Recalibrating America’s Relationships

March 1, 2021

On February 19, President Biden addressed the global community for the first time. At 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference he defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He said, “I know — I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined — determined to reengage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership.” (emphasis added)

He expressed his strong belief that democracy will and must prevail.

He told European leaders that the West must prepare together for a long-term strategic competition with China.  He accused the Kremlin of attacks on Western democracies and said President Putin seeks to weaken the European project and the NATO Alliance because it is so much easier for the Kremlin to bully and threaten individual states than it is to negotiate with a strong and closely united transatlantic community. He also said, “We cannot and must not return to the reflective [reflexive] opposition and rigid blocs of the Cold War.  Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.”

President Biden did not mention Syria, Libya, and Yemen. He referred to the Middle East twice, first in connection with the fight against ISIS and second in the context of “Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East”. The choice of the adjective “destabilizing” instead of “malignant” which was used daily by former Secretary of State Pompeo was meant to signal the change in Washington’s attitude towards Tehran.

After President Biden, Chancellor Merkel and President Macron addressed the same audience.

Chancellor Merkel underscored the importance of multilateralism as the “foundation of our political activity”.

She reiterated Germany’s commitment to NATO as the central transatlantic pillar and to European defense policy which in her view supplement each other and belong together.

On Russia she said, “It’s therefore crucial that we draw up a joint transatlantic agenda on Russia which, on the one hand, contains offers of cooperation and, on the other, clearly spells out the differences.”

She said devising a joint agenda on China is a more complex matter. Because China, on the one hand, is a systemic competitor, but on the other hand the West needs China to help resolve global problems. It is to be noted that after seven years of negotiations, the EU and China reached an investment deal at the end of 2020. And China is now EU’s top trading partner.

Her concluding remarks were the following: “We have to work together to define the strategic challenges… That doesn’t mean that our interests will always converge – I have no illusions about that; we also have to speak frankly about our differences… (emphasis added)

President Macron reiterated his vision of a stronger European Union that would “take much more of the burden of our own protection.” A Europe better able to defend itself, and more autonomous, would make NATO “even stronger than before,” Mr. Macron continued. He said Europe should be “much more in charge of its own security,” increasing its commitments to spending on defense to “rebalance” the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Mr. Macron also urged that the renovation of NATO’S security abilities should involve a dialogue with Russia.” (The readout of President Macron’s February 25 call with President Xi Jinping mentioned the “strategic partnership between France and China.”)

A Washington Post article reporting on the Munich Security Conference was titled, “Biden Tells Allies ‘America Is Back,’ but Macron and Merkel Push Back”.

Other observers said Europe welcomed the Biden administration but remains cautious.

The question appears to be, “yes, the US is back but which one? The one which invaded Iraq under false premises despite German and French objections? The one which partnered with France and the UK in the Libya intervention despite Russian and Chinese opposition and lack of support by Germany? Or the one which emphasized multilateralism like in the early years of the Obama administration? In recent years, the US has started to reckon with its domestic problems like racism. Will Washington also engage in self-criticism for decades and decades of military interventions?  Mr. Trump has left the White House but seventy-five million Americans voted for him. The US remains polarized. What does that say for the future? Can one be sure that the victory cry for January 20, 2024 would not be “I am back”?

At the beginning of his presidency Mr. Obama tried to reset relations with Russia. And under “pivot to Asia” policy he sought to strengthen cooperative ties with China and to establish a strong and credible American presence in the region. Moscow remained cool to a reset. Then came the Ukraine conflict, Arab spring, Libya, Syria conflicts, and pivot to Asia failed.

Chancellor Merkel’s and President Macron’s speeches at the Munich Security Conference showed once again that Europe’s commercial interests with Russia and China matter.

Despite its principled stand on the Ukraine conflict, Germany is determined to continue with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will bring gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Insofar as the Middle East and Africa are concerned it is clear that Germany’s main concern is to prevent new waves of refugees from reaching European shores. This is probably why Chancellor Merkel mentioned Africa, Libya, Syria, and Islamist terrorism as matters of special importance to the European Union.

The EU has not succeeded in matching the US, China, or Russia as a global foreign policy actor. More often than not, it is the individual capabilities of its members, prominently among them Germany, rather than EU’s own weight as a bloc that matters. EU’s priority has always been economic/commercial gain. Besides, the external threat analyses of its members do not overlap. For Poland and the Baltic states Russia is a threat. Not so much for those in the south. So, despite President Macron’s emphasis on European defense, this not likely to lead anywhere in the foreseeable future.

The Biden administration is now giving the initial signals of what its Middle East policy would look like.

On February 18, NATO’s Ministers of Defense decided to expand the NATO training mission in Iraq from 500 to around 4,000 personnel. NATO Mission Iraq (NMI) is a non-combat advisory, training and capacity-building mission which was established in October 2018 and since involved several hundred trainers, advisors and supporting personnel from Allied and partner countries, including Australia, Finland, and Sweden.

Last Thursday, President Biden, spoke with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, the first Arab/Middle East leader he called. The readout of the call mentioned, among other things, the US commitment to help Saudi Arabia defend its territory.

The same day, the US conducted its first military action under President Biden targeting Iran-backed militias in eastern Syria in retaliation for recent rocket attacks on US and coalition military sites in Iraq.

On Friday, Washington, Mr. Biden having briefed the King the day before, released the intelligence report on the 2018 killing of Jamal Khashoggi. The report said Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman had approved the operation to capture or kill him. 76 Saudis involved in harassing activists and journalists were sanctioned. The Crown Prince was the exception. Secretary Blinken said, “the relationship with Saudi Arabia is bigger than any one individual.”

How far the recalibration of relations would go and how much it would impact royal succession in Saudi Arabia remains to be seen.

Iran and Turkey are also waiting for recalibration of relations with the Biden administration. The future of relations with Tehran and the JCPOA would become clearer when the current phase of brinkmanship is over, hopefully soon.

As for Turkey, it’s relationship with the West is at its lowest point in decades. The list of problems with Washington is long, issues are complex. Relations with the EU are confrontational. The West resents Turkish policies in Syria, Libya, and eastern Mediterranean.

During the past decade, Turkish government often targeted the West, thus galvanizing its supporters’ anti-Western sentiment. But now, this sentiment is spreading.

Many in Turkey strongly criticize the government for our democratic decline and diplomatic isolation. They demand a rapid return to the parliamentary system. But when it comes to relations with the West, they also draw attention to Western double standards, the insincerity EU displayed throughout Turkey’s now defunct accession process, the admission of Greek Cypriots as an EU member despite their rejection of the Annan plan, and to EU’s support to Greece no matter what. Some go one step further and say that Western interest in Turkey’s democracy was nothing but a tool to exert pressure.

And there are those, who persevere in underlining the importance of our NATO membership, the significance of the Alliance as Turkey’s principial institutional forum with the West, our economic/trade/investment relations with the EU, and the link between Turkish democracy and relations with the West. But they are not always finding a receptive audience. It is almost as if a shift of axis by Turkey is a coming event which has casted its shadow before. And if it were to come, it would not lead to havoc.

Some are looking for ways out. Among these is a proposal for “structured transactionalism” with the US. This reminds one of EU’s preference for a “privileged partnership” with Turkey as a more realistic alternative to full membership. This was rejected by Ankara.  Obviously, ideas to restore Turkey’s relations with the West are in short supply.

Washington and Brussels are no doubt consulting on a coordinated approach towards Turkey. Wherever this may lead, Western leaders on both sides of the Atlantic need to take fully into account increasing resentment towards the West among an increasing number of Turks, if the worst is to be avoided.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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