Turkey’s Growing Pains

American relations with Turkey got very interesting last week.

An ongoing disagreement over the status of an American pastor, Andrew Craig Brunson, who thought it a good idea to proselytize in a country who officially, firmly, repeatedly warned him such actions were both unwelcome and unwise, has built up into a full-throated international incident. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s base is Islamist social conservatives while Donald Trump’s core coalition includes Christian social conservatives. The Turks arrested Brunson, the Trump administration wants Brunson released, the Turks said no, and here we are.

Turkey’s currency, the lira, has been struggling for years in no small part due to the political pressure Erdogan and his supporters have placed on the central bank to keep interest rates artificially low. Rising inflation peaked over the weekend when the lira fell to record lows, with Erdogan still voicing support for interest rates to remain as low as possible. (High interest rates are typically anathema to construction firms, and much of Erdogan’s political machinery has been financed in the past by large Turkish firms who have benefitted from the infrastructure and construction boom since his time in office.) Fuel was added to the fire of monetary weakness from a once unthinkable source: the United States.

On August 10 U.S. President Donald Trump announced a doubling of the United States’ tariffs on imports of Turkish steel and aluminum, expressly linking the new tariff levels to the Brunson dispute. This is hardly the first time the Americans have used economic sanctions to get their way. Sanctions against strategic rivals such as the Soviet Union or North Korea are a time-honored tradition, as are sanctions in preparation for military action such as in the months leading up to the pair of invasions of Iraq. Similarly, tariffs are a common tool in economic arguments and trade disputes.

But to my recollection, this is the first time the Americans have ever used such tools in a political dispute against an ally.

A few things come from this:

First, the American-Turkish alliance is over.

I’m not talking NATO here – NATO is already dead. I’m talking bilateral arrangements. The United States and Turkey have had a long and largely productive military relationship since the 1950s, with Turkish military bases proving central to American foreign policy goals as regards the Eastern Mediterranean, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran, the former Yugoslavia, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus.

The partnership has been built on a pair of unshakable facts.

  • Turkey’s long history and relatively diversified, robust economy makes it the only power touching the Middle East that is capable, stable, reliable and whose assistance doesn’t generate more problems than it solves.
  • Turkey’s location between Europe and Asia, between the former Soviet space and the Mediterranean, makes it the central clearinghouse for any out-of-region power that seeks to project power into all four zones.

During the first Gulf War, the Turks allowed the US to use Incirlik airbase to attack Iraqi positions in exchange for financial aid. After Erdogan rose to power in 2003 and denied the Americans’ use of Incirlik due to concerns over Kurdish empowerment, the US military had to find longer, costlier workarounds to achieve their goals. Turkey lost out on the economic aid, but demonstrated its leverage.

Without the alliance, any American policy in any of the four zones now must be fully amphibious or fully dependent upon far less capable, stable and reliable allies. For the most part this means a screaming retreat of American active management of all four zones. That shift will be reflected most obviously and dramatically in the Middle East. Expect the Americans to be completely out of Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan within the year, and out of Turkey’s Incirlik base shortly thereafter. Even efforts in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia will feel the pinch without Turkish support.

Second, the Americans’ politicization of economic pressure is rightly sending some markets into panic. Turkey is the most obvious, but Europe isn’t far behind. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s new policy, European markets and the euro tanked. (Full disclosure: I’m currently travelling in the French-speaking Caribbean, and so have a vested interest in talking this up!)

The relationship between Europe and Turkey is messy. The two comprise different ethnicities, religions, and views of the role of government and religion in society. Europe is becoming more secular by the day, while Turkey is shifting in the opposite direction. In ages past European powers have attempted to invade Turkey and vice versa. The European Union has proven unwilling to admit Turkey as a member for reasons that are cultural, political and tied to immigration, yet has proven totally willing to integrate with Turkey economically and financially. European banks are heavily involved in Turkish banking and debt markets – both private and public – while Turkish manufacturers are tightly wound into European supply chains.

Americans targeting Turkey with selective tariffs is only one step away from the threat of using secondary sanctions to impede Turkish access to global financial markets. Washington has already prepped the secondary sanctions tool for use on Iran and is highly likely to apply them to Chinese entities in the not-too-distant future. Pretty much all European entities that were doing business in and with Iran scrapped all that business to avoid being targeted, and now European entities doing business in and with Turkey are terrified that their far more substantial business will be targeted.

It’s a reasonable fear. Any use of secondary sanctions against Turkey would be catastrophic for the Europeans, not just for the lost links into the Turkish economy, but also for any links to the wider world. Since secondary sanctions in essence break the link between an entity and international finance, they de facto bar any international trade links as well.

The European Union is a weird critter, dependent as it is upon the security platform and global market access the Americans have maintained since 1946. With the demise of NATO the security platform is shattering. With these new actions against Turkey in specific and the use of secondary sanctions in general, that global market access is now collapsing.

