The incoming Biden Administration ushers in a new era for Greece-Turkey relations


When it appeared certain that the scales of the US presidential election of November 3rd, 2020, were tipping in favor of Joe Biden, there began to appear a wave of news stories, particularly in the Greek daily and weekly press, inviting readers to view the significance of the Democratic candidate’s electoral victory through a “harshly realistic” lens, “harboring no illusions”. The underlying argument of these stories, which is becoming the dominant position among international affairs opinion writers, is that Greeks must not have high expectations from the US President-elect  in relation to any improvement in the turbulent Greece-Turkey relations, as we did with President-elect Carter in 1976 for the resolution of the Cyprus problem, only to be proven wrong. It is true that Biden will no longer have the “special relationship” that the outgoing US President maintained with Turkish President Erdogan, but his election is not going to radically shift the US position to the detriment of Turkey and the benefit of Greece. A country’s international relations are not shaped by politicians’ personal preferences, but by narrowly defined national interests – and American interests are certain to continue to favor Turkey due to its major strategic significance in the Eastern Mediterranean region.

US Elections 2020

I would like to deviate, in part, from this dominant perception, by highlighting certain aspects that I anticipate will play an important role in US-Turkey relations and, consequently, in Greece-Turkey relations, and which will raise problems for Turkey. I have four points. Firstly, very soon Turkey will have to stop  ‘playing both sides’, and instead will be called upon to clarify its ambiguous relationship with Russia, considering that the Euro-Atlantic axis, which suffered greatly during the Trump Administration, is now making a strong comeback. Secondly, the new axes of strategic alliances in the Middle East are not only forming but appear to be consolidating, and we are seeing Turkey clearly distancing itself from the axis that represents US interests, and which includes, from east to west, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. Thirdly, the Erdogan regime’s political, religious, and ideological attachment to the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, and its enmity towards the Kurds , will further reduce Turkey’s diplomatic capital in the West as a whole (the US and Europe). And fourthly, the incoming Biden Administration’s turn towards multilateralism and respect for international institutions and agreements will de facto favor Greece, to the extent that it develops a narrative of soft power based on liberal western values.

The first and likely the most important factor that should be considered for a proper understanding of the impact that the change of administration in the US will have on Greece-Turkey relations is Turkey’s undermining stance within NATO, due to its strong strategic ‘courting’ of Putin’s Russia. Ever since relations were restored between these two regional powers, following the shooting down of a Russian warplane by Turkish fire over Syria in 2015, Russia and Turkey have been moving between controlled conflicts of interest and, at the same time, common alignment against Western interests, under the completely indifferent gaze of the outgoing US President. This has become apparent by the overt and flagrant military interventions by Turkey in Syria, Libya, and on the side of the Azeri at Nagorno Karabakh, and by the strong verbal confrontation with French President Macron and accommodation of the Islamist terrorists of Hamas, in the name of a neo-Ottoman agenda of self-proclaimed “protection” of Suni populations both in Europe and in Muslim countries from Libya to the Gulf nations. Russian President Putin has exploited Erdogan’s Islamist-nationalist megalomania with apparent relish, since his fixed strategic position is that anything causing fractures within the Western camp, and especially within NATO, is good for Russian interests.

But the Turkish President’s arrogance, which was fanned by Donald Trump because of his own hostility towards NATO, the EU, and multilateral and international institutions in general, appeared to cross a line a few weeks ago, when Turkey decided to ignore strong exhortations by the US Congress and the American diplomatic and political elite and proceeded with testing its Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missiles in the Black Sea. The US Congress reacted immediately, and with noteworthy bipartisan agreement, demanding in a resolution that immediate sanctions be imposed on Turkey based on the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), since it is unacceptable for a NATO member state to activate incompatible weapons systems in its territory, with the added risk of electronic theft of vital military intel by rival forces (in this case, the Russians). But outgoing President Trump (who signed CAATSA in 2017 but expressed strong reservations about it being “seriously flawed”) has persistently refused to sign an executive order to activate a list of sanctions against the Erdogan regime. President-elect Biden, who said to a New York Times journalist that “the Turkish president is an autocrat, and we should support opposition leadership so that he can be voted out by means of legal elections”, has no reason not to proceed with imposing sanctions, after he first makes an effort to fully align Turkey with the Euro-Atlantic axis and to compel it to abandon its unspoken but very active strategic alliance with Russia. However, such a total and unreserved about-face by Turkey would be extremely unlikely on the part of Erdogan, considering he is the one primarily responsible for the pervasive atmosphere of strong anti-Americanism and anti-Europeanism that has been propagated both among his voters and among the voters of the far-right Nationalist Action Party of Devlet Bahçeli, Erdogan’s government ally. Furthermore, Erdogan’s recent rhetorical overtures to the European Union are shallow, dishonest, and clearly opportunistic, as they were made solely to forestall financial sanctions and out of need for financial support for the faltering Turkish economy, and consequently they will not amount to anything nor will they be taken seriously by the main western allies of the EU and NATO. But supposing that Erdogan did decide tomorrow to genuinely reverse his agenda, abandoning the confrontational rhetoric and practices against western nations – this would automatically place him in a standoff with Bahçeli and the Gray Wolves that the latter represents. They would never accept  this relaxation of the nationalistic fervor, or the radical retraction of autocratic policies that result in violations of the rule of law and human rights of political dissidents and religious minorities. This, in turn, would lead to an immediate government crisis, which could prove fatal for Erdogan’s career and perhaps even for his freedom. Consequently, the Turkish president is strategically trapped, and the case of the S-400 missiles could prove the catalyst that will reveal this impasse after the Biden Administration takes over. Greece, on the other hand, is the only power in the Eastern Mediterranean, besides Israel, that the US knows it can rely on in any situation, as it has carefully established an exceptionally successful relationship with its American allies that is cloudless and free of surprises or feared reversals. This could provide valuable political and military capital if Turkey should slip.  

