Politics, Analysis

ANALYSIS - Joe Biden confronts Turkey in the vast external realm

Biden’s comments about Turkey do not portend sunny skies for Turkish-American relations in the event he is elected President

Dr. Adam McConnel  | 29.05.2020 - Update : 29.05.2020
ANALYSIS - Joe Biden confronts Turkey in the vast external realm

The writer teaches Turkish history at Sabanci University in Istanbul. He holds an MA and PhD in history from the same university.


“By painful experience over the centuries there has come an understanding that each state should respect the autonomy, with respect to internal affairs, of every other state existing in the vast realm external to its own boundaries.”

-- Dean Acheson, Grapes from Thorns, p. 172

For the past two months, since Joe Biden became the de facto 2020 Democratic Party Presidential candidate, the approaching November elections have been overshadowed by the COVID-19 crisis. As 100,000 US citizens fell victim to the virus, active campaigning deferred to the pandemic, but US President Donald Trump continues to enjoy his daily press briefings as a campaign platform. Meanwhile, Biden is turning out basement videos in a desperate effort to counter Trump’s media megaphone. The situation looks to continue for another month at least as America, on a state-by-state basis, cautiously begins returning to normal daily activity.

As a former vice president running for President, and counting heavily on his association with the former president for cachet with voters, Biden’s candidacy brings several historical comparisons to mind. If he wins, he might be compared with Republican George H. W. Bush, elected in 1992 after serving as Ronald Reagan’s vice president during the 1980s. If Biden loses, Democrat Al Gore, who lost the Electoral College to George W. Bush in 2000 after eight years as Bill Clinton’s vice president, will be the antecedent.

George H. W. Bush, a former Central Intelligence Agency head, was also known for his chummy relationship with Turkish Prime Minister (and Turkish President from 1989-1993) Turgut Ozal. Ozal’s relationship with Bush proved important for navigating through the First Gulf War and the refugee crisis that accompanied it. Similarly, Biden’s strong experience with foreign policy was a main justification for making him Barack Obama’s running mate.

As a result, the current pandemic pause is an opportune moment to look more closely at Biden’s comments on what US Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland termed “this vast external realm,” and specifically his attitudes toward Turkey. As I explained in April, Biden compiled a Senate voting record on Turkey that was almost uniformly negative. [1] Then, because of his policy experience, President Obama largely delegated interactions with Turkey to him. The second Obama administration, however, saw a dramatic downturn in relations between the two sides, with Biden playing a prominent role during the entire process.

For that reason, if Biden becomes president, it will mean more than simply that his interactions with the Turkish government will continue. Just as importantly, the foreign policy community associated with the Obama administration will once again gain access to decision-making. A Biden victory will also ensure an extended period in which the Democratic Party’s moderate center, especially figures connected to the Clintons, will dominate the party’s ideological platform. Neither of those possibilities bodes well for Turkish-American relations.

December 2019 NYT interview

In December 2019, Biden sat for a session with a group of New York Times (NYT) editors, one installment in a series of interviews with the then-thickly wooded grove of 2020 Democratic Party candidates. The transcript was not published until a month later, in January 2020. [2]

In that interview, the first foreign policy query directed to Biden was specifically about Turkey. That choice is, of course, extremely interesting: in an era dominated by US fears of a resurgent China and a rogue Russia, by the European Union’s visible disintegration, and by other international crisis spots such as the Horn of Africa, Iran, Kashmir, Libya, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Ukraine, Venezuela, and Yemen, the NYT’s editors instead turned first to Turkey. Possibly, that can be attributed to Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, but Turkey’s drive against the PYD/PKK east of the Euphrates River was initiated in early October 2019. By mid-December, more than two months later, the US media furor had died down considerably. Most likely, the question only displayed the NYT’s continuing pathological obsession with Turkey.

The question itself, asked by Deputy Editorial Page Editor Kathleen Kingsbury, was also an eyebrow-raiser: “Do you feel comfortable with the United States still having nuclear weapons in Turkey given Erdogan’s behavior?” Beyond the fact that the question is designed to elicit a certain response, what Kingsbury suggested was that Turkey’s political leadership, despite being a member of NATO for nearly 70 years, would actively consider taking control of İncirlik Airforce Base and confiscating the American nuclear weapons widely known to be present there. That idea is preposterous and ludicrous, yet a deputy editor of the “newspaper of record” actually asked this question to a former US vice president and candidate for the Presidency.

Biden, for his part, should have politely informed Kingsbury that the question was not a serious one, and asked for the next inquiry. Unfortunately, that was not what he did. Instead, he gave an extended response that was muddled and meandering, displayed weak knowledge of Turkey’s political realities, and lapsed into threats.

Biden started off by referring to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as an “autocrat,” which suggests that Biden does not know even the most basic facts about Turkey’s political system. That impression is strengthened by his somewhat confused reference to “… the Kurdish population who wanted to participate in the process in their parliament.” Apparently, Biden is not aware that all political parties which pass the ten-percent electoral threshold, including the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), participate in the Turkish parliament, and that any law-abiding political party can engage in Turkey’s domestic political dialogue and democratic competition.

More worrying, Biden also implied that he would involve the US directly into domestic Turkish affairs. He explained that, “What I think we should be doing is taking a very different approach to him [President Erdogan] now, making it clear that we support opposition leadership. ... I’m still of the view that if we were to engage more directly like I was doing with them, that we can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan. Not by a coup, not by a coup, but by the electoral process.”

