Opinion | The West needs to get used to a transactional relationship with Turkey

After a long and divisive election campaign, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was inaugurated over the weekend in a ceremony that neatly embodied his vision for Turkey and its place in the world.

Erdogan won, in part, because he had convinced more than half of Turkey’s voters that a nonaligned, self-reliant Turkey, under his strong leadership, was preferable to the opposition’s call for a return to a more traditional relationship with the West. Fittingly, Erdogan and his wife Emine made a majestic entrance into the hall of celebration in the presidential palace, greeted by representatives and heads of state from the Global South — including the Middle East, Africa and countries that emerged from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.

But even as Turkey’s Western allies try to come to grips with the reality of a “post-West Turkey,” there is an opening for policymakers and diplomats to develop a more stable and mature relationship with Erdogan in the months and years ahead.

Casual observers forget that Erdogan is a highly adaptable politician who has repeatedly reinvented himself. His new cabinet picks reveal that he is, despite campaign rhetoric, willing to part ways with hard-liner nationalists and pro-Russian hawks to lean on moderates over the next term. With the campaign successfully behind him, Erdogan is now seeking to fix what he broke in order to get reelected.

Expect Erdogan’s new term to focus on expanding Turkey’s regional stature, salvaging a badly battered economy, and improving his country’s ties with the United States and Europe. Erdogan’s new Turkey is undoubtedly transactional in its foreign policy. But transactionalism does not necessarily imply hostility. He seems willing to work with transatlantic allies on an a la carte basis.

The people Erdogan is appointing to key posts offer a glimpse into what kind of partnership is on offer.

Turkey’s new treasury and finance minister is Mehmet Simsek, a former Merrill Lynch economist and a known critic of Erdogan’s unorthodox interest rate policies — policies that essentially erased Turkey’s foreign currency reserves. He identified “transparency, consistency, predictability and compliance with international norms” as the new government’s core principles. Simsek is a straight shooter with a daunting task ahead of him.

Erdogan has also appointed his former intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, as his foreign minister; his spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, as his new spymaster; and chairman of the parliament’s budget committee, Cevdet Yilmaz, as his deputy. All three are Erdogan loyalists who have nevertheless worked well with their Western counterparts. And they have all, at different points, advocated more inclusive policies at home.

These moderating influences in Erdogan’s government need to be cultivated. Sadly, Turkey is not likely to fully come back into the Western fold any time soon. But if Turkey stays loosely in the Western camp, or at least has a foot there, Turkish democracy might have a better chance of recovering in the medium to long term.

What kind of horse-trading will be possible with Erdogan’s team? The first test will be getting Turkey to lift its hold on Sweden’s entry into NATO. Erdogan has been accusing Sweden of harboring Kurdish dissidents whom he considers “terrorists.”

But for Erdogan, this has never been just about Sweden. He has been using the NATO issue to get concessions from the Biden administration on defense matters. At minimum, he wants Washington to lift its de facto arms embargo on big weapons systems to Turkey so it can purchase billions of dollars’ worth of F-16s to upgrade its fleet — something Congress has been unwilling to sign off on.

Getting to a deal will not be easy. Fortunately, this does not have to be a comprehensive grand bargain. Indeed, it may be wiser for the Biden administration to work in incremental confidence-building steps, especially to get congressional leaders on board. That said, the broad parameters are obvious: Improved defense cooperation will depend on Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s NATO accession, as well as on reduction of tensions with Greece over the Aegean Sea.

With the economy in rough shape and the Turkish lira on the cusp of devaluation, Erdogan needs things from the West. And with the Ukraine war grinding on, the West needs Turkey to play its role in containing Russia. Such a relationship of convenience falls far short of the “alliance of values” rhetoric that pervades NATO summit statements. But in troubled times like these, it will have to suffice.

Source : https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/the-west-needs-to-get-used-to-a-transactional-relationship-with-turkey/

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