Ivo Daalder, the president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and former US ambassador to NATO, and James Lindsay, the senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, begin their 2018 book “The Empty Throne” with a quote by Winston Churchill:
“One cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes. If this had been proved in the past as it has been, it will become indisputable in the future. The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.”
Daalder and Lindsay critique the Trump administration’s abdication of global leadership, cataloguing a myriad of foreign policy errors that undermine the post-World War II order. In 2020, another charge can be added to the bill of indictment against American foreign policy: The United States has gone missing in action in the Eastern Mediterranean.
For those who respond: “So what?”, remember that the US Navy was permanently established in response to piracy in the Mediterranean. One of the great successes of the US during the Cold War was effectively locking the Soviets out of the Mediterranean. Key American allies and strategic partners are on both sides of the Mediterranean basin, important US bases are in the sea, American energy companies are involved in the new great game in the region. Threats to US leadership – from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, to Russian influence, to global terrorism – are playing out in the Eastern Mediterranean as well.
Despite the US’s global retreat, there was – and still is – reason for the Eastern Mediterranean to play out differently. The high point reached in the bilateral relationship with Greece – and the constantly improving relationship with Cyprus – enables Washington to rely on a wider array of partners. The Trump administration has particularly close relations with Israel and with the United Arab Emirates. Many of the US’s allies and partners in the region – Greece, Israel, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Jordan, the UAE – are collaborating on diplomatic and security fronts. Congress has re-emphasized the region with the overwhelmingly bipartisan Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act.
This rapidly integrating pro-Western alliance gives Washington a grouping of reliable and predictable partners that could help counter threats to US interests globally. Instead, all of these countries have to deal with the rogue state-like behavior of another US ally – Turkey. Unfortunately, the US is enabling Turkey at exactly the wrong time.
The mixed signals coming out of Washington make a joke out of the idea that the US is deterring or discouraging destabilizing behavior out of Ankara. It seems that each time helpful rhetoric comes out of the administration, it is followed by President Donald Trump reminding the world of his personal affinity for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. When Ankara ignores American officials who publicly urge more responsible behavior, the administration just adjusts its expectations downward. The case of Hagia Sophia is illustrative here. The US went from Secretary Mike Pompeo and International Religious Freedom Ambassador Sam Brownback strongly urging Turkey not to convert Hagia Sophia to tepidly asking Ankara to make sure it remains accessible to all. And any time Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt makes a statement that indicates the US is backing Greece, David Satterfield trips over himself to appease his hosts in Ankara.
Most importantly, it is not lost on Erdogan that the Trump administration has gone out of its way to not hold him accountable despite new tools that it has in its arsenal. The continued foot-dragging on CAATSA sanctions – despite bipartisan calls for it in Congress – and on the Halkbank case encourages Turkey to believe that it can win the long game in Washington. Imagine if Congress had not been so resolute on the F-35s, on the Eastern Mediterranean Security and Energy Partnership Act, or on constantly demanding that CAATSA be applied to Turkey.
Joe Biden’s campaign must offer more as well. There are many reasons to believe that a President Biden would be tougher on Turkey than President Trump is, but the campaign’s silence in the face of a potential shooting conflict within NATO is inexplicable. January 2021 will be too late for the Biden prediction of “we will be back” to come true if the worst-case scenario plays out in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Holding Turkey accountable has become more urgent than ever. At a minimum, both the administration and the Biden campaign must signal the willingness to act. Declaring that Turkey has violated CAATA and starting to detail potential sanctions would be a good start. Anything less will ensure that there will be no throne – not that of leader, not of honest broker, or even of referee – for the US to return to in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Endy Zemenides is executive director of the Hellenic American Leadership Council.