Joe Biden is coming to Turkey

Joe Biden is coming to Turkey

“Life punishes those who come too late,” Mikhail Gorbachev on Oct. 7, 1989 told Erich Honecker, the General Secretary of the Socialist Unity Party in East Germany. 

Honecker resigned on Oct. 18. It was he who predicted in January 1989 that the Berlin Wall would remain for another 50 to 100 years. A wide range - yet still grossly off the mark. The demolition of the Wall started in early November of that year. Honecker, like the rest of the USSR, was late in responding to the winds of change, and was swept away by them. East Germany is no more.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is finally coming to Turkey this week. Turkey went through a terrible ordeal on July 15. Our own jets bombed us and 241 citizens died to prevent the coup attempt. Yet our Western allies failed to empathize. They made dry statements of solidarity, followed by “concerns” regarding our domestic politics. There were no high-level visits to Ankara to make up for the lack of support. Now, five weeks after the event, Mr. Biden is finally due to grace Ankara with his presence. Yet some already predict the end of the Transatlantic Alliance, or at least Turkey’s place in it.

Are they right? Is Mr. Biden too late? Are Western capitals about to enter another – and much more serious – round of the “who lost Turkey” debate? I don’t think so. Remember the last time we had that debate? It was right after the U.N. Resolution on Iranian sanctions in 2010. Together with Brazil, Turkey cast a “no” vote for the new sanctions that were then approved by a United Nations Security Council resolution. It was not words that started the debate on that occasion. It was action by Turkey. That, at the end of the day, is what matters. There is no action this time on the Turkish side. As the late Süleyman Demirel used to say in these circumstances, “don’t tailor a suit for an unborn child.”

In the meantime, the upside is that Mr. Biden is finally coming to Turkey. The current state of relations is grim, but I don’t think it’s anything a personal touch cannot remedy. Turks have been worried about U.S. support for the PYD for some time, and the failed coup attempt sharpened that feeling more than we have seen before. We had people being killed out on the streets by those who can only be described as traitors. The coup failed, democracy – whatever its gaping deficiencies – endured. Yet our allies didn’t appreciate what we went through on that dreadful night. Like so much in global politics, this is about emotions. It is personal. 
Mr. Biden knows very well the personal dimensions of politics. It was he who talked about this in Istanbul a couple of years ago while visiting President Erdoğan, then prime minister, at his home as the latter was recuperating after a medical operation. Modifying the famous phrase by Tip O’Neil, Mr. Biden said “all politics is personal,” and he is well known in the U.S. as a man who can bridge those personal divides.  

If you ask me, events in 2010 were a mishap due to a communication failure between Turkey and the U.S. We learned from that episode what Allies need to do: More talking, less guessing. More engagement, less finger pointing. More coordination, less discretion. It’s much like a marriage. 

Turkey’s Western journey is a marriage of reason. Look at the graph below. Take the exports of the OECD and Turkey as 100 and look at the ratio of intermediate imports to exports. The OECD, as a whole, has an intermediate imports-to-exports ratio of 55. For Turkey that is 106.  That is how Turkey is integrated into the global system. What does this mean? Turks live well above their means. We take more out of the global system than we put in. So far. 

It will be good to see Mr. Biden back in town.