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What sanctions on Turkey say about Trump's brand of diplomacy

Why We Wrote This

Turkey's economy was already reeling when President Trump imposed toughened sanctions in a dispute over the detention and trial of an American pastor. The president's choice of such action is both unusual and telling, analysts say.

Emre Tazegul/AP
Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, N.C., arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, on July 25, 2018. Mr. Brunson, who had been jailed in Turkey for more than 1-1/2 years on terror and espionage charges, was released and will be put under house arrest as his trial continues. The Treasury Department is imposing sanctions on two Turkish officials over Brunson's detention.

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American Andrew Brunson, an evangelical pastor, stands accused in Turkey of spying on behalf of the leaders of a failed 2016 coup. The United States considers the charges baseless. But when President Trump imposed toughened steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey, a NATO ally, over the pastor’s detention, it was at least unusual, say experts on sanctions. What Mr. Trump’s action reveals, they say, is an administration that remains suspicious and dismissive of diplomacy, while putting more faith in the impact and effectiveness of blunt-force tools to get results. “This is the kind of thing that normally would be resolved quietly behind closed doors,” says George Lopez, an expert in economic sanctions at Notre Dame. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is showing no signs of bowing to US pressure. On Monday he compared the US action to shooting “bullets into the foot of your strategic partner,” and announced a boycott of American electronics products. Professor Lopez says the unilateral actions on both sides will do nothing to resolve the conflict. “Sanctions are only effective when you have the effective diplomacy and international engagement to go along with them,” he says.

President Trump has proven to be a fan of economic sanctions and penalties.

They’re useful as a tool to try to modify the behavior of adversaries like Iran, Russia, and North Korea, or as a “national security” defense against a range of trading partners.

But now the president has gone a step further, slapping toughened steel and aluminum tariffs on Turkey over the NATO ally’s detention and trial on espionage charges of a US citizen, evangelical pastor Andrew Brunson.

Such use of economic punishment to try to influence the actions of a friend and ally is at least unusual, experts in international sanctions say, if not unprecedented.

What Mr. Trump’s action reveals, they say, is a president and an administration that remain suspicious and dismissive of diplomacy, while putting more faith in the impact and effectiveness of blunt-force tools to get results.

Moreover, the Turkish economy is already precariously weak and vulnerable to external blows. So the punitive steps suggest that Trump – far from seeking to avoid deepening an ally’s woes while trying to resolve a diplomatic dispute – senses weakness and is zeroing in on Turkey’s economic vulnerabilities to force a response, analysts add.

“This is really a unique case. For one thing I can’t think of another instance where sanctions were imposed for the treatment or release of a single individual,” says George Lopez, an expert in economic sanctions at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. “But this is the kind of thing that normally would be resolved quietly behind closed doors, especially given that this is a NATO ally we’re talking about.”

Noting that Trump announced his intention to double the tariffs on Turkey over Mr. Brunson in a tweet, Professor Lopez says the president clearly wanted his followers to know he was acting unilaterally on behalf of the pastor.

“This has been catapulted to a crisis that didn’t need to be,” Lopez says. “But I get the feeling this is a topic the administration likes.”

Worsening US-Turkish ties

US relations with Turkey have been rocky for years, but took a sharp dive in 2016 after a failed coup attempt against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Mr. Erdoğan claimed was fomented by a Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen, living in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkey has unsuccessfully sought Mr. Gülen’s extradition.

Upon taking office, Trump initially expressed admiration for Erdoğan’s strongman leadership style. But ties frayed further as Turkey deepened relations with Russia and Iran, and clashed with the US over its alliance with Kurdish fighters in the civil war in neighboring Syria.

The United States included Turkey in the list of countries hit earlier this year with tariffs of 10 percent on aluminum and 25 percent on steel. Trump then announced in his tweet Friday that he had authorized a doubling of the tariffs in Turkey’s case. The new higher tariffs will effectively price Turkey out of the US market, economists say.

Enter the case of Mr. Brunson. The evangelical pastor stands accused of spying on behalf of the 2016 coup leaders, charges the US considers baseless. But although Turkey holds in detention as many as a dozen US citizens – including NASA physicist Serkan Golge, who was convicted and imprisoned on similar charges – Brunson is the only detained American on whose behalf Trump has spoken out publicly and taken action.

Even Trump didn’t appear to take a keen interest in the Brunson case until Vice President Mike Pence, a favorite with US evangelicals, pressed the president on the pastor’s plight, some Washington sources say.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
People wait at a currency exchange shop in Istanbul, Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018. The Turkish lira has nosedived in value in the past week amid concerns over Erdoğan's economic policies and after the United States increased sanctions on Turkey.

In the view of some experts, it is not so much the threat or use of economic pressure on a friend and ally that is so unusual, but rather the very public way Trump has moved against Turkey.

“There are several reasons to believe that sanctions or the threat of some form of economic action could be more effective when used versus a friend than versus an adversary,” says Randall Newnham, a specialist in the role of economic aid and sanctions in foreign policy at Penn State Berks in Reading, Pa.

“Friends generally have strong economic ties, so you’ve got something to sanction,” he says. “There’s probably a close political relationship the ally doesn’t want to disrupt, and then the friendship probably means there’s a level of trust and familiarity to work with towards some resolution.”

One example Professor Newnham cites is US punitive action in the past over Israel’s settlement construction. Another example is reduction in the 1990s of US aid to Colombia over the South American nation’s shortcomings in a bilateral anti-narcotics campaign.

Reminiscent of 19th-century competition

But the glaring difference in the Turkey case is how publicly and seemingly without much discussion or planning Trump took his action.

“Usually this type of pressure on an ally would be carried out in a much more subtle way,” Newnham says, “but here we have the president doing this in a tweet and off the top of his head.”

The Turkish ambassador to Washington did meet with national security adviser John Bolton Monday, but neither side announced any progress towards Brunson’s release.

Noting that Trump seemed almost to delight in Turkey’s economic tailspin – in his tweet last Friday, Trump announced his higher tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminum “as their currency … slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar!” – Newnham says the approach is in some ways more reminiscent of how trade and diplomatic relations were carried out in the 19th-century world of competing (and often warring) nation-states.

“These days your aim isn’t usually to humiliate the other side, but this approach would seem to make it very hard for a strong-willed leader like Erdoğan to back down,” Newnham says.

Indeed Erdoğan is showing no signs of bowing to US pressure. At a fiery press conference Monday, the Turkish leader compared the US action to shooting “bullets into the foot of your strategic partner.” He also announced a boycott of American electronics products.

No unilateral way out of conflict

No one outside Turkey is claiming that the country’s economic tailspin is anything other than Erdoğan’s doing. A recent economic boom was largely fueled by foreign borrowing – largely in dollars – and propped up by Erdoğan through the 2016 reelection campaign, in part by his refusal to raise interest rates.

“There’s no question that Erdoğan has put himself in a box,” Notre Dame’s Lopez says. But he adds that Trump’s action has only given Erdoğan a convenient scapegoat to use with Turks. “These sanctions give him the old rally-around-the-flag song to sing to his public,” he says.

That may serve Erdoğan’s immediate purposes, but Lopez says the unilateral actions on both sides will do nothing to resolve the conflict between two allies.

“Sanctions are only effective when you have the effective diplomacy and international engagement to go along with them,” Lopez says. But noting that the US does not even have an ambassador in Ankara at the moment, he adds, “What we’ve learned by now is that this administration is not very good at making the connection between the economic action and the international political work that has to accompany it if it’s going to have the outcome you want.”

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