Diplomacy, Democracy, and Deal-making: How Trump Can End the Merkel-Erdogan Dispute

Blaise Misztal is the director of BPC’s national security program.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s visit to the White House on Friday, comes amid an escalating controversy between European countries and Turkey, offers President Trump an opportunity to exercise the art of deal. By brokering an end to this dispute, he can establish his diplomatic bona fides and potentially avert the failure of a strategic partnership.

Superficially at least, the row is about electioneering. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to campaign among Europe’s large Turkish diaspora for constitutional changes that would bestow upon him broad and unchecked executive powers. But Germany and the Netherlands blocked his party from organizing rallies, nominally out of concern for the fate of Turkey’s democracy but also to appeal to populist sentiments ahead of their own elections.

There is more at stake here, however, than electoral outcomes or even German-Turkish relations. The dispute is but a manifestation of a deeper and more troubling issue: Turkey’s status as a member of the West and a strategic partner of the United States.

There is more at stake here, however, than electoral outcomes or even German-Turkish relations.

Turkey’s critical geopolitical position and strong military — the second largest in NATO after our own — have been crucial assets, first in the Cold War and now in the fight against terrorism. But Turkey’s true strength has been its stability, resulting from its incipient, if imperfect, democracy. What the United States offered in return was not just a security guarantee, but the promise that Turkey could become an equal — a full member of the West, part of the European Union.

By mounting an assault on Turkish democracy, Erdoğan is thus not only imperiling Turkey’s stability but also rejecting its Western orientation. The very means by which Erdoğan has sought to secure power — exacerbating social divisions to turn segments of Turkish society against each other, stoking ethnic conflict to fuel demand for a police state, empowering Islamist extremists — have sown the seeds of civil strife.

And the further Erdoğan strays from the values that underpinned the U.S.-Turkish relationship, the further Ankara’s regional interests diverge from those of Washington: supporting al Nusra; turning a blind eye to ISIS; collaborating with Russia; and attacking U.S. partners in Syria. The current dispute has only accelerated this tendency, with Turkey now blocking NATO’s military training with Austria.

Reversing these trends should be a priority for the Trump administration. A Turkey wracked by political unrest will have little ability to stop terrorists transiting to launch attacks against the West, thwart extremists radicalizing and recruiting within Turkey, contain the masses of refugees seeking to make it to Europe or the United States, or to defeat ISIS. A Turkey allied with Moscow, on the other hand, will have little desire to assist the United States with any of these tasks.

Preserving Turkey as a U.S. partner requires preserving space for democracy’s eventual return to Turkey and Turkey’s eventual return to the West. The current diplomatic spat does neither. It only proves to Turks that Europe will never respect them, swinging public opinion in favor of Erdoğan’s autocratic vision.

Preserving Turkey as a U.S. partner requires preserving space for democracy’s eventual return to Turkey

Preserving Turkey as a U.S. partner requires preserving space for democracy’s eventual return to Turkey and Turkey’s eventual return to the West.

Fortunately, President Trump has an excellent opportunity to bring this row to an end.

In 2013, President Obama was able to begin the process of patching a much more deeply broken Turkish-Israeli relationship by pressuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to call Erdoğan. A similar approach could work here.

President Trump should use his meeting with Merkel to urge her to call Erdoğan. To encourage her, the president could point out the hypocrisy of standing up for democracy while impeding the right to free assembly and remind her of the important role Turkey plays in preventing Europe from being flooded with refugees.

The mere fact of the German leader initiating contact will appeal to Erdoğan’s pride and ensure that he picks up. Though Erdoğan might want a public apology, it will be easier, and more productive, for Merkel to promise Erdoğan that the AKP, and every other Turkish political party, is free to organize rallies, pursuant to German law.

But what to ask of Erdoğan in exchange? It might be tempting for President Trump to focus on tactical issues related to the fight against ISIS — urging Turkey to stop its hostilities against U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in the Syrian city of Manbij, for example. This is both unrealistic and unlikely to appeal to Merkel.

At a minimum, the German chancellor will want Erdoğan to stop hurling accusations of Nazism at European leaders. But rather than demanding a public retraction and apology for his most inflammatory statements, a better deal would focus on getting Erdoğan to take actions that would actually address concerns about Turkish democracy.

The release of several high-profile detained journalists, like the dual German-Turkish citizen Deniz Yücel as well as Kadri Gürsel, Mehmet Baransu, and Ahmet Şık, would be a start. Adding to the list imprisoned opposition leaders, like co-chairs of the Peoples’ Democratic Party Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, even if the proposal were to be rejected, would send an even stronger signal to Erdoğan that he has gone too far in silencing dissent.

President Trump and Chancellor Merkel should consider ending this dispute with Turkey an urgent priority. It touches on all the major issues that the U.S. and German leaders will want to discuss: the fight against ISIS; the plight of Syrian refugees; the future of NATO; and Russia’s growing power. A deal that tries to reassure Turkey of its place in the West while pressuring Erdoğan to reverse some of his most draconian measures would not only forestall an irreparable rift in EU-Turkish ties, it could also be the first step in saving the floundering U.S.-Turkish strategic partnership.

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