On Sunday, voters in Türkiye return to the polls for a second round of voting in the presidential runoff between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. For the inaugural Pivotal States event, a new series that examines alternative U.S. foreign policy approaches to the world’s key nations, American Statecraft Program director Christopher S. Chivvis was joined by former ambassador to Türkiye James Jeffrey and Turkish journalist Aslı Aydıntaşbaş to discuss the election’s far-reaching domestic and international implications.

This Q & A was adapted from a transcript of the event and has been edited and condensed for clarity. For subsequent episodes from our series, click here.

Christopher Chivvis: What are America’s core interests in Turkey?

James Jeffrey: Türkiye is interesting because it’s in a very special category of countries—I would include Saudi Arabia and India—that have three characteristics. One is that they’re really important. They reach the level of economic, military, diplomatic, and summoning authority. Second, they are dependent upon the United States to one or another degree for their security, and in various ways they contribute to their security. This distinguishes them from the big Global South countries like Indonesia, South Africa, and Brazil. But the third thing is, like Brazil and South Africa, they’re not totally locked into Western concepts of the global order. They’re outliers, they often go their own way, and they’re transactional. They balance their relations not just with us but also with other countries that they recognize pose threats to them.

The other thing is that all have leaders whose democratic credentials are highly suspect and who can be easily set off. Without countries like this, you don’t have the defense of a global order against the challenges, but it’s much more difficult dealing with them than, frankly, dealing with China and Russia, where you have a better idea of your right and left limits.

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: I also think it’s important to think of Turkey as a pivotal power as opposed to a middle power.

Turkey increasingly has been questioning its post–World War II past as a loyal member of the transatlantic club and has been thinking of ways of developing strategic autonomy. [It has been] hedging at times, but [is] still a critical NATO country—both because of location and heft. It’s the second-largest army right there squeezed between Russia, Iran, the Middle East, and Europe, and also a country that has quite a big population. And so all of these things have forced us to rethink Turkey at different points in the post-postwar order.

[Turkey] is a pivotal ally for many of the goals that start with stabilizing the region. And really, at this point, the [U.S.] goal maybe is more [succeeding in the] systemic rivalry. [As the United States is] trying to think [creatively], as transatlantic partners think of decoupling from China and [reducing] an energy dependence on Russia, I just don’t see the equation without Turkey. Now that doesn’t mean everything has been smooth in this relationship—it’s been anything but that. This has been, over the past few years [bumpy], in part a reaction to Turkey’s democratic backsliding.

Like the other hedging powers, Turkey has been doing its balancing act between Russia and the West in the war in Ukraine. But in doing so, it has been able to deliver, it seems, on things like the grain deal, prisoner exchanges, and perhaps attempts at negotiations. That provides an interesting new model for Turkey.

We have to accept that this is the Turkey that we have. [It’s] a country that is thinking of its future in a multipolar format.

Christopher Chivvis: Would it be unfavorable to Turkey if Russia controlled all of Ukraine?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: I think it would be. There are some people [in Turkey] who are more Eurasianist and see the West as a threat, [both] in the system within the bureaucracy as well. But in the end, people understand balance of power. And [a victory in Ukraine] would give Russia enormous influence over Turkey, which it already has. Russians have built huge leverage. This was a byproduct of the past couple of years, in which relations with the U.S. were up and down, and relations with Europe were really not good at all, and everyone started relying on Russia more and more.

Perhaps there were other reasons—the personal relationship with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin that [Erdoğan] seemed to like. The two men share a disdain for liberal world order and liberal values, full stop. And also, Russia managed to capitalize on Turkey’s economic weaknesses, both in energy and investments.

But this is not an alliance. It is this strange relationship—frenemy—that we’re with both sides doing a balancing act and managing competition while they also fight in proxy wars—in Libya, in the Caucuses, or in Syria. I think that Turkish statecraft—for lack of a better word—understands that Russia is essentially a competitor and a rival, but one they have to get along [with] because their relations with the West are so bad.

Christopher Chivvis: Say Erdoğan wins the election, and you were to sit down with him and try to prioritize what the U.S. ought to focus on in its relationship with Turkey. What would be your top priorities?

James Jeffrey: The most important thing is maintain the 2019 ceasefire in Northeast Syria between the U.S., Turkey, and—informally, but importantly—the Syrian democratic forces of this PKK offshoot, the YPG. That’s the thing that can blow things up.

Secondly, consult, consult, consult, before acting, so that Washington at least is not surprised. Not everything these guys are going to do is going to please us, but if we know in advance, that’s important.

The third thing is to listen to your long-term professional advisers. They’re actually highly competent. These are the people in the defense, intelligence, foreign affairs, and presidency offices who know us, and who have a relatively good realpolitik view of the world. I hear all the time that [Erdoğan] also listens to gray-zone people who give him bad advice, and that leads to bad things.

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: If I were Biden, I would say, “This is not the relationship I want to have with you. And this is not the relationship I want our countries to have. You know it’s not working. I know it’s not working. We are not cooperating on core issues in the region, but also globally. There’s anti-Americanism in Turkey, which you often also make plenty of political use of. You accuse us of trying to overthrow you, which is not the case. We accuse you of trying to help Putin win a war, which is not the case. Let us go for a reset.”

And I would point out the economic benefits that are out there for Turkey as the Western economies decouple [from China]. This is a country that produces a lot of things. This is a country that has a broad industrial base. It’s well positioned to be a manufacturing base for Europe. I would point those things out and say, “But we also have issues on the democratic front. I know that you know that your population also wants democracy. Let us also see how we can talk about these issues in a non-antagonistic way that would help you address some of the concerns of your population.”

