Since the Cold War’s end, almost every American president has entered office promising to focus on domestic issues, only to have the realities of the world intrude. For George H.W. Bush, it was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. For Bill Clinton, the crisis came in the Balkans. George W. Bush faced the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and Barack Obama went from “ending stupid wars” to involving the United States militarily in both Libya and Syria. That Donald Trump was an exception was due more to strategic confusion and a desire to appease autocrats than a lack of threats. Unfortunately, for Joe Biden, this means he will faces crises that have festered and metathesized for four years.
Americans may identify China, Russia, North Korea and Iran as their top foreign challenges, but the test Biden most likely will have to confront early in his term is the growing challenge Turkey poses to international law, security and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. Indulgence of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by both Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the former because of ignorance and the latter out of fear, has only emboldened Erdogan to see his adversaries as weak, stake out more extreme positions, and increase aggression throughout the region.
Four years ago, Turkey only occupied northern Cyprus. Erdogan and aides like Egemin Bagıs (now Turkey’s ambassador to the Czech Republic) threatened the Cypriot government’s efforts to tap its offshore gas reserves but in practice did little. Now Turkish naval vessels regularly harass Cypriot and international shipping in Cypriot waters, Turkish seismic exploration ships violate Cypriot and Greek waters, and Turks have moved into Varosha, a resort town from which they expelled Greek owners decades ago.
That is only the tip of the iceberg. Turkish warplanes and naval vessels threaten Kastellorizo, and Turkey now lays claim to Crete’s waters. Turkish and Turkish-backed forces also invaded and have ethnically cleansed Syria’s Afrin district, and they have effectively annexed other towns in northern Syria. In Iraq, Turkish warplanes bomb Yezidi villagers in the Sinjar district, a region already traumatized by the Islamic State. Turkey has also sent Syrian mercenaries, including some associated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, into Libya and Azerbaijan, and has used its own special forces to fight Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan openly questions the legitimacy of the Lausanne Treaty. Simply put, Erdogan’s hostility to his neighbors’ sovereignty and the post-World War II liberal order puts him in the company of Vladimir Putin and Slobodan Milosevic rather than any European democratic leader. As Turkey’s economy flounders, Erdogan will likely only ratchet up both his polemics and aggression to distract Turks from the disaster that has been his economic stewardship.
It is this dynamic that will likely force Biden to focus more directly on the Eastern Mediterranean. It is here that, beyond the partisan discord that today marks Washington, DC, Biden can build on the legacy left behind by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The strategic dialogue with Greece and Cyprus will continue under Biden. Pompeo’s partial lifting of the military embargo on Cyprus made headlines but, in practice, it was more symbolic than substantive. Biden, however, can give it substance and provide the equipment and technology Cyprus needs to defend itself. Expect Souda Bay to become a well-known name in the United States, as familiar to Americans as Ramstein Air Base or Okinawa is.
Trump’s indulgence of Erdogan allowed the Turkish leader to escape accountability for his actions. Erdogan believed that Congress and the US judiciary did not matter. He counted on Trump to block sanctions or cut deals to short-circuit court cases. Biden’s team will have no tolerance for such actions. Turkey or Turkish institutions will face sanctions for Erdogan’s dealings with Russia and Turkish banks’ financial irregularities. Ironically, while Turkey might have more easily absorbed these under Trump, the fragility of Turkey’s economy today will amplify their impact. Erdogan might complain, but only a dwindling number of congressmen will listen. Twenty years ago, the Turkish Embassy was almost as influential as Germany’s or France’s; today, it is about as influential as Malawi’s or Mauritania’s.
A diplomatic and economic collision is nearing. Erdogan will test Biden in the Eastern Mediterranean. He may see in Biden an old man past his prime, but he should not underestimate the determination of the new president and his broader team to hold firm. If only Trump or Obama had acted similarly, the danger in the Eastern Mediterranean might never have gotten so severe.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.