There are limits to how tough Washington can get with Ankara, according to author and US foreign policy expert Robert Kagan. Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and has been a leading voice of American neoconservatism for the past two decades. Ahead of his appearance next month at the Delphi Economic Forum, he also explains in this exclusive interview with Kathimerini why we are living through a “dangerous period” in US-China relations and why – despite the persistent influence of Donald Trump – he sees a return to normal in the politics of American foreign policy.
Kagan explains the dilemma he sees facing Washington – and the West more generally – in dealing with Turkey: “In the greater Middle East today you have a situation that looks an awful lot like a 19th century Great Game: Russia is fully involved in Libya and Syria, Turkey is acting independently of NATO, there’s Iran, the Gulf states, Israel, a little bit of China… This means that many potential partners are problematic. But if the US has interests and responsibilities in this region – which I believe is the view of the Biden administration – they have to choose to work with some. They can’t be wholly opposed to Russia, Iran and also Turkey.”
In any case, he notes, “part of the damage to US-Turkish relations is the fault of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but part of it is also the fault of the United States. We had an opportunity to work with Turkey in Syria in a way that would have caused Turkey far fewer problems. Our basic unwillingness to do that led Erdogan to look after Turkish interests as he saw fit. The ideal scenario would be for us to engage in the region and help the Turks solve some of their problems, which we’ve in some ways exacerbated. But the obstacles to such a constructive relationship are enormous – and could get worse.”
One consequence of the worsening relationship between Ankara and Washington has been the strengthening of US-Greek ties. Does he consider that this trend is likely to persist? What is the view of Greece these days in the US foreign policy establishment?
“I think the upgrade will continue – and it will not be negatively affected by a potential improvement in the relationship of the US with Turkey. On the view of Greece, there are positives and negatives. On the positive side there is the fact that the country survived its massive crisis without collapsing. On the other hand, many in the US consider Greece a little too friendly to Russia.”
The new cold war
The key geopolitical challenge for the new administration is China. “The Chinese have been moving in a more aggressive direction for some time,” Kagan says. “They didn’t quite know what to make of Trump – just like the world in general. He was the living embodiment of Nixon’s ‘madman theory’ – nobody knew what he was going to do.”
The pent-up frustrations stemming from the Trump Presidency will likely strengthen the natural tendency of Beijing to test Joe Biden, he argues. “The new administration is aware of this, that’s why they came out pretty strongly, at least rhetorically, and they also haven’t rolled back any of Trump’s policies [against China].”
The likeliest flashpoint, he thinks, is Taiwan. “For Xi Jinping, this is a legacy issue – though that does not in itself mean that he will act. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the Chinese challenged the administration to see how willing it is to go toe-to-toe. They may calculate that we won’t react forcefully, because of Covid, because we’re a mess, and so on.”
“We are in a dangerous period with China, because it is so easy to miscalculate,” he observes. “This happened to many foreign leaders in the 20th century: They thought the US would not respond to their aggression and they were wrong. We’re very good at setting that trap, mostly because we actually believe we don’t want to respond, until we do. Another error frequently made by foreign governments is that they don’t realize that there is a huge amount of untapped power in the United States. At this moment we are not on a war footing – not even on a cold war footing. We are gearing up towards a cold war with China, and it’s easy to underestimate the resources that America can bring to such a situation if Americans are worked up about it.”
New old normal
Kagan quit the Republican Party during the 2016 primaries and has been a consistent Trump critic. He remains optimistic, however, that despite the former president’s continuing hold on the party, foreign policy under Biden can return to a semblance of normality.
Republicans, he explains, are almost exclusively focused on China and Iran in foreign policy. On both issues, he notes, the Biden administration is determined to be at least as hawkish as they are. The real question is what will happen if tensions with China increase too.
“My guess is that Republicans will insist on a strong line while a significant segment of the Democratic Party will urge the administration to pull back from the brink. But that is a usual pattern in the politics of foreign policy. […] The Democrats are trying to prove they are tough enough and Republicans are trying to prove that they’re not.”