“Oh, c’mon, Erdoğan isn’t that bad – more to the point, he is the democratically elected leader of the country, so we have to deal with him.” It was a line I often used with Turkish friends in the years after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ascent to power in 2003. Its impeccable democratic logic never made much of an impression.
Erdoğan was not America’s first choice – but, hey, democracy is messy, and it wasn’t our choice after all
My Turkish contacts, nearly all of them from the opposition, hated Erdoğan and everything he stood for; worse, they believed that he had a not-so-secret plan to remake the country as an Islamist autocracy. In their view, the domestic threat to Turkish civil society was so severe that foreign governments should change their approach to Turkey. Cooperation with Erdoğan’s regime would only provide him with foreign policy wins that would help legitimise him as a ruler and further his nefarious plan.
From my position within the Obama administration, none of this really computed. In truth, I believed my friends lacked objectivity and were too involved in their domestic struggles to see the bigger picture. America had to deal with the leader the Turkish people gave us and do our best with him. Erdoğan was not America’s first choice – but, hey, democracy is messy, and it wasn’t our choice after all.
In the official US view, refusing to work with him or overtly siding with his domestic opposition would simply guarantee that he turned against the West. The best way to contain Erdoğan’s threat to Turkish democracy was to respect democratic form and help make Turkey a success, instead of giving him a convenient foreign enemy to scapegoat for every problem. Besides, we assured nervous Turks, Turkish civil society was strong and there were multiple other power centres in Turkey. They would contain the worst of Erdoğan’s excesses better than America ever could.
Over time, many in the US government soured on Erdoğan but, even then, they reasoned that working with him was the best option. The United States had bigger problems in a difficult region, from the wars in Iraq and Syria to the Islamic State group (ISIS), to the Middle East peace process. The US needed a Turkish ally to deal with all these issues, and many more. This tradition of working with the government you’re given is a time-honoured American approach to partners of various levels of odiousness around the world.
Recalling these conversations today is doubly painful. It is not just that we were wrong about Erdoğan and civil society’s ability to contain him. Of course, we were wrong – and spectacularly so.
In retrospect, the US government also lacked objectivity on this question: we wanted to continue the US relationship with Turkey as before, so we looked for reasons to disbelieve our Turkish friends. In the meantime, Erdoğan has taken Turkey in exactly the autocratic direction that opposition Turks predicted. And, despite US efforts to work with his government, the US-Turkish relationship has gone into the crapper. The US is now the official scapegoat for practically everything that goes wrong in Turkey, from the July 2016 coup attempt to a supposed attempt to kill Erdoğan using telekinesis.
Foreign partners’ persistent desire to accept and work with whatever government an ally produces is nearly an iron law of international politics – even when that government came to power through a less-than-democratic process
But my punishment for this analytical failure extends well beyond just having to eat crow. Rather, karma has sent its personal representative, US President Donald Trump, to make me truly understand just how angry US naïveté about Erdoğan must have made the Turkish opposition. Now, many of my foreign friends (including Turkish ones) are fixing me with that same patronising look and piously intoning that Donald Trump is the President of the United States, so they must deal with him – and, not to worry, American institutions will contain him.
I struggle in vain to convince foreign friends that Trump is not interested in preserving American alliances and that he will only use their desire to do so against them in negotiations. In the meantime, I complain that their attempts at good relations are helping him push the US in an isolationist and authoritarian direction.
They generally do not like Trump and express some worry, but they retain a touching faith in US civil society and plead that there is little they can do. Of course, Trump’s outbursts at, say, the G7 summit or his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki cause consternation. But then some senior US official shows up to “clarify” that, when Trump said Russia was no longer a threat, what he really meant was that Russia was still a threat. And America’s allies mostly choose to believe it – probably because they want to so badly.
All of this is distressingly familiar.
More than karma
Foreign partners’ persistent desire to accept and work with whatever government an ally produces is nearly an iron law of international politics – even when that government came to power through a less-than-democratic process. They nearly always find a story to tell themselves about how any domestic development need not have an impact on their foreign policy relationship. One still finds US officials intoning the importance and fundamental solidity of the US-Turkish alliance even as the Turkish press frequently accuses the US of trying to overthrow the Turkish government.
But there is probably also a lesson here for domestic opponents of a sitting government, such as Turkish liberals or anti-Trump Americans. Despite the promises of globalisation, cosmopolitan politics only takes you so far. In an age of nationalism, it is not a good idea to look to outside forces for help with internal problems. While outsiders can, of course, have an influence, they are not part of a partner country’s domestic politics. They have other interests and goals, and their influence on domestic politics will be inconsistent and suspect. They will rarely be an effective tool for sustained domestic transformation or even improved foreign policy relationships.
Regardless of karma’s harshness, could the US really have effectively intervened in Turkish domestic politics during Erdoğan’s early years in power? It could certainly have had an influence, but it is unclear whether early US opposition would have helped or hurt Erdoğan. Looking at US efforts to play domestic politics across the Middle East, it is hard to believe it would have made the situation better. Similarly, Democrats in the US will probably need to turn the public against Trump themselves.
So, I suppose my foreign friends are right in a certain way. I just wish they were less patronising than I was with the Turks.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.