Disagreement over a jailed pastor has devolved into a personal fight between two strongmen, adding significant strain to relations between Turkey and the United States. These like-minded leaders should empower their diplomats to find a way forward before they inflict lasting damage on bilateral ties.
The relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and American President Donald Trump began well, with the men bonding over their shared dislike of Barack Obama. Erdoğan hoped Trump would reverse unpopular Obama-era policies: namely, American military support for a faction of Syrian Kurds (allied to a Kurdish terrorist organization in Turkey) in the fight against the Islamic State, and American refusal to extradite Islamic cleric and accused coup-plotter Fetullah Gülen without compelling evidence. Notwithstanding the improprieties of Michael Flynn—a former lobbyist for the Turkish government who served briefly as Trump’s national security advisor—the new administration did not deviate significantly from existing policies. However, senior officials in the State Department and Defense Department worked hard over the last year to address some irritants and restrained congressional calls for a tougher stance.
The two leaders developed a solid rapport, free from criticism of irksome rule-of-law issues. Trump invited Erdoğan to the White House less than four months after taking office. He gave the Turkish president “very high marks” during a September 2017 meeting at the United Nations, suggesting the countries were “as close as we’ve ever been” due largely to “a personal relationship.” He fist-bumped Erdoğan at July’s NATO summit and praised him for “doing things the right way” on defense spending. The warm feelings were reciprocated. At the White House, Erdoğan described Trump’s election win as a “legendary victory” and at the U.N. meeting referred to “my dear friend Donald.”
The presidential connection soured in recent weeks amid a standoff over Andrew Brunson, an American pastor imprisoned in Turkey for nearly two years on spurious terrorism charges. Erdoğan recognized Brunson’s utility as a negotiating pawn and engaged in “hostage diplomacy,” telling Trump last fall that he would exchange one cleric for another: Brunson for Gülen. Motivated by the growing outcry among evangelicals in the Republican base (including Vice President Mike Pence), Trump has made Brunson’s return the defining issue of the relationship. Meanwhile, Erdoğan is trying to negotiate an advantageous deal—reportedly concerning American action against a Turkish bank accused of violating U.S. sanctions on Iran.
American diplomats were quietly working on Brunson’s case…until Trump became directly involved.
American diplomats were quietly working on Brunson’s case (as well as advocating on behalf of other imprisoned Americans and three Turkish employees of U.S. consulates) until Trump became directly involved. He did a favor for Erdoğan by securing the release of a Turkish national being held in Israel, and then felt personally betrayed when Brunson was not freed in return. Trump tweeted that “Turkey has taken advantage of the United States for many years,” as his administration slapped human rights sanctions on two government ministers and doubled tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum imports. In response, Erdoğan described U.S. sanctions as “unacceptable, irrational, and ultimately detrimental to our longstanding friendship” in a New York Times op-ed, threatened to find new friends and allies, and imposed reciprocal measures.
The bilateral relationship, which was already strained by Turkish accusations of Washington’s lack of sensitivity to its security concerns and American doubts about Ankara’s loyalty to NATO given its purchase of Russian military equipment, is reaching an inflection point. Its future has become largely dependent on a battle of wills and egos between leaders with strikingly similar worldviews.
Deep state concerns: Both leaders are suspicious of a “deep state” threatening their power. In Turkey’s case, this refers to a network of civilian and military authorities that sought to defend their vision of the secular, nationalist ideals espoused by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk upon the country’s founding in 1923. Functioning as a shadow government, it regularly used legal as well as extra-legal means (including coups) to intervene against administrations that did not share its values. Incidentally, Erdoğan collaborated with Gülen to purge such officials before the erstwhile allies turned on each other. Trump’s supporters have applied this term to non-partisan civil servants perceived to be thwarting the president’s policy agenda. (Although some officials have undoubtedly sought to defend national values via institutional channels, Turkey experts reject the comparison with the shadowy network that actually existed in Ankara.)
Family ties: Both men are scrappy outsiders who were never fully accepted by establishment elites. Given their desire for loyalty, both presidents have empowered their sons-in-law—notably over their businessmen sons. Berat Albayrak, who is married to Erdoğan’s daughter Esra, is currently minister of finance and treasury—a critical position given the precarious state of the Turkish economy—and is seen by many as Erdoğan’s heir-apparent. Trump has employed his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner in the White House, with Kushner given an ever-expanding portfolio of high profile issues.
Speaking of government jobs, they each made the unique decision to elevate military officers to civilian roles. Erdoğan appointed Army General Hulusi Akar, the former chief of staff, as defense minister—the first time a civilian government has picked an active-duty commander. Trump selected retired Marine Corps General James Mattis as defense secretary. (This required a legislative waiver given laws stipulating defense secretaries cannot have been on active duty in the previous seven years, an exception previously granted only for General George Marshall in 1950.)
