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The West is back in the international arena. Russia and Turkey, the first major dossiers it has to tackle

BidenErdo
©EPA-EFE/OLIVIER MATTHYS / POOL  |   US President Joe Biden (R) greets Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a plenary session at a NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, 14 June 2021.

The West seems ready to return to the international arena, after years of leaving the initiative of the autocratic powers - Russia, China, even an ally like Turkey, where the anti-democratic slips of the Erdogan regime are growing - and he himself was marked by the fracture brought about by the Trump administration's policies and, in the last year, by the pandemic crisis. The diplomatic tour of US President Joe Biden is a sign of this return, both American and Western in general. A greater firmness of the West does not exclude the willingness to communicate with the autocracies - but for the time being there is no question of a relaxation of relations.

An Intense and Important Month in World Politics

June 2021 was a month of important events at the international level. Between 11 and 13 June, the G7 meeting was held in Cornwall, UK, followed by the NATO summit in Brussels, Belgium, on June 14, the US-EU summit on June 15, also in Brussels, and the meeting between the US and Russian chiefs of state on June 16, in Geneva, Switzerland. All these events marked the return of the United States to world affairs, which represents the most important outcome. The rekindling of Washington's relations with Brussels, after the years of relative abrasiveness when Donald Trump was at the White House, gives hope that the logic of cooperation is back in the global liberal democratic camp. With the two centres of power again on the same page, numerous pressing issues in world politics could be addressed more coherently and decisively.

Washington and Brussels working together again increases the chance for better and more efficient global governance in a multitude of policy fields, with universal values such as liberal democracy, human rights, and the rule of law at the heart of all evolutions. These universal values were imperilled when Donald Trump advanced policies in line with his "America First!" slogan. Many veteran experts and diplomats were deeply worried back then for the functioning of institutional forms of international cooperation and systems of crisis-prevention under the UN umbrella, all relying on the US sponsorship and political support. The worries increased especially when Trump, as head administrator of the oldest most advanced democracy on earth, seemed to cultivate good relations with increasingly authoritarian leaders, such as the ones in Russia, or Turkey, against the expressed options of the US Congress. Joe Biden's clear electoral victory in 2020 gave to important US political factors and to the other leaders of the liberal democratic world the hope that Washington will return to the international stage to restore its leadership as global defender and promoter of the international system and its universal values.

European relief

European leaders expressed publicly their most pressing concerns in March, when Joe Biden attended a video meeting of the European Council. The Council President, Charles Michel, stressed that the United States and the European Union "have a responsibility for the generations to come" to defend and promote the fundamental values of the free world, warning that "democracy and the rule of law are under pressure again". This "again" points to history, that is, the two World Wars and the Cold War which brought face to face as enemies liberal democracies and totalitarian regimes. And although those particular confrontations may be over, the democratic world remains vulnerable precisely because it is built on values that permit free expression. Influences from authoritarian actors can easily penetrate and undermine the solidarity of free societies and their commitment to universal values.

That is why hopes were very high in the liberal democratic Europe concerning the first physical encounter between the US and EU leaders and, on his first European tour in June, Mr Biden did deliver. He reaffirmed his administration's commitment to the values on which international cooperation rests as essential building blocks of European and American security and prosperity. He went even further by singling out Russia and China as threats to those values and to international cooperation, explicitly labelling the two as "autocracies".  In my opinion, following the Trump experience, this represents the most important outcome of June's intense diplomacy from European perspective as a first step in the correct direction.

The Russian issue

Although President Biden's meeting with his Russian counterpart failed to produce the headlines some pundits may have hoped for, it did signal a fundamental change of logic in bilateral relations when compared with the Trump mandate. In my opinion, Biden's main statement after the meeting was "I did what I came to do". All the other statements to the media by the two leaders should be judged in correlation with this one because it marks the return of the US as patron and promoter of the logic of international cooperation, together with European partners.

