Is chess really the most appropriate analogy for foreign relations? In a chess match, two players sit quietly together making peaceful moves and countermoves. They take their time and plan their strategy. At the end, a handshake and a “good game” are in order. International relations, on the other hand, could more aptly be compared to a saunter through a minefield in which each step could result in an explosion of some sort—whether literal, economic, verbal, or otherwise. Issues thought long buried can suddenly burst forth. And if you make a mistake, there is no handshake.
The U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship is fraught with challenges. On December 14, 2020, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo released a White House press statement announcing that the United States was imposing economic sanctions on the Republic of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB) for their purchase of a Russian S-400 missile system.
The sanctions fall under Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) (2017), which states that the President must impose certain sanctions on “a person that is part of, or operates for or on behalf of, the defense or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation.”
In compliance with this act, the sanctions leveraged toward Turkey include penalties on U.S. exports and asset freezes and visa restrictions on specific SSB officials, including SSB president Dr. Ismail Demir. These measures had bipartisan support in Congress, which was on the verge of forcing Trump’s hand by mandating the sanctions in the annual defense policy bill.
Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s response in a press release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was immediate: “We condemn and reject the decision to impose unilateral sanctions against Turkey as announced today by the U.S.” The statement characterized the sanctions as “senseless,” “unfair,” and a “grave mistake,” warning that Turkey would “retaliate in a manner and timing it deems appropriate.” Erdogan has sought to increase Turkey’s defense industry dramatically during his presidency, and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated that Turkey will not be reversing its purchase of the Russian S-400.
While the sanctions were imposed only after Turkey tested the missile system, its purchase of the S-400 has been a concern ever since the deal was made in 2017. The US and Turkey are military and diplomatic allies through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was created in 1949 in part to “deter Soviet expansionism . . . and aggression.” The purchase gave American leaders reason to fear Turkey’s greater entanglement with Russia. Not only did the $2.5 billion deal further fund Russia’s military sector, but it also posed a threat to NATO military systems. Russia’s intimate involvement with Turkey in helping them assemble and use the S-400 system created a risk that Russian intelligence would gain substantial information on the inner workings of F-35 warplanes, which Turkey had earlier acquired as part of the American-led global F-35 program.
Turkey was removed from the program in 2019 because of this risk. A White House press statement released in conjunction with Turkey’s expulsion stated that “Turkey has been a longstanding and trusted partner and NATO Ally for over 65 years, but accepting the S-400 undermines the commitments all NATO Allies made to each other to move away from Russian systems.”
It may seem strange that sanctions were imposed after such a long delay, but President Trump’s reluctance to authorize them may be due in part to his relationship with Turkish President Erdogan, which has been marked by unusual familiarity and modes of communication. The two had personal phone calls at a frequency rivaled only by Trump’s calls with Russian president Vladimir Putin. White House aides were instructed to put Erdogan directly through to the President when he called, which was often several times per week.
Trump’s methods have caused some to accuse him of conflating the nation’s interests with his personal interests and others to laud him as a world-class negotiator. Erdogan is said to have used the phone calls as opportunities to bypass typical national security channels and press for policy favors such as preferential trade status and ending US investigations into Erdogan’s possibly illicit dealings with a major Turkish bank. Before a meeting between Trump and Erdogan in 2019, Trump stated “We’ve been very good friends. We’ve been friends for a long time, almost from day one.”
Despite the apparent closeness of the two leaders, the U.S. and Turkey have had a mixed relationship in recent decades. A series of contentious disputes and embargoes since Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974—mostly related to participation in foreign conflicts and military materials—have strained ties between the two countries.
Experts on U.S.-Turkey relations have speculated over whether Turkey—an emerging middle-power country with a relatively strong economy and strategic access to global markets—could be a potential business partner for major American companies that seek to decrease their dependence on China by moving operations and supply chains elsewhere.
The sanctions—while not unexpected by Erdogan—have put an additional strain on U.S.-Turkey relations for President Joe Biden, who was already on somewhat unstable ground with Ankara. Video footage of Biden from 2016 brought to Turkey’s attention last August caused an uproar, as he called Erdogan an “autocrat” and openly pushed for Erdogan’s defeat in an election.
Additional negative feelings towards Biden may linger from his days as Vice President, when he and President Barack Obama militarily supported the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which Erdogan labeled a terror organization. Biden has spoken against Turkey regarding the Kurds, the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, “provocative” actions in Greece, and the conversion of Hagia Sophia into a mosque—and Turkish news sources have noticed.
It is likely that Biden’s relationship with the Republic of Turkey will differ greatly from Trump’s, fraught with the same challenges and conflicts, but devoid of the close friendship and frequent use of atypical channels to smooth things over. Amid landmines of ongoing challenges in the Middle East, increasing irredentism, and human rights violations, President Biden will need to tread carefully, using diplomacy to balance the importance of preserving good relations abroad with the necessity of protecting American interests and speaking against blatant wrongdoing.
It is worth pausing and reflecting in gratitude that “conflict” between the U.S. and Turkey is economic and verbal in nature, and that both nations remain committed to negotiations rather than weapons. As President Dwight Eisenhower astutely put it, “The world must learn to work together, or finally it will not work at all.” Learning to get along on a global scale is an ongoing process, and the sanctions against Turkey are just the latest piece of the complex, sensitive puzzle that is international relations.
Caelan Elliott is a junior University Scholar studying literature, political science, and music. She also works as a research assistant to the Dean of the Honors College and competes in Model United Nations. If she goes missing, check the best local bookshops, the nearest campgrounds and hiking trails, or the most aesthetic piano practice room.