Erdogan visits the United States: Economy and Relations with Obama on the Agenda

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 220

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited the United States to attend the G-20 Summit, where he joined the leaders of developed and industrializing nations to discuss the global financial crisis. In addition to his participation in the summit activities, Erdogan held bilateral meetings with several world leaders.

In his public statements throughout the trip, Erdogan underlined the importance of international cooperation in fighting the global crisis. Having emphasized the experience that Turkey had gathered from its own economic recovery programs as a result of the devastating crises of the 1990s and early-2000s, Erdogan maintained that his country represented a hope and a model for those countries seeking a way out of the current crisis (, November 13; Yeni Safak, November 16).

These inflated statements aside, how the AKP government will cope with the global financial crisis and whether it will seek help from the IMF had been matters of debate (EDM, October 31). Since the AKP came to power in 2002, reducing Turkey’s dependence on the IMF has been one of the government’s primary economic goals. The AKP has been arguing that Turkey could overcome the current crisis without significant support from the international community. Since the previous stand-by agreement with the IMF expired in May, Turkey has been resisting another arrangement with the IMF because of the strict fiscal conditions it would impose (New York Times, November 7).

During the G-20 Summit Erdogan met with Managing Director of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn on November 14, and their teams had additional talks on November 15. Erdogan also met the President of the World Bank Robert Zoellick. The World Bank is expected to increase credits to Turkey to support various projects dealing with small and medium-sized enterprises and renewable energy (; Anatolian Agency, November 15).

The statements coming from both sides following the meeting between Erdogan and Strauss-Kahn indicate that Turkey might be reversing its stubborn position on IMF aid. Both parties stressed that Turkey would maintain cooperation with the IMF in the future. Economic sources speculated that a new stand-by agreement worth $15 to $20 billion might be signed soon, although differences of opinion remain about the extent and kind of IMF aid to Turkey (, November 16; Today’s Zaman, November 17). Experts believe that the decision, albeit late, to start negotiations with the IMF is a step in the right direction (Referans, November 17).

Erdogan also gave two public talks, in which he outlined the parameters of the new activism in Turkish foreign policy and Turkey’s strategic partnership with the United States, as well as developments in domestic politics. On November 13 Erdogan spoke at a conference at Columbia University, entitled “Turkey’s Role in Shaping the Future” (, November 14). On November 14 Erdogan discussedTurkish foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. During these addresses, he congratulated U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and emphasized that Turkey was ready to work with the new administration, provided that it was sensitive to Turkey’s priorities.

On relations with Armenia, Erdogan repeated Turkey’s position that the issue must be dealt with by the parties concerned through channels of dialogue already established. He warned the incoming administration not to let ethnic lobbies dictate American policy and spoil bilateral relations between Turkey and the United States (Hurriyet Daily News, November 17).

On the issue of nuclear proliferation and Iran, Erdogan highlighted Turkey’s new-found role as peace broker and criticized U.S.-led efforts against Tehran. Earlier in the week, the New York Times reported that Erdogan had offered to mediate between Iran and the incoming Obama administration (New York Times, November 11). During his talk at the Brookings Institution, Erdogan said that given the trust Turkey had built up with Iran, it was better positioned than the EU’s troika to facilitate talks with Tehran. Some of his remarks on this issue were, however, more controversial. Erdogan maintained that trying to force Iran to drop its nuclear program while other countries maintained nuclear arsenals was no ground for reducing tension. He instead urged the countries pressuring Iran to eliminate such weapons themselves, which would be a better basis for a comprehensive solution (, November 15). Erdogan’s call for “total nuclear disarmament” has been criticized as a fundamental deviation from Turkey’s official position (Milliyet, November 15).

On the issue of Iraq, Erdogan emphasized Turkey’s positive contributions to the reconstruction efforts there. He criticized Obama for setting a clear exit date, however. He expressed concerns about a premature American withdrawal, arguing that Iraq’s infrastructure had not matured enough. (Cihan Haber Ajansi, November 14). U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood criticized Erdogan’s assessment as overly pessimistic (Washington Times, November 15).

There were questions about whether Erdogan would meet Obama during the trip; but because Obama has decided not to meet foreign leaders before his inauguration, Erdogan searched out people who were likely to shape Obama’s policies. In a separate meeting during his visit, Erdogan met with Obama’s advisers Madeline Albright, Jim Leach, and Philip Gordon (Yeni Safak, November 15). Some Turkish observers believe that the choice of the Brookings Institute as the venue of Erdogan’s speech in Washington, D.C., was also part of Turkey’s attempts to influence the incoming administration. Veteran journalist Cengiz Candar noted that despite its non-partisan position, Brookings was regarded as a pro-Democrat organization and many Brookings specialists, such as Philip Gordon, who were familiar with Turkey may end up working in the new administration (Referans, November 15; Today’s Zaman, November 17). Another senior analyst, Semih Idiz, however, argued that Erdogan’s controversial statements on Iran might ironically rock the boat, just as Erdogan was seeking to build bridges (Milliyet, November 17).

Only time will tell whether “think-tank diplomacy” will put Turkish-American relations on the right track. In any case, given Erdogan’s critical position on Obama’s declared policies, it will be interesting to see how the new administration will manage relations with Turkey.