Putin accepted that there are "issues where we can work together", while Biden described the meeting as an important step toward "stability and predictability" in relations. Just before boarding the airplane for the return home, the US President gave the final note of the diplomatic tango by stating that the Russians "want desperately to remain a major power", while actually "being squeezed by China". On the thorny issue of Ukraine, Biden was categorical, expressing "unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine".

All these declarations seem to indicate one thing: Washington is back on the stage and Putin has to learn to follow the established rules. Eventually, he is not Russia, but the current leader of that country. It is in this logic that I also interpret the agreement for the return of previously expelled ambassadors. Contacts and dialogue will take place, but bilateral relations will have to normalise. It should not be forgotten that it was the US, Canada and Western Europe that have designed and gave practical meaning to the global "normal" that emerged after the Second World War and expanded after the Cold War. And that was in the logic of cooperation, not confrontation.

America’s getting tired of Turkey

Following European and US pressures over the last two years, Turkey's aggressive foreign policy has hit deadlock in the Eastern Mediterranean, Syria, and Libya. The list of countries uncomfortable with Ankara's combative posture on many issues has also grown significantly. Key Arab and Western countries, and even the Libyan government in Tripoli pressure Turkey to withdraw troops from that country. Officials in Bagdad and Erbil also express their increasing discomfort about the presence and activities of Turkish troops in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq. The de facto Turkish occupation of territories in northern Syria represents a growing concern for international actors.

In the bilateral relations with Washington, Ankara also managed to score embarrassing own-goals, seemingly unaware that the Cold War, when Turkey's strategic position was valuable for the West, has ended quite a long time ago. In its dealings with Turkey, US policy-makers have grown increasingly tired especially after the coming to power of the conservative AKP regime in Ankara, back in November 2002.

Bilateral relations begun to deteriorate in 2003, when the Turkish parliament denied the US Air Force the use of the Incirlik Air Base to launch attacks in the Iraq campaign. Washington, on the other side, never authorised the acquisition by Turkey of surface-to-air Patriot missile systems and Turkish access to that technology. It preferred instead to allow, in 2012, the deployment of Patriot systems under NATO command and control in SE Turkey to protect the country from missiles fired from the war-torn Syria.

Subsequently, an Islam-focused Turkish foreign policy, anti-American and anti-European discourse together with the authoritarian turn of the AKP regime have strained bilateral relations even more. It all culminated with Ankara accusing the US and certain European states of being behind the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the failed coup of July 2016. To all these must be added the detention of certain Western citizens, the acquisition by Turkey of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, the obstructive role played by Ankara in north Syria, and Washington's support for the Kurdish forces who have been efficient allies in the war against the Islamic State.

Joe Biden refrained from calling his Turkish counterpart for an excruciatingly long four months after inauguration. When he eventually called, it was only to announce that the White House was going to recognise formally the 1915 Armenian genocide. And, on the day when the 1915 massacres were commemorated, the US President did exactly that. The gesture was extremely significant because, in my opinion, it indicates two important things. Firstly, it suggests that Ankara's foreign policy moves have diminished Turkey's strategic value for the US in the region. Secondly, it may also indicate that Washington and the West, in general, have grown increasingly tired of mantras in the Turkish politics that are unsustainable in the long run: the denial of the Armenian genocide, the denial of the existence of ethnic minorities in Turkey and the support for a Turkish state in North Cyprus that no other country or international organisation recognise. Improvement in bilateral relations is now clearly conditioned upon the current regime in Ankara cooperating along the established rules and not its own, which may lead to fundamental change in the country's domestic politics and foreign posture in the long run. Much cannot be expected from the current regime though. Its proven incompetence on a number of issues and increasing unpredictability have made partners treat Turkey with increasing lack of enthusiasm.

Such perspective is confirmed by the isolation of the Turkish leader at the NATO summit in Brussels, where he appeared posing in official photos only with the Secretary General. Then, Erdoğan's meeting with the new US President produced no breakthrough. There was no common press conference and their declarations after the meeting provided no detail about agreements regarding the future of bilateral relations. US sanctions on Turkey for the acquisition of the Russian-made systems remain in place. The two sides also remain deaf to each other on the issue of the Kurdish forces in north Syria.

