Opinion | International

Biden should remind Erdogan of NATO's basic tenets and values

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On Monday, President Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will finally have their first in-person meeting, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels. The Biden administration has set the ground well for the meeting by studiously limiting Erdogan's access to the White House in marked contrast to its last occupant. Biden should use this opportunity to warn Erdogan that his rejection of transatlantic values and the spoiler role he plays within NATO hurt the security and welfare of not only the alliance but also Turkey and its citizens.

In his first major foreign policy address as president, Biden vowed to repair alliances, push back against "advancing authoritarianism," and reclaim America's "credibility and moral authority." Soon after, Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed Biden by pledging to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy. Biden's upcoming meeting with Erdogan presents the Biden administration the perfect opportunity to put these promises into action.

Erdogan, who enjoys a close rapport with Russian President Vladimir Putin, remains a disruptive force within NATO. The Washington Post broke the news on May 26 that Ankara used its veto power to water down NATO's official condemnation of Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko, who illegally forced down a passenger plane to arrest Roman Protasevich, a dissident journalist on board. Turkey reportedly also blocked punitive steps for which Baltic allies and Poland had pressed and even prevented calls for the release of political prisoners in Belarus.

The Turkish president's rush to protect Lukashenko is only the latest example of Erdogan coming to the Kremlin's aid by softening NATO's actions against Russian threats. Ankara similarly watered down the wording of an April 15 statement expressing solidarity with the United States over Russia's cyberattacks on U.S. government agencies and an April 22 statement voicing concern over Russian military intelligence's blowing up of ammunition storage depots in the Czech Republic in 2014. The Erdogan government also blocked a NATO defense plan for the Baltic states and Poland for over six months.

Besides reminding Erdogan that Russia is one of the key adversaries from which NATO serves to protect its members, Biden should also stress the widespread concern within the transatlantic alliance and the bipartisan anger within the U.S. Congress about Turkey's purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia. Biden can also remind him that the presence of the S-400s and their radars in a NATO country can potentially enable Russia and other adversaries to gain valuable intelligence helpful for shooting down F-35s, the cutting-edge fighter jet flown in the region by Americans and their allies.

Biden should also highlight human security and the importance of rule of law. Turkey's chief prosecutor recently submitted a second indictment intended to shutter the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), the country's second largest opposition party. Scores of HDP lawmakers, mayors, city councilors, and party officials, including its former co-leader and presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtas remain in prison on spurious political charges.

The Biden administration set the right tone in February when the State Department released its first statement on Turkey by demanding the release of Osman Kavala - Turkey's leading philanthropist held in solitary confinement for over three years on farcical grounds - and resolution of the baseless case against former State Department official Henri Barkey, who is being tried in absentia as an accomplice of Kavala.

Biden should call for the release of two locally employed staff of the U.S. Department of State who are currently in either home detention or jailed on baseless terrorism charges. During her recent visit, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met with and thanked the U.S. and Turkish staff of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara. By raising Turkish authorities' ongoing legal harassment of U.S. diplomatic personnel, Biden would bolster Sherman's message as well as the morale of the diplomatic corps.

Biden should use this opportunity to remind Erdogan that freedom of religion or belief is one of the central tenets of transatlantic values. Turkish authorities expelled 30 Protestant faith leaders in 2020 and 35 the year before, and even started deporting foreign spouses of Turkish Protestant clergy, hoping to drive out Turkish Protestants, who do not want the state to separate them from their families. Finally, Biden should echo the strongly-worded condemnations from the State Department as well as the House and Senate Bipartisan Task Forces for Combating Antisemitism to convey to Erdogan that the anti-Semitic statements he made last month have no place in NATO or the civilized world, for that matter. 

Biden has time and again reiterated his commitment to a human rights-centered foreign and security policy conducted in coordination with allies. The U.S. president's upcoming meeting with his Turkish counterpart, NATO's leading spoiler who hinders multilateralism, will put this pledge to the test.

Biden should make it clear that the United States will stand its ground when it comes to defending the integrity of NATO and remain in solidarity with pro-democracy forces in Turkey and beyond since the Alliance is - and must remain - not only a collective defense organization but a community of values.

Eric Edelman, a career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey (2003-2005), is a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (@FDD). He also serves - with 137 others - on the advisory council of Justice for Kurds, a New York-based nonprofit created to defend the Kurdish people.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir

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