What Biden meant by “elements… that still exist” is not apparent, but he clearly states that the US should meddle in Turkey’s internal politics, that the US should support a certain side in that effort, and that he participated in such past activities.

Encouraging direct US intervention in the domestic politics of another state is a violation of international diplomatic norms, but Biden goes even further. Twice, Biden expresses his belief that the US should try to threaten President Erdogan in some manner. Near the beginning of his comments, he avers that President Erdogan “has to pay a price”. Later, Biden goes into detail, explaining condescendingly that, “… they got to understand that we’re not going to continue to play with them the way we have.”

Then, turning to the Eastern Mediterranean, Biden expresses the need “… to get together with our allies in the region and deal with how we isolate his actions in the region, particularly in the Eastern Mediterranean in relating to oil and a whole range of other things”. One gets the impression that Biden is discussing an enemy rather than a NATO partner.

Biden’s comments obviously do not portend sunny skies for Turkish-American relations in the event he is elected President. Furthermore, such overtly hostile comments towards Turkey’s democratically elected leadership creates questions about Biden’s knowledge and his capacity to make intelligent judgements on key issues. Overall, Biden’s statements serve to exemplify yet once again how completely removed from normal, rational thinking processes the domestic American discussion concerning Turkey has been for at least a decade now.

Biden’s election website statements on foreign policy

In the months since the NYT published that interview, Biden refurbished the foreign policy page on his campaign website. [3] That page’s content mostly summarizes Biden’s policy statements in an essay written for the March 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs (the main publication of the Council on Foreign Relations), and in a July 2019 speech that he gave at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center.

Biden does not mention Turkey anywhere in the information on his foreign policy page. No echo of the addled, blustery statements that Biden gave to the NYT about Turkey is in evidence. The Foreign Affairs essay, meant as the public statement of Biden’s foreign policy prescriptions, also does not refer to Turkey. But the Foreign Affairs issue referenced in a hyperlink when Biden’s commentary touches on “authoritarian leaders” features a drearily typical article on Turkey, rife with errors and strategic omissions, that is topped off with a bigoted stereotype (“Islamist shapeshifter”) used to characterize President Erdogan. Maybe the author was envisioning a religious Keyser Soze? At any rate, Biden clearly preferred to avoid mentioning Turkey directly in his foreign policy statement, and to allow others to provide the messaging.

The only element on Biden’s foreign policy page in which he mentions Turkey directly is the CUNY speech. After beginning the speech by stating, “In 2019, foreign policy is domestic policy, in my view, and domestic policy is foreign policy. They’re deeply connected,” Biden goes on to equate US security to having “the strongest possible network of partners and alliances working alongside one another”. But within thirty seconds, Biden goes on to connect Turkey to “authoritarianism… and illiberal tendencies.”

Prospect of a Biden Presidency for Turkish-American relations

As the above information should amply indicate, Biden’s stances towards Turkey, a country on which he has long been considered an expert, do not create a sense of hope or anticipation. Just the opposite: a Biden presidency may drive the relationship between the two NATO partners to further depths or disasters. Biden’s recent public comments on Turkey reflect little more than the malevolent and distorted misinformation about Turkey that now passes for received wisdom in US media.

But the most disturbing aspect of Biden’s recent statements about Turkey is his willingness to entertain (further) direct US involvement in Turkey’s domestic politics despite the overwhelming anger felt by Turkish citizens towards the US for exactly that sort of past behavior. Biden’s relationship with Ankara as President would be doomed from the beginning if he insisted on such an approach.

Biden began his Foreign Affairs essay by claiming that America’s global “credibility and influence” has decreased since the end of the Obama administration. That is patently true, but that does not mean that the Obama administration produced only positive results in the “vast external realm,” or did not make its own contribution to the long-term decline in American global leadership capabilities. The Obama administration’s second term is especially remembered for disasters of its own.

The quote from Dean Acheson included at the beginning of this commentary illustrates just how far US foreign policy has strayed from the diplomatic ideals that once guided it. [Acheson is generally considered one of the greatest State Department heads in U.S. history, and is certainly held in more esteem than any person to hold the position since his term in 1949-1953.] In his book Power and Diplomacy, Acheson quoted Thucydides while discussing leadership. According to that great historian, the Corinthians, allies of Sparta against the Athenians, urged the Spartans to behave responsibly, saying, “this is what a leader should do – to look after his own interests as everyone else does, but also, in return for all the honour he receives from others, to give a special consideration to the general interest.”

Acheson’s point was clear. Effective leaders do not pursue only their own interests; they must give genuine concern and consideration to the interests of their allies. If the US, no matter which candidate emerges victorious in November, does not relearn how to “give a special consideration to the general interest” in its relations not only with Turkey, but also with its other allies, the US’s international stature will continue to erode. Meanwhile, other leaders that do give the expected attention to their allies’ concerns, will emerge.

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.

[1] [https://www.aa.com.tr/en/analysis/analysis-2020-us-presidential-election-suddenly-clarity/1798460]

[2] [https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/01/17/opinion/joe-biden-nytimes-interview.html]

[3] [https://joebiden.com/americanleadership/]

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