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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

New Year’s test for Biden

Turkey presents new challenges a new president can’t overlook

Domestic issues dominated the presidential campaign season, but global leaders will be eyeing the first steps of President-elect Joe Biden overseas. A wider-angle grasp may help Americans understand too the new administration’s intents. 

Will Biden’s team focus on special interests, like global climate change initiatives and restoring abortion-related funding overseas? That would suggest a presidency captive to special interests on the left, less interested in wider goals like resolving conflict and spreading democracy. Or will the Biden team refocus U.S. leadership in areas where it has been lacking and reinstate global alliances in ways that rely on new energy rather than old bureaucracies, ways that protect U.S. interests while also benefiting others? 

An overreliance on alphabet-soup groups (the NATO-led war in Libya, UN-led efforts to counter ISIS) characterized Obama-era foreign policy. The Trump administration has been bolder in forging new directions (linking Israel and Arab nations, leading on protecting religious liberty) but weak on building alliances to make such initiatives stick.

If the new administration reads a divided electorate correctly, and if Biden himself is sincere about the need to “heal this nation,” he may attempt a middle course between these two ends of the spectrum: reengaging allies without kowtowing to them. That can rebuild trust abroad, something also needed at home.

A unique place to watch how Biden’s overseas engagement emerges is Turkey. Turkey is a NATO ally once determined to become a member of the European Union. It had a robust economy and prided itself on being a secular state in the Muslim world. Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s devolved over the past decade into an authoritarian state that has shuttered a free press, turned historic churches into mosques, and lent support to Islamic terror groups.

The Obama administration didn’t challenge Erdogan’s support for Islamic fighters entering Syria through Turkey, or of smuggling rings transporting refugees to Europe. 

The Trump administration has imposed limited sanctions but avoided lasting pushback. Sanctions in 2018 helped to win the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson, and December’s sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian-made air defense system come more than a year after that transaction was complete. 

Meanwhile, Trump himself rebuffed congressional efforts to suspend Turkey’s membership in NATO and actually welcomed Erdogan’s invasion of Syria in 2019. He calls Erdogan “my friend”—including at a UN-­related gathering for which the then-freed Brunson was present. Turkey wrongfully had convicted Brunson of aiding terrorists when he actually was helping war victims and planting churches.

All this opens the door for a reset, should Biden make the effort. Turkey under Erdogan has flouted its NATO obligations, and there are dire reasons to recal­ibrate U.S.-Turkey relations. 

In northeast Syria Turkish forces have emptied key towns, forcing Muslim and Christian families from their homes, all in an area where war had eased until Turkey’s late 2019 invasion. Last month Partners Relief, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, discovered a camp with nearly 1,550 Syrian families whom the ongoing Turkish shelling has newly displaced. The families had tents but no mattresses or heat as temperatures dipped below freezing.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey’s military has been the fuel reigniting a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In December Erdogan flew to Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, to take part in a military victory parade. He gave a speech—little noted in the United States—warning Turkey could invade Armenia.

Analysts and officials I’ve spoken to over the past month say Turkey will be an important place for taking the measure of Biden’s commitment to shoring up global alliances, human rights, and religious freedom. 

Here on the home front in this new year, I will be sharing this space with colleagues Jamie Dean and Sophia Lee. Jamie working from Charlotte has just completed coverage of her fourth presidential campaign, while Sophia has had her hands full covering protests and life during the pandemic from Los Angeles. Both are invested reporters who bring perspectives that are at the same time fresh and seasoned. Happy New Year!