Dislike of interest rates: The two men hold similar economic views. Erdoğan, who described interest rates as the “mother and father of all evil” and believes that low interest rates lead to low inflation, spooked investors during a May trip to London by pledging to tighten control over the central bank. Two months later, Trump broke with long-standing practice by criticizing the Federal Reserve for raising rates: “I don’t like all of this work that we’re putting into the economy and then I see rates going up.” Markets reacted negatively in both cases. In addition, both are heavily reliant on debt: It was how Trump built his real estate fortune, while Erdoğan bankrolled the country’s economic boom with foreign financing. They also share an interest in running their countries like corporations, with Erdoğan moving a step closer last week by issuing a presidential decree that made him chairman of Turkey’s sovereign wealth fund.
Love of rallies: Both leaders are presiding over deeply divided countries, with citizens either loving or loathing them—with notable divisions between admiring rural constituencies and more skeptical urban dwellers. Trump regularly holds campaign-style rallies to energize the base and demonize his opponents. Erdoğan does similar events, with the added flair of once appearing as a hologram.
Dislike of protests: Neither leader has much patience for protests. Trump has described protesters as “thugs,” “paid” actors, “disrupters,” “anarchists,” and “anti-police agitators.” Erdoğan has called them “hooligans,” “communist deviants,” and “terrorists.” Trump has blocked critical Twitter users, suggested those who burn the American flag should lose their citizenship or spend a year in jail, called on NFL owners to fire players who knelt during the national anthem, and said “it’s embarrassing for the country to allow protesters” after demonstrations at a congressional hearing. In Turkey, the government has periodically shut down social media sites, severely curtailed freedom of expression under the post-coup state of emergency, and used violence against protesters on American soil during Erdoğan’s visit in May 2017.
They are no more tolerant of criticism from political opponents. Trump regularly attacks critics, including senators in his own party, and has called for Hillary Clinton to be jailed. In Turkey, the consequences are more severe than a Twitter lashing: one parliamentarian from the secular party was sentenced to nearly a year in prison for insulting Erdoğan in a speech, another was convicted on espionage charges, and the leader of the main opposition Kurdish party, nine Kurdish legislators, and dozens of Kurdish party officials remain imprisoned on dubious terrorism charges.
Dislike of free media: Relatedly, the leaders are hostile to unfavorable media coverage. Trump has repeatedly called the press the “enemy of the people,” described critical stories as “fake news,” and challenged the broadcast license of NBC News (although regulators note they license individual stations but not networks). The opportunities for negative coverage have been drastically reduced in Turkey, the world’s top jailer of journalists, with numerous outlets shuttered after the coup and the last major independent media firm sold to a pro-government business this spring. This has not stopped Erdoğan from blaming “economic terrorists on social media” for the lira’s depreciation.
Dislike of independent judiciary: There is no love lost for the judiciary either. Trump has repeatedly attacked judges and court decisions: He contested the impartiality of a judge given his “Mexican heritage,” argued those who cross the border illegally should be returned “with no judges or court cases,” and criticized the Justice Department for bringing criminal charges against Republican congressmen before mid-term elections. In Turkey, judicial independence has been significantly curtailed in recent years: Over 4,000 judges and prosecutors were dismissed after the attempted coup, while recent constitutional reforms empowered the president to appoint senior judges and other judicial officials without parliamentary review.
The clash between Trump and Erdoğan highlights the dangers when strongmen disagree with one another, placing personal politics over national interests. (The Turkish experience is also a cautionary tale in how democracies can succumb to authoritarian tendencies, with the United States still benefiting from strong institutions that provide a check on presidential power.) The like-minded inclinations of these leaders will make it difficult to resolve the current conflict, which has become deeply personal (although both have refrained from targeting the other directly), unhelpfully elevated to presidential level, and subject to intense media interest. Both leaders are using the Brunson spat for domestic purposes: Trump is appealing to his evangelical base before mid-term elections and has inadvertently given Erdoğan a convenient way to explain the already struggling Turkish economy to his citizens. Neither leader wants to show weakness or inability to negotiate a good deal.
At this stage, the most effective means of solving this dispute would be delegating to diplomats who can engage in a dispassionate way and find face-saving measures for both sides. (It would help to have an American ambassador in Ankara, a post that has been vacant for nearly a year.) A court date in mid-October has raised hopes that Ankara could be preparing to release Brunson; however, there are concerns an impatient Trump could scupper these efforts by imposing more punitive measures beforehand. Beyond Brunson, the sides still need to address several challenging issues: the conflict in Syria (including the prevention of a humanitarian disaster in Idlib), Turkish plans to purchase Russian military equipment, and American plans to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Absent a diplomatic solution to the current standoff, a fight to the death between two strongmen could hinder the achievement of U.S. priorities in the region and irreparably damage the bilateral relationship for years to come.