Will Trump back Erdoğan at NATO Summit?

Thursday was the day of Thanksgiving in the United States, and a week before the two-day NATO summit begins in Britain on Dec. 3. The first event marks a fitting day to look back over the last year on the course of relations between Turkey and the United States, and the second is an opportunity to look at the prospects for improved relations between Turkey, the United States and its other NATO Allies.

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has said little regarding Turkey’s domestic political situation and offered scant support to defenders of fundamental human rights in Turkey.  

This is thoroughly in line with Trump’s America First foreign policy, which sees no profit in U.S. involvement in the domestic politics of other nations. The Trump administration has only concerned itself with the domestic socio-political situation of another nation when it sees a clear advantage for what it perceives as U.S. interests.

In the case of Turkey, many would surely welcome U.S. verbal support for press freedom, free speech, and other fundamental human rights. That said, the people of Turkey showed in this year’s municipal elections that they have a voice, and that there are limits to their tolerance for political machinations by the current ruling elites. 

Carefully worded EU and U.S. statements in support of honest vote-counts likely helped, but the people of Turkey, not foreign voices, deserve full credit for ensuring a fair vote reflective of the will of the electorate. 

Likewise, when maneuvered by President Erdoğan into choosing between a battlefield ally, the almost entirely Kurdish YPG (People's Protection Units) or a long-standing treaty ally, Turkey, Trump rightly chose Turkey over the YPG. This led to last month’s Turkish military in northern Syria, where it drove the YPG and its affiliates away from the border with Turkey, drawing anger from those in Congress who viewed Trump’s greenlight for the assault as a betrayal of Kurdish forces that had helped in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State.

However, Trump has maintained some support for the ethnically mixed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), emphasising a distinction between this organisation and the YPG which is more aspirational than real. Doing so serves U.S. interests and eases Trump’s relations with his congressional critics, though few believe the narrative being put forward that the two Kurdish-led groups are completely separate entities. 

Meanwhile, as a prelude to the approaching NATO Summit, Turkey continues to pursue a policy of distancing itself from the Atlantic alliance. Purchasing Russian weapons systems, employing irregular fighters (some with jihadi connections) in Syria, threatening Cyprus oil exploration, lambasting Europe for “not doing enough” regarding Syrian refugees, and resisting NATO efforts to enhance cooperation with partner nations of the Mediterranean are examples of Turkish actions that have caused other NATO members to question Turkey’s commitment to the shared values and collective security premise of the alliance. 

Given that Turkish is distancing itself from NATO and that it has stated its desire to focus on relations with countries to its south and east, does Ankara deserve a seat at the NATO table?  Has it moved from being an uncomfortable ally to a contentious and unreliable one?  More importantly, given his stated skepticism about the benefits and costs of NATO membership, will Trump work to sustain the Atlantic alliance at its seventieth anniversary? And will that include working to keep Turkey fully integrated in the alliance?  

As Trump focuses on keeping his friend Erdoğan engaged, effectively blunting U.S. congressional actions directed against Turkey’s president (and letting Erdoğan know it), foreign policy professionals focus on keeping Turkey within the alliance.  They realise that over time the democratic impulses of many Turks might lead to its adoption of the shared values of all member states, thereby enhancing the collective security of all.  For many foreign policy and security commentators within the NATO space, for all the pain Erdoğan brings to relations with the West, Turkey and its people do not deserve to be written off, nor would it be in the West’s interests to do so.

Thus, whether to stroke his ego or in listening to his advisors, Trump is likely to continue protecting Erdoğan from his critics. At next week’s summit, this will likely translate into a focus on restraining any public attacks on Erdoğan’s foreign policy initiatives while allowing for frank and direct conversations in private.  

After helping block a resolution recognising the massacres of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide, Trump will impress upon Erdoğan his ability to shield Turkey from criticism.  Whether Trump can find among the NATO leaders a personal ally as cooperative and supportive as Senator Lindsey Graham, who blocked the genocide motion in the Senate, remains an open question. However, it is unlikely any NATO leader will seek to publicly berate or criticise Erdoğan.  

Thus, regardless of many actions contrary to NATO interests undertaken by Erdoğan over the last year, we can expect him to return from Britain touting his ability to have the other members of the Alliance treat him, and by extension Turkey, with respect.  

Certainly, the Turkish press, which is thoroughly under government domination, will proclaim that Erdoğan bested his fellow heads of state and ensured full respect for Turkey’s freedom of action in its relations with Russia, Syria, Iran and other rivals of NATO. Meanwhile, the fighting will continue in Syria, the refugees will remain in their camps, the economy will remain fragile, domestic human rights will be constrained, and thousands who have been unjustly jailed will continue to languish in Turkish prisons. 

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.