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Why Erdogan’s visit to the White House will not take place now

Why Erdogan's visit to the White House will not take place now

U.S. President Joe Biden (right) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are seen during a meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on July 11, 2023. (Susan Walsh/AP)

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy has been characterized by a pattern of unpredictability, which is again evident from the recent developments surrounding his planned visit to the White House on May 9. In recent years, the Greeks have experienced how their most important neighbor changes policies from one day to the next. The sudden cancellation – officially a postponement – ​​of the Turkish president’s planned visit to the White House on May 9 fits into this pattern.

Securing a prestigious reception at the White House has long been a priority for Erdogan, with both Turkish and US officials making significant efforts to achieve this goal. The abrupt reversal of plans raises questions, especially regarding the underlying reasons for the cancellation: “We have not been able to reconcile the schedules of both parties,” is the unconvincing statement from the US Embassy in Ankara.

In addition to a mere protocol, substantive political interests play a crucial role in the unraveling of the summit. The media reports disagreements about the level of visits and the quality of the hospitality offered.

According to one report, Erdogan expected the kind of lavish receptions that the White House organizes in exceptional cases for special state guests. The Americans reportedly planned only two hours for the guest from Anatolia, not even a dinner at the White House was on the agenda.

Still, the deciding factor for the cancellation – or postponement – ​​in the short term is likely less a matter of protocol (although this plays an important role for Erdogan, who is concerned about the status), but rather of tangible political interests – on both sides . With Ankara ultimately throwing in the towel.

For years, deep differences have overshadowed bilateral relations. Erdogan’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile system has poisoned relations more than any other issue. The conflicting positions on Syria, where Ankara is militarily battling Kurdish militiamen, the Americans’ main allies, have been irreconcilable.

Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine has created new tensions as Ankara has only hesitantly and by no means fully participated in Western sanctions against Russia.

Recently there have been signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Washington: in a protracted process reminiscent of scenes at an oriental bazaar, Washington withdrew the Turks’ approval for Sweden to join NATO in exchange for the supply of ultra-modern F-16 fighter jets. for the outdated Turkish Air Force. A reception for Erdogan at the White House was the culmination of the political swap deal.

The war in Gaza has further complicated matters. Ankara and Washington are on opposite sides in the Middle East, the differences could hardly be greater. Gaza policy has also long taken on domestic political dimensions – for both Erdogan and Biden.

One reason for Erdogan’s defeat in the recent local elections is the rise of the Islamist New Welfare Party, which has managed to accuse the president of lacking solidarity with Palestine. Since then, Erdogan’s anti-Israel rhetoric has increased in intensity. Recently, the Turkish president also publicly attacked America for its support of Israel. Erdogan may have thought that none of this would be appropriate for amicable gestures in the White House.

For Biden, the all-important elections are still to come: for the American president, TV images with Hamas ally Erdogan in the halls of the White House pose political risks, because they could play into the hands of his opponents. That said, the suspension of the visit has a positive domestic political side for the US president. However, the turn of events is a serious setback for US-Turkey relations. Initial comments indicate that this would mainly benefit Russia’s Putin, as the thwarted visit is a sign of weakened cohesion within the Western Alliance. There are two reasons why this argument is unconvincing.

Firstly, Turkey’s alignment with the Western community in the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East is somewhat limited, because its own interests and independent initiatives are given priority. Moreover, just like the current dynamic with Biden, Putin has also fallen victim to the unpredictable nature of the Turkish president. Despite Moscow’s repeated announcements, the Russian president’s expected visit to Turkey has been postponed several times – and has yet to take place.

Dr. Ronald Meinardus is a senior research fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP).