The “reset” with Washington that Turkish officials have been anticipating under the Biden administration is happening—just not with the concessions that Ankara had hoped for. Instead, after just weeks in office, President Joe Biden has dramatically changed the tone of the relationship by emphasizing concerns not only with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s foreign policies, but also with his increasingly authoritarian rule. Early signs suggest that Biden and his team recognize that Turkey’s actions in both spheres matter to U.S. interests, and that Turkey’s drift from its NATO allies and its severe democratic backsliding are fundamentally connected.

NATO, whose defense ministers convene February 17-18 via teleconference, should follow Biden’s approach. Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Turkey poses a security challenge for the alliance with its troubling foreign policy moves. But the regime that Erdoğan is building in Turkey is also an affront to the alliance’s core principles of “individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”

In the past decade, as Erdoğan has amassed power, eroded democratic institutions, and repressed the rights of Turkish citizens, he also has made Turkey a less reliable, more troubling member of NATO. Especially since the 2016 coup attempt, for which Erdoğan’s government baselessly blames the United States, Erdoğan and his far-right political partners have accelerated their project of decoupling Turkish foreign policy from Turkey’s traditional allies and undermining its relationship with key Western institutions like NATO, the European Union, and the European Court of Human Rights. Ankara’s defiant 2017 purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system is a prime example, but it’s only one of many rifts between Turkey and NATO. Erdoğan’s unapologetic propagation of anti-American and anti-European conspiracy theories and blatant military and diplomatic threats against NATO allies are among the unnerving trends.

Erdoğan’s reorientation of Turkish foreign policy has paralleled his major shift away from democracy at home. In recent years, Erdoğan has all but hollowed out institutions such as the parliament and judiciary and taken over the country’s independent media. Through major constitutional amendments to centralize his power, he has created a system with very few checks and balances. Turkey has unjustly detained thousands of politicians, journalists, academics, civil society leaders, and ordinary citizens—as well as U.S. and European citizens—on politically motivated charges. In recent days, mass arrests have swept up members of the pro-Kurdish HDP, the second-largest opposition party in parliament. No one outside of Erdoğan’s close circle can freely criticize his domestic repression or influence his foreign policy decisions. As long as the Turkish government continues to prosecute as terrorist sympathizers elected politicians, academics, and artists who peacefully oppose Erdoğan’s wars in Syria and elsewhere, Turkey cannot maintain healthy, cooperative relationships with its neighbors.

There are encouraging indications that the Biden administration already understands the dual challenge of Erdoğan’s aggression abroad and at home. The readout of Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s call on Monday with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu emphasized, alongside security cooperation, the “importance of democratic institutions, inclusive governance, and respect for human rights.” The White House readout of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s recent call with the European Commission Head of Cabinet Bjoern Seibert strikingly referred to Turkey, along with China, as an area of “mutual concern.” And the readout of his call with Turkish counterpart not only mentioned the S-400s issue and other foreign policy irritants, but pointedly noted that Sullivan had underscored America’s “commitment to supporting democratic institutions and the rule of law.” In the past few weeks, as Secretary Blinken and Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield have been sending messages to Ankara that the U.S. administration stands firm on its policy on the S-400s, the State Department has issued a flurry of statements condemning the Turkish government for violence against protestors at Boğaziçi University, verbal attacks on LGBTQ people, unjust prosecutions of a civil society leader and an American citizen, and propagation of conspiracies about the United States.

Bolstering the new tone in Washington, in a remarkable letter last week 54 senators called on the Biden administration to “emphasize” to Turkey’s leaders that they “should immediately end their crackdown on dissent at home and abroad, release political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, and reverse their authoritarian course.” All these moves send a clear message about the expanding scope of U.S. concerns regarding Turkey.

NATO, too, should start treating Turkey’s antidemocratic trajectory and the anti-Western dimensions of its foreign policy as interlinked. The alliance is nothing if not a club of like-minded states trying to defend common values against a common threat. The common values are democracy and the rules-based international order. And the threats include authoritarian regimes like Russia that reject that order. When important member states like Turkey move further away from NATO’s goals and core principles, the alliance weakens. Figuring out exactly how to address this problem will not be easy. But as a start, Turkey’s NATO partners should make it clear to Erdoğan that his contempt for democracy, the rule of law, and human rights—and not just his foreign policy choices—significantly damage Turkey’s standing in the alliance.


Merve Tahiroğlu is POMED’s Turkey Program Coordinator. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.

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