President Franklin D. Roosevelt is attributed as saying that Nicaraguan dictator “(Anastasio) Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” In a world of fair-weather friends and intensifying adversaries, the United States’ political leaders must make unsavory trade-offs about the quality of global relationships.
In many cases, an American president has to choose to ally himself with the devil he knows rather than an unknown and untested one. If known devils are democratically elected, it makes the choice easier but still distasteful.
At the start of November, one of America’s SOBs got another electoral win in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, known as AKP, ran a nasty campaign where domestic political opponents were characterized as terrorists and fear was the musical score of the nationally orchestrated vote. AKP’s ruling majority assures Erdogan will be Turkey’s unchallenged ruler and an all-powerful regional force.
Erdogan goes out of his way to jail journalists, kill Kurds, injure Israel and bolster Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Despite Erdogan’s faults, his relationship is tight with President Barack Obama, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other NATO allies and European leaders.
Obama and Merkel feel the need to keep Erdogan on speed dial and on friendly terms because his country is a bulwark of power promoting relative regional stability on the front lines of increasing chaos and violence.
Critics can caterwaul all they like, but dumping Turkey or dissing its leader is not going to happen anytime soon. In fact, quite the opposite is occurring. Merkel just promised to send Erdogan cash and fast-track closer ties to the European Union in exchange for slowing refugee flows from Turkey to the shores of an already overwhelmed Europe.
Choosing reliable friends in geopolitics is tough. The United States and other Western democratic countries try to strike a balance between power and principle. Inherent conflicts between power and principle are increasing in today’s geopolitically dynamic and challenging times.
America’s global unipolar moment has passed. The world is newly polarizing with rising powers like China and non-state players like the Islamic State being more assertive. In this environment, human rights principles are often forced to take a backseat to global stability and security concerns. In such a world, Erdogan and other necessary authoritarians get a pass.
Authoritarian leaders are pretty reliable partners as they usually brook no opposition and are able to rule with an iron hand. They are relatively predictable because they partly rely on larger allied countries for their legitimacy.
The United States put the Shah of Iran and his unrestrained secret police in power until a sudden moment of guilt, justice and fear hit President Jimmy Carter. Tehran flipped overnight to U.S. Embassy hostage takers who took their orders from an unforgiving, anti-Western revolutionary, Ayatollah Khomeini.
America’s long and historic rogues’ list of unsavory but friendly leaders is geographically indiscriminate and includes Africans, Asians, Latin Americans and an assortment of Middle Eastern kings, kleptocrats, dictators and demagogues.
America’s track record, however, is nothing compared with the astronomical numbers of bad actors supported by countries currently challenging America’s primacy. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, had a reliable partner in tough-guy Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine until he shot his people, packed his gold bars and fled.
Turkey’s Erdogan will prove a tough Western partner, but he is a paragon of pluralism and peace compared with Russia’s friend in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. China, too, has its hands full in neighboring North Korea with Kim Jong Un.
The hope is that in a world full of leader “lemons,” America and her allies will try to make leadership lemonade by pressing for human rights and dignity.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.