Recent ruptures in US-Turkish relations are part of a new populist presidential politics, not a major geopolitical realignment.
“We are for every kind of cooperation to eat the grapes. But we will never give the opportunity to those whose aim is to beat the grape grower.” So said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in response to the latest spat with the US, in his paternal role as provider of low hanging fruit to the people of the world.
The president’s language is key to understanding what is at work here. While the world’s media pores over yet another crisis in Turkey-US relations and agonizes once more about what it will mean for the future of such ties, Erdogan is talking about grape growers in relation to a little known American pastor.
An American pastor? You can almost hear the response echoing around the world. Does one American pastor really matter enough to risk a key strategic relationship in the world’s most volatile region? Well of course the pastor matters, in so much as he is representative — for both presidents — of how the little man matters.
The Pastor Andrew Brunson stand-off is the latest in a series of apparently minor issues that Erdogan and Donald Trump have allowed to blow up into big issues. In January, I wrote in Fair Observer about reciprocal travel bans, a summoned chargé d’affaires and the arrest of other individuals. It all looks very ominous, not least with the Turkish lira diving to new lows against the dollar in response to US sanctions against Turkish officials and the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum.
Many analysts are raising the dark specter of Erdogan abandoning the US and, in his nationalist zeal, embracing other strongmen in Asia. It is all part of the recurring liberal Western fear of a pivot to the East. While Erdogan is evidently no deeply committed admirer of the US, such analysis doesn’t take enough account of the broader picture in which Turkey operates.
What we have here is posturing — and not merely from the Turkish side. This is not President Erdogan engaging Barack Obama in battle, but President Trump. The world has shifted. What both leaders are engaged in is a new kind of populist presidential politics, one that Vladimir Putin and others would recognize. It is a politics that enjoys and often aims to rile and whip up the media into frenzies of speculation.
Remember what these presidents think of the free (i.e. critical) press. Not much. Such media concern over the geopolitics of these spats serves to confirm everything they tell their supporters. That the media is waiting for Armageddon, for the big crash, for the implosion. They are willing it. But all the while, this new presidential politics is also reminding its supporters that “we” (the presidents) are the ones with the power. They have the people, and therefore the real power.
This modus operandi is all about being consciously deaf to the mainstream media. If we want to stand tough for things that matter to our supporters — the little people — we’ll stand tough. If we want to shake hands later and make a deal, we’ll do so. We don’t need to be consistent. For whose sake? The mainstream media’s?
This feeds into a larger narrative. The mainstream media and the broader “self-serving elites” of global institutions, including the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund, want consistency. But we are real men. Real leaders. We don’t need to be consistent for anyone. We do things our own way. Our people respect that. They trust us.
Business as usual
Viewed from the perspective of this new populist presidential politics, the real threat becomes one of miscalculation. It involves the fear that, in their pursuit of point scoring at home, these leaders will overstep the mark abroad. But this fear also misses a wider reality. For all their grandstanding, these are lone leaders who cannot rule without their wider entourage and apparatus of government.
While both sides have their tub-thumpers who will continue to drum out the beat of their respective president’s themes, being tough on the outside and inside and making threats to the ordinary people, both sides also have a host of figures doing the less glamorous task of keeping the diplomatic show on the road. The noises from these people point to a far more measured and humdrum outcome.
Both Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and new Finance Minister Berat Albayrak (son-in-law of the president) have downplayed the spat as simply the usual arguments you get in any “family.” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a far more pragmatic figure than Trump, has been in “constructive” talks with Cavusoglu that both sides want to work.
Expect more grandstanding over seemingly minor issues in the months ahead. For both sides — and this is increasingly the tenor of global politics more broadly — such grandstanding for a domestic audience is viewed as more valuable than the traditional cordial diplomacy between friends and allies that we have been used to throughout the second half of the 20th century. Welcome to the multipolar world.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.