The election of Joe Biden to the Oval Office is set to change the nature as well as the channels of dialogue between Washington and Ankara.
Donald Trump made sure not to miss any calls from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; telephone conversations remained the principal line of communication between the two heads of state. Trump preferred to get state institutions out of his way, a practice hardly objected by his Turkish interlocutor. Yet with institutions out of the loop, concrete positive outcomes from this high-level dialogue remained very limited.
As someone who has met Erdoğan several times, president-elect Biden “knows with whom he dances” – an expression used by the Turkish president recently to criticize the US administration’s sanction threats. Biden not only knows the Turkish president but Turkey as well. His relationship with Turkey goes as far back as the ’70s.
Adult conversations with Biden
Well aware of the importance Erdoğan attributes to direct personal dialogue, no doubt, the US president-elect will keep the direct communication channel open with the Turkish president. The dialogue of the two is expected to be an adult conversation as opposed to a conversation between adolescents, which was the case with Trump’s ups and downs.
But as Biden is expected to restore “institutional America,” communication between different layers of the two countries’ administration will play a key role in bilateral relations. Besides, Biden is expected to dedicate four-fifth of his time to internal issues according to officials in his campaign team. This means he will have to delegate foreign relations to his cabinet. In that respect, Ankara will be closely watching who will be appointed to critical positions.
Biden’s team no stranger to Ankara
Some of the key names of the US president-elect foreign policy team are no strangers to Turkey. Most of them are the ones who were in influential positions during the presidency of Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor. The fact that they know Turkey well can be seen as an advantage that might facilitate dialogue. However, it is also the same team that Ankara accused of the deterioration of bilateral relations due to the Washington policy change in Syria.
In addition, the 2016 coup attempt has taken place during the last days of the Obama administration. The number of officials in Ankara who believe the failure of the coup was met with disappointment in Washington is quite high. There is suspicion about the links between Obama’s team and the Gülenists, who is believed to be behind the coup. Washington’s initial approach to the coup has left a bitter taste in Ankara.
Bad blood between two teams
The feeling, however, is reciprocal. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that there is in bad blood between the two sides.
Biden’s team might be expected to divide into two: those holding a grudge against Turkey arguing for a tougher stance, and those who might opt for a new beginning.
At any rate, compared to Trump’s team, which according to one of my source would hardly know the difference between Shiites and Sunnis or between Turkish Kurds and Iraqi Kurds, Biden’s team’s knowledge of international diplomacy, as well as negotiation skills, can make a difference in terms of tackling problems in US – Turkish ties.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s foreign policy advisor, served as Deputy Secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor under the Obama administration. He is credited to be very knowledgeable on Turkey. A very close working relationship was established with Blinken during Obama times. He is described as someone engaging, who listens and who tries to deliver to the degree his instructions permit.
While his name tops the list for state secretary, the probability is much higher for him to land in the position of National Security Advisor (NSA).
Susan Rice: not a bright reputation
Susan Rice, also among the contenders for State Secretary, does not enjoy the same reputation as Blinken in Ankara. On the contrary, Ankara has a bad memory of Rice who served first as Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) and then as NSA under the Obama administration.
Even when relations with the Obama administration were at their best, working with Rice proved difficult. Her combative, “all or nothing” style has made it difficult to have a good working relationship with her, according to sources familiar with this period in bilateral relations.
She was the UN ambassador when Turkey became the non-permanent member of the Security Council in 2010. At that time Turkey, together with Brazil had brokered a nuclear deal to help Iran avoid new sanctions. Rice is believed to be influential in US refusal of the deal. As a result, Turkey became the only member of the Western alliance to vote in the UN Security Council against additional sanctions to Iran. This speeded the deterioration of relations with Washington which began with the one-minute crisis in 2009 at Davos.
Bad reputation in the senate
But Rice is equally unpopular among Republicans; largely due to her stance in the aftermath of the 2012 killing of the American ambassador in Benghazi, Libya. Her chances have diminished as it remains unclear whether Republicans have lost their majority in the Senate. She might, however, be appointed as a special envoy to handle a specific foreign policy issue, a post that does not require Senate approval.
Two Burns in Biden’s team
Career Ambassador William Burns is most probably Ankara’s favorite among the contenders for the job of State Secretary. Turkey has again worked very closely with Burns when he was deputy secretary of state. He is praised for his diplomatic fitness. He is close to democrats but seen as a bipartisan figure who would prioritize mid to long-term interests over short-term, quick political gains. He is currently the president of Carnegie Endowment and author of the bestselling book, The Back Channel: A Memoir of American Diplomacy and the Case for Its Renewal.
A political heavyweight to the State Department
Biden is expected to focus on internal affairs. But he can’t delegate foreign policy issues to his vice president Kamala Harris yet – she will have to gain experience. That’s why, he could pick a more energetic political heavyweight for Foggy Bottom. Senators Chris Coons and Chris Murphy are likely contenders. But Biden can also surprise everyone by picking a name who has not been mentioned among contenders.
The former US diplomat was one of the first ones to join Biden’s campaign. Ambassador in NATO and Athens, he also knows Turkey very closely. But he is expected to be in the camp that would like to punish rather than engage Turkey.
The fact that he still maintains relations with people close to Gülenists will no doubt make him highly unpopular in Ankara. He posted a picture together with basketball player Enes Kanter, a staunch Gülenist who has been very critical of Turkey. “As a lifelong Boston Celtics fan, it was a thrill to meet Enes Kanter. I admire his commitment to human rights in Turkey and his courage in speaking out for all those who have been persecuted by an authoritarian regime,” he wrote in the tweeter posting. He is believed to be instrumental in arranging a meeting between Kanter and Biden.
Phil Gordon’s long history with Ankara
Phil Gordon’s name is one that resonates well in Ankara. His experience of working with Turkish diplomats goes decades back.
A career diplomat, Gordon served in the White House as Special Assistant to President Obama and White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region. He is one of the names Ankara would find it easier to work. He is among the team advising Kamala Harris on foreign policy.
No doubt, Turkey will have to seek to reach out to the first female vice president-elect. Harris is expected to shoulder more responsibility in time due to Biden’s age limitations.
“Her Outlook on Turkey should be similar to that of a European intellectual,” told me one of my sources. So that means an outlook shaped by the democratic deficit in Turkey.
She has an A-minus in the Armenian National Committee of America who grades senators by taking into account their congressional activities. The fact that she has co-sponsored a resolution to recognize Armenians’ claims of genocide must have been noted in Ankara.
Women defense minister
Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of Defense for policy, is already the frontrunner to lead the Pentagon. She must certainly be familiar with all military issues on Turkey. She is a highly respected figure in Europe. In fact, while ” pivot to Asia” is expected to remain the key motto during the Biden administration, it is striking that some of the key figures in his team are Europeanists.