When Joe Biden assumes office as U.S. president in late January, one of the thorniest foreign-policy challenges he will inherit is not one of his predecessor’s creation. Indeed, the problem of U.S. relations with Turkey has wrong-footed U.S. administrations from both parties in the past two decades.
From Ankara’s refusal to permit U.S. troops to cross the Turkish-Iraqi border in 2003, to sharp bilateral disagreements over Syria policy during the Obama administration, to Turkey’s more recent acquisition of Russian air defense systems despite its NATO membership, the U.S.-Turkish relationship has given headaches to a long series of American presidents.
Yet lingering threats in the region and rising risks globally underscore the continuing value of U.S.-Turkish cooperation to both countries, and they highlight the importance that a Biden administration seek to rescue the relationship from its sharp deterioration, which under President Donald Trump deepened further due to disagreements over Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria and its opposition to Arab normalization agreements with Israel.
Turkey, which bridges Europe and Asia, also finds itself straddling the fault line of a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. strategy is consciously moving away from an emphasis on fighting terrorism and nonstate actors to a focus on great-power competition, particularly with Russia and China. Washington and Ankara have clashed on both fronts under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, disagreeing over how to fight terrorism in Syria, for example, as well as how to manage relations with Moscow.
The coronavirus pandemic may not usher in a new world, but it has accelerated a transition in the global order. The crisis has exacerbated U.S.-China tensions and has highlighted for many states the risks of supply chains heavily dependent on Beijing. While the resulting shift in U.S. foreign policy in East Asia is plain to see, its implications for U.S. strategy elsewhere have not been clear.
In the Middle East, which has been the prime focus of U.S. foreign policy for the first decades of this century, it is unclear whether Washington intends to execute the same strategy—defending a broad array of U.S. interests, especially counterterrorism, through direct intervention and heavy support for allies—with fewer resources, or forge a new regional strategy.
This new strategy would consciously seek to look at Middle East issues through a great-power competition lens—preserving close relations with the region’s medium-sized powers and preventing inroads by Moscow and Beijing even at the expense of other concerns such as terrorism, as the Trump administration’s National Defense Strategy foreshadowed.
The likely answer is a bit of both. Facing a need to shift resources toward Asia, the U.S. government will increasingly look to outsource to its regional partners the safeguarding of mutual interests. Yet it will also seek to recruit those partners in a broader effort to buttress global order and norms against increasingly bold challenges from great-power competitors.
In any such reformulation of U.S. policy in the Middle East, the role Turkey chooses to play will be important—for better or for worse. It is the region’s largest economy, with a GDP reaching $750 billion.
It has demonstrated—often to Washington’s dismay, these days—a willingness to use hard power to influence regional dynamics. It shares frontiers with Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and neighbors Russia across the Black Sea. Turkey is therefore a logical stop on China’s Belt and Road network. Turkey is positioned—both physically and politically—to influence the projection of Russian power southward or Chinese might westward.
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