These are not good times for Turkey’s relations with the West. European diplomats in Ankara refer to a downward spiral to describe the relationship. The EU’s Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell, used the term “watershed moment” when talking about EU-Turkey relations.

In recent years, the quality of this relationship has gone from bad to worse. While Ankara’s democratic backsliding, the dismal state of human rights and the rule of law used to top the list of Western concerns, Erdogan’s assertive – one may also call it aggressive – foreign policy decisions are now the main cause of discord. 

“Turkey has increasingly found itself on the wrong side of almost all of Washington’s friends,” writes Nicholas Danforth. The Washington-based analyst goes on to paint a grim picture of the state of US-Turkish affairs: “The Turkish government views the United States as a strategic threat rather than an ally, and a growing majority in Washington have come to view Turkey the same way.”

Listening to the pundits, it’s hard to overhear that Erdogan’s Turkey has an image problem in the United States. The distrust is not confined to the think tank community. Shortly before assuming his new position, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Turkey a “so-called ally” and openly questioned Erdogan’s trustworthiness. 

The United States – and with it, the world in general – is seeing the first indications of a radical policy shift, with possible far-reaching implications. The government in Ankara will sooner or later need to get used to the new rhetoric, and possibly more. 

With Donald Trump in the White House, everything was more relaxed. US policy was guided by a laissez-faire-approach towards Trump’s personal friend – Erdogan. Biden will end the coziness. His policy towards Turkey will be more pro-active and value-based. The new president’s emphasis on democracy, freedom and the rule of law as guidelines for American foreign policy have not go unheard in the Turkish capital. 

It did not take long for the State Department to act on Biden’s new – one is tempted to say ‘traditional’ – guiding principles of US diplomacy. In response to the police crackdown against students protesting against Erdogan’s appointment of a highly unpopular new rector at Istanbul’s prestigious Bogazici University, Washington made a fundamental point: “The US prioritizes the protection of Human Rights and stands shoulder to shoulder with all those fighting for democratic freedoms,” the spokesman of the State Department said. 

Shortly thereafter, the State Department called for the immediate release from prison of Turkish philanthropist and human rights defender Osman Kavala. Since his incarceration in 2017, Kavala has become a symbol of the peaceful resistance against Erdogan’s surging authoritarianism. “Turkey is a state of law. No state can give order to Turkish courts on judicial proceedings”, the Turkish foreign ministry said as it lashed out. Ever since, not a week has gone by without verbal scuffles between the two governments.

Clinical Psychologist Melis Akyurek sits in her Istanbul home with an ankle bracelet attached to her right leg after she was placed under arrest for having taken part in a protest against the appointment of a new rector of Bogazici University. The appointee is a staunch loyalist of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since its founding, the head of the university was chosen in a free election process, February 13, 2021. EPA-EFE//SEDAT SUNA

The war of words is proof of the degradation of the bilateral relations. One major point of contention that radiates beyond the bilateral level, and affects Turkey’s relationship with the Western Alliance as a whole, is the issue of Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system. When Erdogan invested in the hyper-modern weaponry he must have been aware that by so doing he crossed a red line.

For the Americans, Ankara’s S-400 deal with Putin’s Russia has been, and will continue to be, a red flag. In the final days of the Trump administration, the US Congress imposed sanctions on Turkey over its possession of the Russian missile system.

Among the first statements on Turkey from the Biden camp after coming into office was that the US stands firm on the sanctions: “We continue to urge Turkey not to retain the system,” the State Department said. Among the various controversies at hand, the S-400issue is arguably the most serious. More than other problems, it symbolizes the advanced alienation in the strained relationship. For the Americans, the purchase of the weapons is a political sin akin to betrayal and needs to be corrected before things get back to normal. The Turks argue they had no choice but to buy Russia’s rockets after the West refused to sell weapons of an equal quality. 

It is not clear yet how Ankara will cope with Washington’s tough talk.  Meanwhile, the Turks have engaged in a notable diplomatic effort to repair the damaged relations with the European Union. For similar but not necessarily identical reasons, the Europeans too are not on good terms with Erdogan. EU-Turkey relations have deteriorated dramatically. The main reason for the downward spiral are – to quote from the conclusions of the EU leaders’ summit in December – Turkey’s “unilateral actions and provocations” in the dispute over energy claims in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Under the threat of EU sanctions, Ankara has withdrawn its research vessels from the disputed maritime zones. This, in turn, led to a de-escalation of a potentially explosive situation on NATO’s southeastern flank. German mediation has been the main driver of the resumption of the Turkish-Greek diplomatic process. Berlin has made it clear it will continue to work for a rapprochement between Athens and Ankara.

The Americans and Europeans have announced that they intend to work together to address global challenges, including on how best to deal with Erdogan’s Turkey. Washington and her European allies will join forces. What we are seeing for the moment is a good-cop-bad-cop scenario with Washington cracking the whip and Europe, particularly Berlin, playing the mediator and showing a friendly face. 

The coming months will show whether this division of labor will lead to a behavioral change in Turkish politics. I advise against too much optimism.    


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here