It is safe to conclude that the Turkish President and his regime are thus blocked in defensive in their relations with the Biden administration. Highly suggestive, when asked whether he questioned the US counterpart on the formal recognition of the Armenian genocide, Mr Erdoğan answered, "Thank God, it did not come up!" This sounded like a pupil being happy the teacher did not interrogate him in class, although he had previously promised to the Turkish audience to be the interrogating teacher in the meeting.

Turkish coffee? No, thanks!

The impression that Turkey is increasingly isolated emerges from Brussels, too. The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, confirmed such view when answering a question from the Cypriot media ahead of the European Council of 24-25 June. He said that, "I don't expect the European Council to go deeper on the issue of Turkey relations, because it will be very much engaged on the Russia communication". In other words, the Turkish issue has been shelved with the suspension of accession negotiations and Russia is more important now.

Although the Council eventually approved an additional 3.5 billion euros for Turkey to support the hosting of refugees, the money will go to humanitarian programs and not directly to the Turkish government, as Ankara would have preferred. Moreover, this money comes from the EU budget, so a final decision depends on approval from the European Parliament where Turkey has few friends left due to the country's degrading human rights and rule of law record. Ankara's answer to these developments betrayed frustration mainly because the money would not go directly to the Turkish government as it hoped.

Thus, Turkey will remain isolated in European high politics, too, and any improvement depends exclusively on its own efforts. Concretely, improvement in relations with the EU remains conditional upon the Turkish regime doing what it was already indicated in the European Council statement of 25 March. Among other aspects, the statement iterated the EU's concern about the rule of law and fundamental rights in Turkey. Given that it was already punished by the EU with the freezing of accession negotiations, Ankara cannot hope for much in its future dealings with Europe. In any case, the leaders of the democratic world are much more preoccupied now with the "real threats".

As indicated above, the US President confirmed this view on his European tour, when he named the autocracies of Russia and China. The current regime in Ankara has to eventually decide on which side it is in this global confrontation between the big actors. Until that decision is made, Turkey's relevance on the international stage will probably continue to diminish. And this is at least partly because its traditional partners in Europe and North America have finally accepted the transactional logic insistently advanced by the Turks themselves over the last decade. In that transactional logic, however, Ankara may eventually have to renounce sticking to the three mantras mentioned above and that may call for massive change in the country's domestic politics and foreign policy. Until then, both the US and the EU seem to have understood that cooperating with the current regime is undesirable for too many reasons. Metaphorically speaking, the Turkish coffee simply does not taste like it used to, so no thanks may be the correct answer.

The real problems of confrontational actors

For the regimes in Moscow and Ankara, the real problem concerns popularity at home. Vladimir Putin's approval rating is slowly but steadily declining. He has done everything he could to undermine the opposition but, at the end of the day, much of his popularity over the last decade owed to an aggressive foreign policy and especially actions in Ukraine. That met expectations on the nationalist side of the political spectrum in Russian society, but cannot feed the people.

Putin's administration of the economy was never brilliant and the country's strongest exports remain those from a century ago: raw materials and energy products, weapons and threats to neighbours. The Russian automotive industry is dominated by Western brands and technologies. The same can be said of technologies and brands involved in the market of home appliances and whites, cosmetics, food, industrial machines, communications and many others. To make a long story short, it is rather difficult to find a Russian-made product sold successfully on the world markets. Recovery after the COVID-19 crisis and, in fact, after any future crisis will depend much on the global prices of oil and gas, the main Russian exports. And, with many Western states encouraging greener economies, it is hard to believe that carbon-based development can yield much profit in the future. The increasing production and market of electric vehicles may be giving some headaches to the leader in Kremlin.

In Brussels, even the big actors Germany and France, usually efficient partisans of dialogue with Moscow, could not obtain from the other EU Member States support for the continuation of EU-Russia dialogue at the highest level. This is a message consonant with that coming from the US President Joe Biden: for Russia to be treated as global power on the same par with the US and EU, Mr Putin has to respect the rules of the game. In particular, the European message is that the Russian President should stop threatening even smaller European actors because they do have a say in international affairs via the EU.