Christopher Chivvis: Would your answer change significantly if Kılıçdaroğlu did prevail?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: I think if Kılıçdaroğlu were the president, because his primary agenda is rule of law and return to democracy, there would almost be an automatic opening and, really, engagement with Europe and the U.S. I think that I would encourage that democratization, caution him on some of the regional issues such as refugees, and talk about the need to reinforce partnership in economic issues. But maybe I wouldn’t have to do that big loop in order to get to democracy. I wouldn’t have to really diplomatically tiptoe around that issue.

But in both conversations, I would highlight Turkey’s future role in the world order, and that it can really play the potential role it wants to play. This balancing act [isn’t working properly]. Right now, the Western leg of this table is gone. It’s not working. The table is shaky because one leg is gone. I think Erdoğan—or Turkey’s future leaders—have to build that.

Christopher Chivvis: Would Kılıçdaroğlu take a different approach toward Russia and China?

James Jeffrey: I think that Turkey’s energy dependence—while they’ve cut it by a third—is still significant in natural gas, and its trade and tourism accounts are very much determined by Russia. That’s a big thing, and that doesn’t go away. The strategic challenge Türkiye sees in Russia will not go away as long as Russia acts anything like the way it does.

I’ll put it in an advertisement for Türkiye—the two decisions taken to let Finland into NATO and to use an obscure paragraph of the Montreux Convention to block any Russian naval reinforcement into the Black Sea. [These moves have] tremendously strategically complicated any Russian future military threat against NATO as a whole. These are very dramatic steps.

Christopher Chivvis: Aslı, do you have the same view when it comes to Turkey’s future relationship with China and Russia?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: I think there would be differences and similarities. . . .  I think that Russian interference was a big issue in this election.

Christopher Chivvis: You think that Russia intervened in order to support Erdoğan?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: Well, there’s no doubt that Russians preferred Erdoğan to win and have been helping him in a sense by delaying natural gas payments. We don’t have a price tag on this, but something in the vicinity of $20 billion. Because Turkey is economically not doing that well, it needed this support, and this is a very generous support, in addition to direct payments to its central bank from Rosatom. (Rosatom is the Russian energy giant building Turkey’s first nuclear reactor.)

In addition, the opposition accused Russia of trying to interfere in the electoral process [which Russia denies]. I reached out to people in Kılıçdaroğlu camp to ask, “What exactly are you talking about?” There had been speculation that Russians are using their social media trolls and all of that in support of some government candidates, but what [Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign] told me was that they think that the Russian project was supporting third-party candidates. That effectively made sure this would go to a runoff.

[Kılıçdaroğlu’s campaign] basically told me [on background] that they understood that Russians were supporting the government in social media, and they’re fine with that. They understand Russia and Turkey have this strategic relationship. Russia is supporting Turkish economy, and they’re fine with that. They understand Rosatom.

But when [they] started getting too many attacks on [their] systems servers, and when [they] realized that there were AI-generated images being circulated, they did something quite unusual: Kılıçdaroğlu tweeted in Russian and in Turkish warning Russia not to interfere in elections.

This has created a strange situation, because Erdoğan—and Jim would know this, having served there—always accuses the U.S. of interfering in Turkish elections in support of the opposition, trying to bring him down. This is a common theme in Turkey—so common that I think that it’s not scandalous or even noticed anymore in Western capitals. But here you had Erdoğan saying the West, and Joe Biden specifically, is supporting the opposition, and the opposition saying Russians are supporting the government.

Christopher Chivvis: Could Erdoğan become an even more challenging partner if he’s reelected?

James Jeffrey: His trajectory in the past few years has been from more problems to less problems, be it with Israel and the Arab States, be it with Greece, most recently, be it in the Caucasus between Azerbaijan and Armenia. He was threatening back in November to launch another destabilizing incursion into northern Syria. He didn’t do it. And he is pressuring Washington for an F-16 sale. As we know, he gave the green light to Finland, and they’re moving closer. So if he wants to, he could eventually take that step with Sweden as well, which the U.S. Congress has made a condition for weapon sales. So I think that in a rational world, we are going to see a slight improving of relations. The problem is that leaders get erratic after too long in office, and he’s been in office for a long time.

Christopher Chivvis: Aslı, do you think that there’s a potential for a change in Erdoğan’s approach to either the U.S., Russia, or China, simply as a consequence of having won another presidential election?

Aslı Aydıntaşbaş: I think Erdoğan is the same Erdoğan. If there is to be change, that would come from the West, as in: Are we going to have the same approach to him? And that would determine whether there is to be a change. We’ve had nearly no president-to-president relationship. I do think that Erdoğan will need the West over the next few years because he will not be able to manage the economy. He’s created an economic mess, which is quite unmanageable without both support and recognition by the West.

James Jeffrey: My own experience with Erdoğan is getting thrown out of his office once because he didn’t like the things I said about his illiberal policies, and a month later, negotiating a NATO Iranian ballistic missile defense deal one-on-one with him. You won’t get him to stop doing things like lashing out, throwing you out of meetings, having his people call you and telling you to shut up. But if you try to work with him in a very transactional basis on why is this good—not for the United States, but for Türkiye—you can maintain a functional relationship that serves both sides. But it requires effort. The two top leaders have to be invested in it, and they have to have staffs who are going to go the extra mile to keep the relationship afloat.

View the whole event in the player below, or watch it on YouTube.