Biden uses Soviet negotiation strategy

(R) Ambassador

“What is ours is ours. What is yours is negotiable,” was the Soviet strategy that Biden used in talks with Erdoğan (Photo: Turkish Presidency)

During the last decade before the fall of the Soviet Union, I served as a foreign service officer in Moscow. Every western diplomat that negotiated with Soviet counterparts knew their negotiation attitude could be summarized as follows; “What is ours is ours. What is yours is negotiable.” 

This attitude seems to be at the heart of the negotiation strategy that the Biden administration has adopted vis-a-vis Turkey. In fact, during the first bilateral Presidential meeting on June 14, Biden took everything he wanted, but did not even care to negotiate Turkey’s concerns.

President Biden and his foreign policy team are very much aware that Turkey’s hand is weak enough not to make demands. Turkey is experiencing severe political instability both domestically as well as in foreign policy matters. Furthermore, the country is going through a prolonged economic recession while battling negative externalities of a global pandemic. To make matters worse, the government is suffering an unprecedented loss of confidence because of rampant corruption allegations; even among previously loyal constituents. Consequently, Turkish officials knew that they were in no position to make demands and entered the meeting worrying whether they would be able to meet U.S. demands.

Despite these seemingly favorable circumstances for the Biden White House, they had more serious longer-term concerns. Could circumstances in Turkey worsen to a point where Turkey’s leaders opt to break with its Western allies? Many Americans in the foreign policy establishment wondered whether pressing Turkey further on such matters as the procurement of Russian defense equipment and its Syria policy regarding SDF/YPG could achieve anything except pushing Turkey further away.

After all, analyzing matters from a long-term perspective, most experts will agree that American interest is better served with Turkey staying firmly anchored in the Western camp despite its current mistakes and highfaluting ambitions. Turkey remaining part of the Western political and security architecture is of far greater strategic importance than the discomfort caused by some of its more contemporary unilateral policies.

No luxury of losing Turkey to Russia

Ultimately, American policy-makers likely believe that existing institutional bonds are strong enough to survive the current status-quo and continue to be hesitant to turn today’s conjunctural problems into structural obstacles. While many foreign policy experts might be annoyed certain Turkish actions, the U.S. as a superpower knows that it simply does not have the luxury of losing Turkey to adversaries such as Russia.

The U.S. is very much aware of the fact that a completely independent Turkey will cause inconceivable problems for the U.S., for NATO and for the broader Western Alliance. And consequently it is crucially important to keep Turkey facing West, rather than pushing it closer to Russia and other American adversaries.

Having noted the above, however, it is also an undeniable fact there are limits to the restraint Western allies will be able to show if Turkey pushes their limits too far making it even harder for Turkey to protect its interests in a highly volatile geography.

Afghanistan task

We are once again living in a world where nobody questions NATO’s relevance and efforts are made to rebuild the Transatlantic Alliance. Effectively this means that the military value-add of NATO will outweigh some of its more political values. It is therefore likely that political disagreements on democracy, fundamental freedoms, common values etc. will continue to be noticeably absent from bilateral meetings between President Biden and President Erdoğan.

In this context, it is of great importance that Turkey is second only to the U.S. among other NATO members in terms of its ability to mobilize military capabilities. The Biden administration leveraged this fact against Turkey by asking Turkish forces to provide peace and stability operations in Afghanistan after U.S. forces retreat. By convincing Turkey to shoulder such a heavy responsibility, Biden avoided facing domestic criticism for failing to bring its forces home, while he succeeded in reminding adversaries that Turkey is aligned with the West. In return, Turkey managed to put a series of complicated problems in the bilateral relationship on ice.

Soviet tactic

In exchange for the U.S. keeping sensitive issues such as the S-400 on the shelf, Turkey felt compelled to agree to an extremely risky and potentially costly operation. President Biden and his team made excellent use of the well-known Soviet negotiation tactic.

Before the bilateral high-level meeting, I wrote that: “it isn’t realistic to expect meaningful positive results from the Erdoğan-Biden meeting. But if we decide to show some flexibility regarding the S-400 issue, perhaps a more genuine and comprehensive negotiation process could begin. However, I wouldn’t get my hopes up. Within the NATO Alliance, our only bargaining chip that is left is military hard power. By the end of this summit, Turkey is likely to accept the role of a peacekeeping force of NATO in Afghanistan, will have her back patted, and calls for democracy, freedoms, values, etc. will fall on deaf ears.” Unfortunately, I was right.

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