Turkey’s rhetoric and warmongering tactics may appear to be yielding short-term benefits, such as in Nagorno Karabakh, but Erdogan and the Turkish military are well aware that Greece is not Armenia, or Libya, or Syria – it is a member state of NATO, the EU, and the Eurozone, with continuously expanding bilateral relations with the US which, as mentioned above, provide significant political capital. The development and gradual implementation of a new and, until recently, unthought-of strategy of alliances in the region between the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece shall reach its full potential under Biden, eliminating the strategic gaps, internal discord and enmity which plagued the West under Trump, and which resulted in the fate of Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Caucasus being decided in direct negotiations between Putin and Erdogan. This strategic gap will soon be a thing of the past, as the traditional liberal establishment that will accompany the incoming US President will begin revealing its intentions and growing in strength. Erdogan’s cynical, opportunistic balancing act will be extremely curtailed, though this does not mean that the US will intervene militarily in favor of Greece or to deescalate the situation following a possible heated episode in the Eastern Mediterranean or the Aegean Sea. Certainly, the projection of military deterrence in service of securing legitimate Greek interests founded on international law resides and will continue to reside with Greece, but the strategic frame of reference of pro-Western forces in the region is already changing radically and will continue to change against Turkey, as the Turkish president will soon have to realize. In this emerging setting, following Biden’s election win, Greece is on the right side.

Erdogan’s religious obsession with the Muslim Brotherhood Islamists and his primary aim, which is none other than to radically reorient Turkish society away from Kemal-style pro-western secularization and towards Sultan-style Islamic governance - will also cause setbacks for Turkey and, consequently, benefits for Greece under Biden’s Administration. The incoming US President has proven, after years as the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and as Vice President of the United States, that he knows how to remain steady when vital interests of the US and of its unwavering allies are at stake. For example, Biden was also supportive of the Kurds, as a key ally in combatting Islamist and nihilistic terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia. The continuation of Turkey’s purging operations beyond its borders will bring new friction and tensions with the Americans, after the sad and shameful episode of their withdrawal from Syria following Trump’s decision, which resulted in leaving the field wide open for a blood bath against the Kurds, perpetrated by the darkest and most barbaric forces on earth whom Turkey uses without hesitation as mercenaries in all the theaters of military operations it has been involved in in recent years (Syria, Libya, Nagorno Karabakh). In such a setting of escalating tensions, Greece will shine as a pillar of stability and as a safe harbor that will offer protection to US and Western interests against Islamic radicalism.

Finally, the Biden Administration’s expected return to multilateralism and respect for international institutions and agreements on matters that may not pertain directly to America’s core sovereign rights but will certainly be high on the new President’s list of political priorities, such as energy, climate change, and peace in the Middle East through the “taming” of Iran, will de facto benefit Greece and the narrative of soft power that it has been gradually constructing for years as an EU and NATO member state and as a country with good and consensus-oriented neighborly relations with all other countries in its region (with the obvious exception of Turkey). At the same time, this development will alienate, in the eyes of the Americans and other Westerners, the tactic of projecting tough and unilateral military strength by a revisionist and Islamist-nationalist Turkish regime, which is being increasingly perceived as a threat by the primary actors in the region’s security, such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.

In short, with the gradual healing of wounds in US-Europe relations, inflicted by Trump’s raw protectionism and nationalism, and with the emergence of a more traditional American foreign policy focused on solid values and steady and predictable allies, Turkey will be held accountable for its actions, as Germany’s Greens Party has been calling for with unique forthrightness and a sense of political morality. Turkey under Erdogan is no longer a NATO partner, nor a potential partner in any future enlargement of the EU. It is now a permanent source of revisionism and radicalism and, as such, a permanent source of problems. Against such an agent of risk to international security, a policy of continued appeasement, much like the policy that the German government unfortunately continues to adopt towards the Erdogan regime, can no longer be tolerated without all of us at some point paying the price for it. Turkey has become emboldened after years of “benevolent neutrality” – essentially, indirect support – by the outgoing American President, and it has proven that it only understands the language of force. At this point, it is necessary to activate a wide range of measures, such as those cited by Greens politician Jürgen Trittin in an interview with “Kathimerini” newspaper 1 : from suspending the customs union and freezing exports insurance, to sanctions against persons involved in violating the arms embargo in Libya. The change in the US stance under Biden may help the German government, which is steadily orientated to its Euro-Atlantic accession and the US-Germany alliance, to shed its reservations against a Turkey that is directly challenging the sovereign rights of two EU member states, Greece and Cyprus, so far with complete impunity. Greece is not and will not ever be a threatening force against anyone. But it can certainly play the part of facilitating for Turkey a smooth transition to a prospect of stability, respect for international law, and honestly cordial relations between it and the West (US and EU).