Across the Black Sea, the popularity of the regime in Ankara is declining at an even faster pace. The proportion of people declaring that they will "never" vote for the current Turkish President has increased more than 10 per cent in two years, from 35.3% in 2019 to 45.5% in April 2021. Presidential and parliamentary elections are scheduled for 2023 but, if they were to be held now, the ruling coalition would be voted by only around 36% (AKP 27%; MHP 9%) of the respondents to the last MetroPoll survey, while the option for opposition parties is on aggregate at 40%. And the future looks increasingly bleak for the current regime because of its monumental incompetence in the administration of the COVID-19 crisis, of the economy and of regional problems, some of which are its own creations.

Living standards have degraded and Turkey now has the highest share of population outside labour force in Europe, while the GDP per capita is now 36% lower than the EU average. The agricultural sector has been neglected for years and the country now resorts to important agricultural imports in addition to the traditional dependency of Turkish industry on material and capital imports. With the value of the lira continuing to decline, more and more investors, both domestic and foreign, are running away. The declining lira diminishes their profit margins dramatically. And, for the same reason, Ankara has difficulty in finding the around 200 billion US dollars necessary to finance its immense current account deficit and maturing debts. That is while gross foreign currency reserves are only around 85 billion US dollars.

These "real problems" are not good news for anyone in the world. As it happened so many times in history, autocratic and nationalist regimes become even more autocratic and nationalist in times of crisis. It remains to be seen whether the new US President will manage to provide the leadership necessary for a united stance of democracies against challenges ahead. Analytical lucidity is, of course, crucial at this moment in time. To the complex developments in and about Russia, Turkey and other similar regimes in the broader European region, the analysis must look more and more closely at China, a type of actor not really seen before in modern world history. Before confronting China though, the US administration and its European partners need to first bring Turkey back in the Euro-Atlantic logic of cooperation and make Mr Putin understand that it is in his own interest to follow the same path. The intense diplomacy of June 2021 may remain in history as a first important step in that direction.

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  • The West seems ready to return to the international arena, after years of leaving the initiative of the autocratic powers - Russia, China, even an ally like Turkey, where the anti-democratic slips of the Erdogan regime are growing - and he himself was marked by the fracture brought about by the Trump administration's policies and, in the last year, by the pandemic crisis. The diplomatic tour of US President Joe Biden is a sign of this return, both American and Western in general. A greater firmness of the West does not exclude the willingness to communicate with the autocracies - but for the time being there is no question of a relaxation of relations.
  • An Islam-focused Turkish foreign policy, anti-American and anti-European discourse together with the authoritarian turn of the AKP regime have strained bilateral relations even more. It all culminated with Ankara accusing the US and certain European states of being behind the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the failed coup of July 2016. To all these must be added the detention of certain Western citizens, the acquisition by Turkey of Russian-made S-400 missile systems, the obstructive role played by Ankara in north Syria, and Washington's support for the Kurdish forces who have been efficient allies in the war against the Islamic State. Joe Biden refrained from calling his Turkish counterpart for an excruciatingly long four months after inauguration. When he eventually called, it was only to announce that the White House was going to recognise formally the 1915 Armenian genocide.
  • The impression that Turkey is increasingly isolated emerges from Brussels, too. The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, confirmed such view when answering a question from the Cypriot media ahead of the European Council of 24-25 June. He said that, "I don't expect the European Council to go deeper on the issue of Turkey relations, because it will be very much engaged on the Russia communication". In other words, the Turkish issue has been shelved with the suspension of accession negotiations and Russia is more important now.
  • In Brussels, even the big actors Germany and France, usually efficient partisans of dialogue with Moscow, could not obtain from the other EU Member States support for the continuation of EU-Russia dialogue at the highest level. This is a message consonant with that coming from the US President Joe Biden: for Russia to be treated as global power on the same par with the US and EU, Mr Putin has to respect the rules of the game. In particular, the European message is that the Russian President should stop threatening even smaller European actors because they do have a say in international affairs via the EU.
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