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America must continue to make the moral case for democracy

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The writer is director of the Turkey programme at the Middle East Institute and author ofErdoğan’s War: A Strongman’s Struggle at Home and in Syria’

President Joe Biden has repeatedly framed the war in Ukraine as a battle between democracy and autocracy. His early efforts to rally the support of democratic allies behind the embattled nation generated copious commentary about the growing importance of liberal democratic norms in shaping world affairs. Pundits and policymakers alike rushed to argue that Washington had bent the arc of history away from realpolitik and towards high-minded principles.

Two years into the war, however, it has become clear that the opposite has happened. Russia’s invasion has forced the democratic world to revert to power politics and seek closer ties with those they see as lesser autocrats than the one in Moscow. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one such leader. After shunning him for years, Washington has now grown quiet about the authoritarian ways of the Turkish strongman, who is seen as a key ally in the effort to contain Russia.

The Biden administration’s willingness to host Erdoğan at the White House — although the visit was subsequently postponed, reportedly due to a scheduling change — and the recent military aid package for Ukraine are the latest signs of the Turkish president’s changing fortunes.

Biden was not always fond of him. As a candidate, he called Erdoğan an autocrat and urged the US to support his opponents. He is the first president in two decades not to receive Erdoğan at the White House in his first three years in office. Erdoğan’s autocratic rule, attacks on the Syrian Kurds and delays to Sweden’s Nato accession earned him vocal opponents in the US Congress as well. 

But the war in Ukraine has changed things. Washington recently approved a military aid package that paves the way for a closer Turkish-US defence partnership. A few years after the US suspended Turkey from America’s flagship F-35 fighter jet programme in retaliation for purchasing the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system, it is now in talks with Ankara to buy more explosives to provide ammunition to Ukraine. The partnership is set to make Turkey the biggest seller of artillery shells to the US. This follows a recent decision by US lawmakers to finally sign off on the sale of American-made F-16 warplanes to Ankara after Turkey approved Sweden’s admission to Nato.

All of this makes clear that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced the Biden administration to temper its idealistic ambitions and accept the democratic flaws of its allies. This is no surprise. For the US, as with other great powers, international affairs have rarely been about ideals. During the cold war, when Washington claimed it was leading the free world, the US embraced an undemocratic Turkey in its fight to contain the Soviet Union. The US is using the same playbook today.

It is not hard to understand why Washington has turned a new page in relations with Ankara. Turkey has been a key player in the war. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Turkey limited the transit of Russian warships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. It provided armed drones to Ukraine and brokered a grain deal between the warring parties that helped prevent millions of people from falling into poverty. (Russia declined to extend the deal in July 2023, though talks to renew it are ongoing.)

The Biden administration might think that de-emphasising freedoms and rights in partner countries like Turkey is a price it must pay to contain Russia and defend democracy. In reality, the administration’s policy undercuts that goal. Much of the world sees Washington’s partnerships with autocracies as proof that American actions in Ukraine are not about protecting freedom but rather about advancing its geopolitical interests. This not only undercuts the credibility of US support for democracy but also prevents non-democratic allies from joining efforts to isolate Moscow.

What the Biden administration could do instead is cast the war as a battle not for democracy but international law, since Russian aggression is a blatant violation of the UN Charter. This would allow the administration to continue to work with democratically challenged allies like Turkey to contain Russia.

At the same time, the US must continue to make the moral case for democracy globally. That requires pressing Erdoğan on his violations of human rights and democratic norms. As Biden says, defending democracy is the defining challenge of our time. To meet it, the US must stop soft pedalling democracy with its allies.

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