The euro meltdown was the first hint that the Europeans are even subconsciously considering the true horror of their vulnerable position. The Europeans have long fretted over a long list of minor, squabbling, internal issues such as the Greek bailout, refugees, Brexit, civil controls in Poland, democracy in Hungary, neo-Nazis in Germany, etc. On all these topics the Europeans actually have the resources and tools necessary to address the issues in question – what they’ve lacked is the political will. Now they’re faced with an unavoidable, mortal threat to the system that makes European peace, prosperity and unity possible – and so far, that’s not even with the United States taking aim at Europe directly. If I were European I’d be freaking out a bit right now.

Third, the American-Turkish split gives us an early case to watch as to what might happen after the global Order is gone. The Americans created the global Order of maritime security and free trade in order to bribe up the anti-Soviet Cold War alliance. The Cold War ended a generation ago and successive American administrations have steadily backed away from maintaining the Order. The Obama administration was at best coolly aware of the system, and now the Trump administration is formally dismantling it. For the United States this isn’t all that big of a deal. The war is long over, and the U.S. economy isn’t very internationalized. The global Order – the world we know – can end and most Americans might not even notice. The same cannot be said for everyone else, many of whom have based their political legitimacy and economic strength on a globalized world. America is less the bull in the china shop and more the flamethrower pointing at a house of cards.

That’s the big picture, but there will be dozens of little pictures.

There are any number of ways the Order can descend into Disorder. One possibility is all at once from a broad American repudiation, but another would be a piecemeal collapse as the Americans target specific countries one at time. That may be what started this past week. Turkey may be about to (unwillingly) pioneer a fundamentally new sort of regional economic, political and strategic management system because it is becoming excluded from the dying global Order.

Turkey will definitely suffer – greatly. Turkey’s dependence upon international trade is roughly double that of the United States in relative terms, with the greatest exposure being to Europe for merchandise and services trade. The pain will be intense. But Turkey will bounce back. It sports a young, growing, savvy and educated population. A strong infrastructure. Robust local consumption to limit its dependence upon exports. Zero threat of invasion. The most powerful army in its surrounding regions – including Europe and the Middle East. A geographic position that puts it in command of any cross-regional trade among Europe and the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and the Mediterranean. The few things that Turkey has no choice to import exist in countries Turkey borders. In a world without globalization, Turkey will fall – hard – but then will quickly rise to dominate its neighborhood.

This is part of why I’ve identified Turkey as one of five countries that will gain, regain or retain the ability to reshape their neighborhoods to their liking once the Disorder settles in. (Yes, that was a tasteless plug for my upcoming book – After the Superpower.)

A positive American relationship with such a resurgent Turkey is critical to neither American nor Turkish interests; the ponds in which the two countries swim are not really connected. But that’s not the same thing as saying that seeking a mutually hostile relationship is a good idea. As the Order falls, Washington and Ankara are most certainly getting off on the wrong foot.

Washington, D.C.

Which brings me to my final point. Just because the United States has few interests in the wider world does not mean the United States is going to fully retreat – no matter how logical such a retrenchment might seem. Last week’s spat with Turkey is not in the American national interest. It is wholly due to the inflammation of domestic political issues on both sides.

As little respect as I have for blind zealotry – regardless of the type of headgear worn, book waved, or whether the names tossed around are Jesus, Allah, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, or Elon Musk – I’d be an idiot not to recognize it as a political motivator, particularly in places as emotionally hopped up as the United States and the Middle East. Actions based on ideology rarely generate the desired results, and often lead to unnecessary escalations.

I’m not suggesting a new Thirty Years’ War is inevitable, but instead that the United States is about to have a lot of military assets with little to do at the same time the world gets a lot noisier. America’s economic and military power may be unrivaled in human history, but that doesn’t mean the Americans cannot be played. The hardest part of my job isn’t figuring out what is in a country’s best interests or what sort of actions would protect and further those interests, but instead keeping an eye out for the sorts of less-than-logical things countries do due to miscalculation or internal politics.

The best recent example is one of the darker moments in American history. Osama bin Laden’s primary motivation for the September 11, 2001 attacks was to bait the Americans into the Middle East, where he expected all Muslims to rise up, overthrow their secular governments, boot out the Americans, and usher in a new pan-Islamic empire. That it was an unrealistic plan that ultimately cost bid Laden his life isn’t the point. The Americans fell for it and spent the next 15 years invading and occupying territories of zero strategic or economic worth.

To be clear, I’m not thinking the Brunson issue is part of some complex plan to bait the Americans. My point is that while the Americans are broadly immune to the craziness that is about to become the global normal, they can still be had. And the only way to insulate the country from such schemes is to evolve beyond hyper-partisanship and willful ideological blindness. To be aware.

It might be awhile.

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