Erdoğan-Biden meeting can be rough
The first bilateral meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Joe Biden after the U.S. presidential election has gained a degree of importance far above the summit, at least for the Turkish side.
It is a matter of great interest to see how the relationship between Turkey and the United States will change after this meeting, not only for the Turkish authorities and the public but also for all international actors.
Erdoğan wants to change unfavorable perception
Erdoğan wishes to change the perception that there is no dialogue between him and Biden and leave the meeting in Brussels with a success story. If he can leave his first meeting with the new leader of the world’s greatest power, the U.S., with candid photos and a wave of positive developments, Erdoğan will write this on his leadership’s success list above all else.
In addition, when we consider the fragilities of the Turkish economy, it is evident that Erdoğan and Biden’s positive picture will send a strong message to the markets.
The emergence of such an atmosphere at the Brussels meeting is not only necessary for the domestic situation and economy but also for Erdoğan to conduct foreign policy on a comfortable level. First of all, there is this need to address severe issues of disagreement between the two countries and make progress on these topics.
Let’s list Fetullah Gülen’s residence in Pennsylvania and the U.S.’ choice of using the YPG, an extension of the PKK, as a military ally in Syria, as the first two topics. Apart from these, there is a long agenda of regional issues that span over broad geography from Afghanistan to Libya that Turkey and the United States need to work on.
Meanwhile, the consequences of uncertain relations with the U.S. are not just limited to Ankara and Washington. The fact that things are going badly with the U.S. has the potential to narrow Turkey’s maneuvering area in many areas in foreign policy. If Erdoğan can keep his relationship with Biden intact, he will, for instance, be able to negotiate with Russian leader Vladimir Putin from a stronger point. Otherwise, his bargaining cards will weaken against the Kremlin.
Phone call delayed for three months
It is clear that after the presidential election last November, a warm start was not made between Erdoğan and Biden. This situation resulted directly from the conscious choice of the new Democratic administration.
After Biden took office on Jan. 20, he was not hasty in calling Erdoğan. It took three months for this to happen, despite the expectation of many observers that Biden would call Erdoğan at a reasonable time. The situation was quite uncommon during the recent period, especially if we remember that after Barack Obama was elected president in November 2008 - phone calls aside - his first bilateral official visit across the Atlantic was to Turkey on April 5-6, 2009.
Obviously, the Biden front was in a bid to slow Ankara down by making the call slowly.
Biden finally called Erdoğan on April 23. Moreover, this phone call was an unpleasant first contact, as Biden told Erdoğan that he would make a statement a day later, saying he would recognize the “Armenian genocide.” As a matter of fact, he indeed announced this statement from the White House the next day. This was the first time a U.S. president uttered this phrase in an April 24 commemoration statement, and it created a dire situation for Turkish-U.S. relations.
It was also agreed in that phone call that the two leaders would meet during the NATO summit to be held in Brussels on June 14. This meeting waited for almost two months, and numerous contacts were made in preparations for it.
Here comes the much-awaited meeting next Monday, finally taking place.
Firstly warm messages to Biden
In fact, despite Biden’s statement on April 24, which caused outrage in the Turkish public, Erdoğan has always given positive messages, emphasizing his desire to make a fresh start with the United States at the expense of domestic criticism. For example, in his speech dated April 26, Erdoğan recalled his meeting with Biden on June 14 and said: “I believe that we will open the doors of a new era by evaluating these issues face to face in this meeting. We hope to reach an understanding with our interlocutor, leaving aside the issues that poison the relations between the two countries, and that will allow us to look to the future.”
Likewise, on May 16, while addressing the senior executives of U.S. companies that have investments in Turkey, Erdoğan said, “Even though President Biden’s statement about the 1915 events will put an additional burden on our relations, I believe the meeting we will hold at the NATO summit will herald a new era.”
In both statements, the desire to “start a new era” on June 14 was emphasized.
Then comes message of tension in relations
On the other hand, Erdoğan stopped giving warm messages to the White House for the first time last week. Recalling his meeting with Biden in his interview with national broadcaster TRT on June 1, Erdoğan said, “We will, of course, ask why Turkey-U.S. relations are in such a phase of tension.”
He then compared Biden to previous presidents: “So we worked with the democrats before you; we did not have such an outlook. In other words, we worked with Bush, we worked with Obama, but I have never experienced such tension with them. We did not experience any tension with Mr. Trump, and on the contrary, we were very peaceful in our telephone diplomacy; we were very comfortable.”
After listing all these, the president added, “Unfortunately, this meeting with Mr. Biden and our meeting traffic was not that comfortable.”
Erdoğan openly described his situation with Biden as “tension” and did not feel the need to hide that he does not feel comfortable.
In the meantime, he also warned Biden by saying that “those who corner the State of the Republic of Turkey in this way will lose an important friend.”
The whole point is the question of how such warnings are received on the Biden front. As can be seen from the three-month delay in the call from the White House, the Biden administration is calculating that with the distance it has set, it can force Ankara to accept its positions and the framework it has designed in the new balance in which the relationship will settle.
In fact, it is difficult to say that progress has been made on the mutual problems that were on the table in all the preparatory meetings held within the past months and weeks, at least as far as it was reflected to the public. Both sides have put their expectations on the table, and everything is finally up to the Brussels meeting.
Just as Turkey has expectations on issues such as FETÖ and YPG, the U.S. side also has expectations on its front. Turkey’s step back from the S-400 air defense systems it acquired from Russia comes first. In this context, the question marks about Turkey’s strategic direction in the view of the Biden front is an essential factor.
In addition, problems such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Turkey are important issues on the agenda of the Biden administration.
As a result, if we act on Erdoğan’s characterizations, the June 14 meeting in Brussels seems to be stuck between the current “tension” in relations and the “new era” expectation.