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Rethinking Erdogan’s “Hostage Diplomacy”

By Nicholas Danforth

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The ongoing dispute over imprisoned American pastor Andrew Brunson has generated considerable interest in the subject of Turkey’s “hostage diplomacy” – that is Ankara’s efforts to use imprisoned foreign nationals to exact concessions from their governments. At the risk of wading too far into the realm of speculation, or over-intellectualizing the inevitably messy business of foreign policy, it might be a good moment to think about the assumptions, expectations and logic driving Ankara’s approach.

In using imprisoned foreign citizens to try to advance Turkey’s interest, Erdogan may well be acting both more opportunistically and more ideologically than many discussions of his “hostage diplomacy” suggest. There is no evidence that any of the individuals currently being used as hostages where originally arrested for that purpose. Had that been the goal there were better options available. Instead, Erdogan is likely sincere in believing that many of the foreigners jailed in Turkey are guilty of trying to sabotage his or Turkey’s interests on behalf of their governments. Arresting and holding these individuals, then, serves as a message to foreign governments that Turkey will stand up to their conspiratorial campaigns. Their release, by extension, becomes leverage that Ankara can use to pressure the West into abandoning or easing its posture of hostility against Erdogan and Turkey.

The result of this approach, to date, has been self-fulfilling. In taking and holding prisoners to combat the West’s presumed hostility, Ankara ends up creating the kind of hostility it imagines. This further justifies Ankara’s original assumption while undermining Turkey’s ability to develop a more functional and effective form of transactional relationship with the West.

Indeed, watching the Brunson affair unfold, it is striking that from a purely short-term and practical perspective, Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy does not appear to have been terribly well implemented or effective. Initially, the White House was reportedly willing to offer some not insignificant concessions to secure Brunson’s release. These included reduced fines for a state-run Turkish bank involved in Iranian sanctions-busting and the return of the bank’s jailed deputy chief executive. And yet when Erdogan demanded that the United States entirely drop its investigation of the sanctions evasion (in which Erdogan has been personally implicated), the White House quickly pivoted from a policy of offering concessions to one of imposing consequences. Subsequently, the resulting damage to the Turkish economy has far outweighed the damage that further U.S. investigations could have caused.

So long as Erdogan assumes Western hostility and seeks to counter it through provocative measures, there are few good options to respond. 

In the past, Erdogan’s hostage diplomacy with Europe has received similarly mixed results. Turkey ultimately released German journalist Deniz Yucel in return for the German government lifting a ban on military sales to Turkey. Yet this seeming victory was only slightly undercut by the fact that Yucel’s imprisonment had been one of a series of provocations that led Germany to impose the ban in the first place. Ironically, Erdogan, in attempting to manage the political and economic fallout of the Brunson affair by improving ties with Europe, recently freed another jailed German journalist and two Greek soldiers. Hostage diplomacy, in other words, now seems reduced to releasing some hostages in order to mitigate the damage caused by holding others.

And yet viewed through the lens of Erdogan’s ideological assumptions, Ankara’s approach to these negotiations takes on a different logic. If you believe that Washington is waging economic war on Turkey in pursuit of a broader geopolitical agenda, rather than simply in order to compel the return of Andrew Brunson, then releasing him before the White House calls off the war makes little sense. In this light, pushing for the administration to abandon the Iran sanctions investigation entirely seems less a miscalculation than an unstated or symbolic demand to reset the terms of the U.S.-Turkish relationship. Similarly, Erdogan’s now famous suggestion that Washington trade Brunson for Fetullah Gulen – “you have a priest and we have a priest…” – seems less like a practical proposal than a statement of how Erdogan envisions a more symmetrical relationship.

The problem for Washington, and by extension Turkey, is that so long as Erdogan assumes Western hostility and seeks to counter it through provocative measures, there are few good options to respond. Conciliatory gestures are more likely to convince Ankara that its pressure worked than lead it to conclude that its initial assumptions were false. But of course if Washington continues to intensify its own economic pressure – whether Brunson is ultimately released or not – Ankara’s assumption of Western hostility will once again be confirmed.

While Washington’s inability to extradite Gulen was a matter of legal reality, and its support for Kurdish fighters in Syria a matter of sound counter-terrorism policy, these measures succeeded in confirming Turkish suspicions to a degree that cannot now be overcome. By the same token, if Ankara views U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear program as an unacceptable violation of Turkish sovereignty to be subverted, and the ensuing U.S. legal measures against those who did the subversion as an anti-Turkish plot to be combatted, it will be difficult to establish functional terms for the relationship moving forward.  

The depressing reality is that if Ankara were simply using hostage diplomacy in a cynically pragmatic way to secure concrete concessions from the West, establishing a working relationship might ultimately prove much easier.

KEYWORDS: ANDREW BRUNSON, FETULLAH GULEN, TAYYIP ERDOGAN, TURKEY