Trump’s wild card on Turkey

Trump’s wild card on Turkey

2016 has been the year when the West desperately started to question whether this was the end of the hegemonic liberal democratic order as we know it. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, Donald Trump’s election victory in the United States and – as a final ring in the chain – Italy’s referendum emerged as strong symbols of rising populism in global politics. 

Last week in Rome, I had the chance to spend some time with the leading European intelligentsia who are working their heads off to decipher the codes of our new prospective global order. The drama is, though, that the European think tank community’s interests have been so deeply entangled in the liberal order that they now seem to struggle with reconnecting with the motives and demands of the average European citizen on the street, just like the politicians from elitist establishment who are losing ground on both sides of the Atlantic. 

In fact, American academic Walter Russell Mead’s insight as to why people are slipping toward disturbing, unconventional but flamboyant figures was quite on the spot. According to Mead, we have come to the end of an era, which was run by institutions, organizations and bureaus. The new era will be shaped by people’s hunger for big personalities. Who is Mr. or Mrs. Europe, asks Mead, while drawing attention to the need to humanize the European Union. 

It is true that the EU has been too bureaucratic, too mechanical and too “top down,” to the point that Europeans have increasingly started to become annoyed by the lack of soul in Brussels politics. But does that mean that Westerners are close to totally rejecting the core values of the liberal democratic order? 

At a dinner debate at the American Academy in Rome, responding to a question on whether the post-war liberal order had collapsed and whether we were witnessing a return of history, famous American political scientist Francis Fukuyama said: “I do not know! That is obviously the big risk. There are a number of reasons to be worried because the liberal order weighed heavily on America.” It was quite compelling to witness Fukuyama’s admission of failure. After all, he was the one who made the controversial suggestion in the 1990s that the liberal democracies would be the final form of human government. 

In a very relevant framework, one of the major questions being asked in Turkish political circles is that – as a brutal pragmatist – whether President-elect Trump will adopt a more relaxed approach on human rights violations and the breach of democracy in Turkey. Mary Beth Long, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state under the George W. Bush administration and a last-minute adviser on Trump’s campaign trail, argued that because he has not yet spoken about human rights, this can’t be seen as a “carte blanche” by world leaders with despotic or authoritarian tendencies. 

“To think that I can go lock up my journalists, put a litmus test in place for teachers and for religious leaders, put my military in jail without consequences and ask for the deportation of political opponents without the sufficient ground to do so is a mistake,” Long said in an interview we conducted on the sidelines of the Mediterranean Dialogues 2016 in Rome. 

At first glimpse, what Long suggests might sound like quite a stretch, since Trump’s existing rhetoric indicates he could not care less about the democratic standards of even Vladimir Putin’s Russia. However, the key here is how Trump’s pragmatic approach on the Syrian Kurds will manifest itself over the future of the Kurdish political movement in Turkey. 

According to Long, the Trump administration will lean toward supporting Kurdish autonomy in Syria and might even be sympathetic to Kurdish independence in Iraq at some point. In the meantime, Trump will try to keep Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the loop with a nuanced approach while denouncing Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) violence but also trying to persuade Erdoğan to look toward the distant future on what kind of a buffer the Kurds might provide between Turkey and possible proxy states in the south. 

What Long did not say in fact is that the approach she suggests cannot be discussed without openly digging into the political and cultural rights of the Kurds both in Syria and Turkey. So we might well expect that the new American foreign policy under Trump will resort to undertones of the liberal democratic order whenever it is to their benefit. What I gather from all this is that, eventually, Trump might be holding a wild card on Turkey with respect to the Kurdish question.