Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan received a hero’s welcome last week in Venezuela: unsurprisingly, as Turkey’s willingness to trade with Caracas is one of the few things keeping the Venezuelan economy afloat amid bruising sanctions from Brussels and Washington.
European and American leaders are likely displeased with Erdogan’s vocal support for Maduro. Rather than upbraiding Erdogan for undermining Western attempts to isolate Caracas, however, Brussels and Washington would be better off asking themselves why the diplomatic strategy Ankara has rolled out in recent months is proving so effective: their own haphazard attempts to police the world’s flashpoints,veering between inaction and wayward aggression, have left a yawning vacuum for Erdogan to exploit. To stop the Turkish leader’s grandstanding on the world stage, the West needs to start providing a more effective brand of global leadership.
A hand extended to Venezuela
In Caracas, Erdogan signed a number of lucrative deals with Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, and roundly criticized the series of painful sanctions the U.S. and EU have imposed on Venezuela. As Erdogan remarked at a forum for Venezuelan and Turkish business leaders, “political problems cannot be resolved by punishing an entire nation”—an assertion which millions of Venezuelans coping with severe shortages of food and medicine would probably agree with. While the ever-escalating sanctions,which just last month were ratcheted up to include Venezuela’s crucial gold sector as well, have exacerbated the plight of a nation already suffering staggering hyper-inflation, they’ve also prompted Maduro to dig in his heels. Erdogan has gladly stepped in to help Venezuela’s embattled leader, sending Turkish pasta and rice to fill the subsidized food packets many Venezuelans survive off of.
Erdogan’s surprising renaissance
The support Erdogan has offered Venezuela has naturally earned him friends in Caracas, but is also likely to bolster his foreign policy credentials among analysts who have argued that continuous waves of sanctions is neither the wisest—nor the morally right—way to promote democracy in Venezuela, as they risk hurting ordinary citizens without changing government policy.
Venezuela is just the latest, however, in a series of victories for Erdogan, a far cry from the turmoil that engulfed his government during the 2016 failed coup. Most notably, he has turned the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi into a diplomatic triumph. In the days following Khashoggi’s grisly killing, Erdogan drip-fed the release of intelligence to cause Riyadh maximum discomfort, while leading global pressure on Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman to clarify what exactly took place inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Of course, Erdogan’s motives are far from altruistic. For one thing, his relentless attacks on Saudi Arabia tapped into growing global mistrust of the kingdom, playing well with countries such as key Turkish ally Qatar, which has been blockaded by a Saudi-led coalition for over a year. For another, the Khashoggi affair presented Erdogan with an opportunity for good publicity amid ongoing domestic criticism of his mishandling of the Turkish economy.
To those familiar with Erdogan’s regime, his tireless quest for the truth of Khashoggi’s murder will seem bitterly ironic. This is a man whose government arrests more reporters thana ny other regime on earth. Erdogan’s campaign to intimidate his own media, the same outlets he is now pushing to criticize MBS, is just part of a wider crackdown which has seen more than 100,000 people jailed since the failed coup. Opposition leaders and human rights campaigners have spent months in pre-trial detention, with particular attention paid to pro-Kurdish lawmakers who’ve long been a thorn in Erdogan’s side. Little wonder the “dictator in all but name” has described the unsuccessful uprising in 2016 as “a gift from god.”
The muted reaction in Brussels and Washington to Khashoggi’s killing has provided Erdogan with another gift, one which he is exploiting to burnish his reputation. Far from threatening strong action over Khashoggi’s murder, Trump has vowed to preserve his relationship with Riyadh, and made a series of outlandish claims to suppress talk of an arms embargo, even insinuating that Khashoggi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Britain’s Theresa May has refused to confirm she pressed MBS on the murder when they met at the recent G20 summit.
Given the fierce backlash Saudi Arabia unleashed on Canada this summer when Ottawa’s foreign minister dared to criticize Riyadh’s human rights record, it’s unsurprising that Western leaders are treading carefully. Yet their pusillanimous approach is part of a depressing pattern; the West talks a good game on hot-button issues like Khashoggi, but rarely follows up.
The recent Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait provides another prime example of how European and American inaction has handed Erdogan an opportunity on a silver platter. Russia’s seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels is a clear violation of both maritime law and bilateral treaties between Kiev and Moscow, yet Trump’s response amounted to little more than saying he “didn’t like”what’s happening. Trump did cancel his planned meeting with Putin at the G20 summit—but only days after the vessels’ seizure and, suspiciously, immediately after his former lawyer pled guilty to lying to Congress about a Trump project in Moscow.
European Council president DonaldTusk “condemned” Russia’sactions but has gone no further, a stance echoed by British foreign ministerJeremy Hunt. Instead of threatening sanctions against Russia in response to this latest provocation, Western politicians have limited themselves to a few mealy-mouthed messages of concern. Erdogan, by contrast, has held a string of telephone conversations with both sides and positioned himself as a potential mediator— further enhancing his own profile at the West’s expense.
Given Erdogan’s laundry list of flaws, Brussels and Washington should be profoundly concerned by the fact that he’s managing to present himself as a leader prepared to manage these international crises. Instead of fuming about his chutzpah, the West needs to up its own diplomacy game, because Erdogan’s recent revitalization says more about them than it does about him.
*Nicholas Kaufmann is a public affairs consultant based in Brussels.