Waiting for Biden to call, like waiting for Godot

Namık Tan

(R) Ambassador

His aides give the message that Turkish President Erdoğan is not eager for a call from the U.S. President Biden, but it’s not convincing that he is not waiting for that call after many months of Biden in the Oval Office. (Photo: Twitter/Biden)

Two people stand on the theater stage; Estragon and Vladimir. They are waiting for someone named Godot but neither of them know why and who they are waiting for.
“Waiting for Godot” is a two-act theater play written by the Irish writer Samuel Beckett . It’s generally accepted as one of the most important examples of absurd theater.
The play evolves around seemingly pointless, unnecessary, and ridiculous conversations between Estragon and Vladimir while waiting for this Godot character. This unique work of Samuel Beckett came to my mind these days while reading about President Erdoğan waiting for a phone call from U.S. President Biden. According to some commentators, just like “Didi” and “Gogo”, President Erdoğan appears to be in despair.

What is Erdoğan aiming for?

As far as I can see, Erdoğan wants to leverage his first official phone call to pull Biden to the negotiating table for a grand bargain. He believes it would be possible to convince Biden on key issues if the two leaders spend some time together. He relies on his personal relationship with Biden as well as his assumption that Turkey is a pivotal and indispensable ally for the U.S.
However, it seems to me that Turkey and its region are no longer an American priority in the post-pandemic global environment. Issues that will be more at the forefront of the Biden administration in addition to the overwhelming goal of overcoming the pandemic, will be re-strengthening domestic institutions and repairing bilateral ties with an emphasis on rule of law, democracy, civil rights, and fundamental freedoms; all of which seem to contradict Erdoğan’s agenda.
Considering the highly charged bilateral agenda it seems unlikely that a single phone call will be able to change the underlying obstacles to more productive Turkish American relations.

Sometimes later is better

Contrary to common belief, a delayed first phone call might be a blessing in disguise for Erdoğan while Biden is seemingly “punishing” Turkey for not aligning with American policy on certain issues.
For a phone call or a personal meeting to achieve anything, one of the parties will need to take the first step and compromise on the S-400 issue to achieve a fresh start in the decades-old relationship. And it is extremely unlikely that the U.S. will take such a step; especially with U.S. Congress expecting the Biden administration to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey as described in the recent appropriations act for the Department of Defense.
On the other hand, it is true that consecutive U.S. administrations seem to have made peace with a more independent Turkey that tries to assert herself in the region while also acting as a strategic NATO partner in many areas.

Which one is more costly?

The latter makes sense from a superpower’s perspective. Turkey’s existence within the western camp as an ally is more important than containing certain regional ambitions Erdoğan might foster. In other words, Turkey remaining part of Western political and security architecture is of higher strategic value than stopping Turkey from exercising some degree of extra autonomy regionally. In combination with institutional cooperation on a number of important issues, the U.S. is reluctant to allow regional problems to turn into structural obstacles to the relationship.
The Turkish leadership, on the other hand, is adamant to hold on to a certain degree of autonomy in its foreign policy for various reasons. Partly this is because of domestic political concerns to appease the AK Party base which strongly feels that Turkey is finally reaching its potential by gaining greater independence from the West.

Turkish autonomy from Western defense

But perhaps more importantly, the desire for more autonomy from the West also reflects the majority view in Turkey’s current security bureaucracy.
Managing Turkey’s newfound autonomy in foreign policy requires great delicacy and a very high level of diplomatic aptitude. When handled with care, it leads to admiration but when handled carelessly, both friend and foe will quickly grow more skeptical of Turkey’s intentions.
Similarly, experienced American foreign policymakers realize that pushing Turkey into the arms of an adversary, i.e. Russia, is not in the American interest. If Turkey is pushed away and is motivated to completely break ties with the U.S., this will cause inconceivable problems for American interests in the region and for the broader Western alliance as well while undermining NATO’s integrity.

Could Erdoğan show S-400 “flexibility”?

Many analysts who follow Turkey closely are familiar with the level of pragmatism that Erdoğan can display when he feels the conditions require such a change of policy. The key question is whether he will show such pragmatism on the S-400 issue. His current position indicates that he will not compromise. In fact, Turkish officials recently announced that negotiations are ongoing with Russia for a second system to be purchased from Russia. On the other hand, we have examples of the release of Pastor Brunson and journalist Deniz Yücel in the recent past.
We are not beyond repair; not yet. But if both sides continue to take this relationship for granted, we risk a more structural break.
I don’t think there is much time left. At this stage, I believe that Erdoğan, who is constantly raising his hand, will soon see that the phone he expects from Biden is not going to make much sense and will have to take the first step towards softening relations by confronting real politics.
Turkey needs to break the negative dynamic and return to strategic thinking on both sides or we will all lose more than we care to miss.

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