The diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Turkey is a symptom of a much broader phenomenon: Authoritarian rulers everywhere not only thumb their noses at the U.S, but they see no reason not to.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hasn't been a reliable U.S. ally since before the failed 2016 coup attempt, which he blames on the U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen. In a recent essay about the U.S. war against Islamic State, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter wrote that Turkey "caused the most complications for the campaign" starting well before the coup.
The two countries' key interests diverged wider than ever, given U.S. support for Kurds in Iraq and Syria, whom Turks -- not just Erdogan -- traditionally consider a major threat. Since the U.S. has refused to hand over Gulen, the rift became both geopolitical and increasingly personal, regardless of President Trump's early overtures to Erdogan and even his reaffirmation of friendship at the recent United Nations gathering. That the U.S. has now suspended non-immigrant visas for Turks in response to the arrests of some dual citizens is just a tangible manifestation of the growing divide.
Turkey's angry tit-for-tat response shows Erdogan doesn't attach too much value to smoothing relations with the U.S. In 2016, Americans accounted for 460,000 of Turkey's 25.3 million foreign visitors, so if they stop coming at all, it won't be a major blow to Turkey's important tourist industry, which is more dependent on Europeans and Russians. The U.S. is a relatively important trade partner, having absorbed $8.1 billion in Turkish exports last year, but the exports are so diversified that Erdogan may feel Turkish business can absorb a dent in trade. And with the world's eighth strongest military, Turkey may feel less in need of NATO's protections these days given all the constraints that imposed in return.
Turkey will have also looked around and learned a few things from Vladimir Putin and other authoritarian leaders. With its annexation of Crimea, Russian President Vladimir Putin showed there is more room for misbehaving than many thought. A prolonged spat with the U.S. might bring something of an asset sell-off, a stock-market drop and higher political risks factored into borrowing costs. Russia has weathered it; its 10-year bond yields 7.5 percent now; it never went much lower. Turkey has less of a cushion in the form of foreign reserves and a negative trade balance, but Erdogan is unlikely to be too worried about the recent jump in his country's government bond yields, driven by the tension with the U.S.
Xi Jinping's tightening control of every aspect of Chinese life and his independent geopolitical line, most recently manifested in the North Korean controversy, has gone unchallenged by Western leaders. Erdogan will also have watched Narendra Modi's illiberal shift in India meet with no tangible resistance in the West.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Polish ruling party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski have clearly asked themselves whether there is any advantage to be gained by cozying up to the West. The answer they have all arrived at is, not much -- or, at any rate, less than they gain in domestic political dividends by showing off pride and independence.
Neither the U.S. nor Western Europe has the raw power to bring rogue leaders into line. But that doesn't mean there is no constructive response. The easier path is to pull up the drawbridge, but writing off the global liberal project as a failure isn't necessarily a good idea. The temptation to equate countries with their leaders is particularly strange in the U.S., where most of the policy establishment is busy distancing itself from the country's leader. It's useful to remember that two can play that game. In a recent Financial Times column about Xi's dictatorial tendencies, Jamil Anderlini wrote:
The rejection of “western” political systems has been made easier recently by what the Chinese see as the ludicrous buffoonery of Donald Trump and, to a lesser extent, the self-inflicted damage of Brexit and EU infighting. As a top foreign policy adviser recently told one of my colleagues: "Trump never talks about democracy or American leadership or liberty — we should not be so stupid to worship things that in the western world are now in doubt."
Defending Western values requires making democracy and fair economic competition attractive propositions for Turks, Russians, Chinese and Indians. Cutting off travel opportunities for them -- as the U.S. has done with Russians and Turks this year -- achieves the opposite result. It makes them feel unwelcome, destroys their interest in how the Western world works on a day-to-day level, and feeds support for anti-Western leaders. That interest was what drove the Russian, Chinese and Turkish liberalization in the 1990s. Removing the travel barriers would be a huge step toward rekindling it. Investing in education opportunities for people in these countries, such as more university scholarships, would do even more.
There should also be clearer economic benefits to political liberalization. In Russia in the 1990s, that picture included Western investment into economic modernization, but the opening that ordinary people hoped for never happened and trade barriers remained. Turkey benefited from its increased openness to the West -- but not enough for Turks to fear the reversal of these gains. Eastern European countries were effectively colonized when they joined the European Union, a price they're less and less willing to pay for the middling level of prosperity they enjoy. The openness of Western markets to private entrepreneurs from currently authoritarian nations -- not to their state sectors or corrupt bureaucrats masquerading as entrepreneurs -- would go a long way toward building an incentive for these nations to liberalize.
Soft power and leadership by example should get more consideration from the West these days. The knee-jerk U.S. reaction to the ripening of dictatorial regimes is a flex of military muscle and other displays of hard power. That's not what ended the Cold War: Western soft power was a big part of what destroyed the Communist experiment from within, which is why Westerners were so surprised by their victory. Now with Turkey, as then, the stick won't be any use in the absence of a carrot.