Biden walks foreign policy tightrope with Turkey’s Erdogan in NATO meeting
By Naomi Lim, White House Reporter
President Joe Biden’s sideline discussions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are just as politically fraught as his highly anticipated one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Monday meeting, organized while Biden and Erdogan are in Brussels for a NATO summit, will test Biden’s foreign policy chops, which were a big part of his 2020 campaign pitch, as he and his aides address potential areas of collaboration, such as regional security and COVID-19, while Biden rips autocrats abroad.
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Biden must avoid appearing “too friendly” with Erdogan, who enjoyed a cozy relationship with former President Donald Trump, according to Turkey expert Blaise Misztal.
“Turkey continues to believe that it is too big to fail,” the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s policy vice president told the Washington Examiner. “It thinks that the U.S. needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the U.S. and that it can get away with doing things that directly undermine U.S. national interests or that erode the values of the foundation of the NATO alliance.”
That includes Turkey buying an S-400 missile system from Russia, its aggression in the Eastern Mediterranean, and its Libyan conflict involvement.
“These are all problems for NATO, not just problems for the United States,” Misztal said. “That sort of unity is what gives us leverage over Turkey in some ways.”
Biden’s foreign policy has been defined by its rallying cry for liberal democracies to win out of what some fear is a global drift toward autocracies. During his first remarks as president on foreign soil this week, Biden told U.S. servicemen and women stationed in the United Kingdom they had to defend democratic values.
“Generation after generation of American heroes have signed up to be part of the fight because they understand the truth that lives in every American heart: that liberation, opportunity, justice is far more likely to come to pass in a democracy than in the emerging autocracies in the world,” he said.
But Erdogan has become increasingly authoritarian since he was elevated to president in 2014, especially after an unsuccessful military coup in 2016.
“There are more journalists in jail in Turkey than in any other country in the world,” Misztal cited as an example. “The jailing of members of the opposition political party is another one that I think captures it pretty well, and attempts to shut the party down.”
Biden called Erdogan an autocrat last year and did not phone him until April, almost 100 days into his presidency. In that call, Biden advised Erdogan he was recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians during World War I.
Biden needs to be careful about the optics of the Erdogan conversations because meeting a U.S. president is a “big deal,” Misztal said. Erdogan is likely to use event photos to emphasize his own importance on the world stage and as another reason he should remain in power, he added.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan briefed reporters about the Biden-Erdogan talks on Air Force One this week while en route to England.
“It’s going to be a broad and expansive agenda — issues right there in the region, of course, in the Eastern Mediterranean with Syria, with Iran, Nagorno-Karabakh — but also the role that Turkey will play on a going-forward basis with respect to negotiations and diplomacy in Afghanistan and how the U.S and Turkey itself deal with some of our significant differences on values and human rights and other issues,” he said.
Sullivan continued, “President Biden knows Erdogan very well. The two men have spent a good amount of time together, and they are both, I think, looking forward to the opportunity to really have a businesslike opportunity to review the full breadth of their relationship.”
Misztal added Turkey’s S-400 missile systems to the topic list as Washington’s “biggest irritant” in the now-chilly relationship.
“If they have on their territory a Russian-built radar system that tracks planes, including ones that we have built in order for them to be so stealthy as to not be picked up by Russian radars, then you have this Russian radar that’s collecting information about our jets, we don’t trust that that data doesn’t get back to the Russians and somehow,” he said.
The safe withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan may be threatened, too, if Turkey declines to continue securing Kabul’s airport.
“There have been suggestions in the Turkish press that this is part of a deal having to do with the S-400s, which is that Turkey might get rid of, or in some ways unplug or store or do less with the S-400s and help provide security for the Kabul airport in exchange for the U.S. lifting the sanctions that it currently has in place on Turkey,” Misztal said. “Others suggest that there are unconnected negotiations going on.”
Originally published in The Washington Examiner