real prospect of another Trump presidency.
The world has already heralded Biden as the next U.S. president, as congratulations have been made to the president-elect from numerous American allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The latest addition to the list of congratulations comes from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who in two separate messages thanked incumbent President Trump for his contributions to Turkish-U.S. ties and commended President-elect Biden for his success.
Erdoğan’s message comes at a time when some have anticipated that Biden’s presidency could adversely impact Turkish-American ties. This is largely due to comments by Biden that surfaced this summer, in which he used eerie language on supporting Erdoğan’s adversaries by possibly intervening in Turkish politics. I too had argued in an earlier piece that what I saw was the consolidation of anti-Turkish sentiment among the Democratic Party and Biden’s flawed view on Turkey’s regional role.
Now, however, the cards have been dealt, and Biden will almost certainly become the next president. The conciliatory tone of Erdoğan’s congratulatory message to Biden, in which the Turkish president remarks on the strategic nature of Turkish-American ties and the time he spent with Biden as vice president, suggests that he has allowed for politics to simply be politics.
Erdoğan in this instance has chosen to disregard whatever Biden might have said on the campaign trail. American presidential candidates have a history of talking big in the heat of electoral politics, and relations with Turkey have largely transformed into a point of political contention in the U.S., exacerbated by the fact that Erdoğan and Trump are friendly with one another.
Biden’s earlier gaffes on Turkey thus appear to have been put aside for now, as Erdoğan has highlighted the institutional links that bring the two countries together.
A similar sentiment was expressed earlier by one of Biden’s foreign policy aides, signaling that there is an impetus on both sides to engage in meaningful dialogue. Biden’s actions will now be more important than his words, as Washington and Ankara carefully steer one of the most vital relationships in the transatlantic world.
President-elect Biden is a rational and predictable man who is a veteran of statecraft. He has worked with Turkish officials from his earliest days in Senate. Before his absurd comments on Turkey, he also enjoyed a good relationship with Erdoğan.
Surely, if common sense is to prevail, he’ll work to reengage with Turkey as an ally and in doing so address Turkey’s concerns regarding certain U.S. policies in the region.
The sanctions issue
The president-elect faces several key issues with regard to Turkey. Most pressing at the moment is the possibility of the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions coming Turkey’s way.
Trump has long evaded congressional pressure to sanction Turkey regarding the purchase of the S-400 missile system from Russia. As the system is en route to becoming fully operational in Turkey, Biden, once president, will likely face similar pressure.
Democrat members of the Senate and Congress are already vehemently opposed to Turkish interests. The likes of Bob Menendez, ranking member of the Senate’s foreign relations committee, have been on a consistent anti-Turkey crusade for several years now.
Most recently, Menendez, among others, proposed that Turkey should be confronted for aiding Azerbaijan in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh against Armenian occupation. Biden should be wary of surrounding himself with people like Menendez, whose ideas that border idiocy can only harm the relationship between Turkey and the U.S.
In this regard, Biden’s soon-to-be-formed foreign policy team will be one to watch out for. If he opts for hawkish, interventionist elements in the Democratic Party, who will likely want to confront Turkey’s growing regional role, the conflict will continue. On the other hand, picks from the bureaucracy and military establishment would likely work in Turkey’s favor, in the spirit of maintaining institutional links between the two countries.
Another issue of contention will be Syria, and the matter of the U.S. relationship with the YPG – the Syrian branch of the PKK. Biden here runs the risk of repeating the policies of the Obama era, in which the transactional relationship between the YPG and the U.S. military establishment was fostered. Biden has the opportunity to distance himself from this policy, and instead opt to work with Turkey regarding the Syrian debacle.
A re-engagement on Syria would serve U.S. interests as well, as by virtue of Trump’s policies, the U.S. has unilaterally left the region. Turkey’s hand in Syria is strong, with the presence of Turkish forces in the area and by the extent of the popular support that Turkey enjoys among the Syrian population, millions of which now call Turkey home. If the U.S. is serious about engaging with the world again, then there is no better ally than Turkey in the region.
Realistically, the U.S. has two goals in Syria. The first is to eliminate the threat of Daesh, which despite suffering heavy losses may resurge. Turkey is the only country in the region that is willing to provide active support in such a mission, extending even to ground forces, as it has already done in previous cross-border operations in Syria.
The second American goal vis-a-vis Syria will be the urgency of limiting Iranian and Russian influence. By virtue of the Astana process, Turkey already sits as a balancing force in Syria, and by extension represents not simply Turkish interests but the interests of NATO and the U.S. as well.
A silver lining
Even if Biden’s term doesn’t yield favorable results for Turkish-American ties and results in the misgivings that some have speculated, there is a silver lining to his presidency. Trump gave free rein to countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in pursuing their regional aspirations.
The decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the Abraham Accords and, most recently, the decision to equip the UAE with F-35 fighters all stem from Trump’s negligence regarding these countries' destabilizing ambitions.
Biden is far more a proponent of orthodox American foreign policy to allow such endeavors to continue, especially since he will likely seek a more assertive role for the U.S. in the Middle East. His campaign has already voiced concern about the Saudi-led offensive in Yemen, and it was no secret that Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not get along, a legacy that might continue with Biden.
Turkey’s regional adversaries will find it hard to operate under far stricter American scrutiny under Biden’s watch. All the while, Turkey will continue to be able to pursue a proactive regional agenda by virtue of its role in NATO and other institutionalized regional security structures that have come to play in Libya, Syria and the Caucasus.
Irrespective of further speculation, Biden should appreciate Erdoğan’s magnanimity in congratulating him and should work to overcome the challenges that face Turkish-American relations.
*Master of Science comparative politics candidate at the London School of Economics