How quickly things can change.
At the NATO Summit in July, the Presidents of the United States and Turkey seemed to be the best of friends — in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s frosty relations with many other members of the alliance.
One moment captured it all. After lambasting certain allies for not paying their fair share, Trump motioned to Recep Tayyip Erdogan and said “he does things the right way.” He then fist-bumped the Turkish leader – a universal sign of praise for a job well done.
That was then. This is now.
The two are acting like competing bullies on a playground — threatening each other and hurling insults. It seems the qualities they share have resulted in what some might call “a clash of the titans.”
Here you have two presidents with autocratic tendencies, who refuse to admit to their mistakes and who tend to surround themselves with aides who endorse their worst instincts.
As a result, both countries are in trouble. Turkey is an economic mess due to Erdogan’s misguided policies. At the same time, the United States is as divided as I have seen it in my lifetime and sometimes I wonder if our leadership will ever regain its moral core.
So here we have Trump and Erdogan circling each other like boxers in the ring. It isn’t pretty. And the result could have a big impact on the international economy.
The seeds of trouble actually go back some time… it’s the personalities of the two leaders that have turned the situation so dangerous so fast.
There are tensions related to the war in Syria, arms shipments and the 2016 attempted coup in Turkey.
Erdogan is insisting the United States extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric that he claims instigated the coup. Trump, meanwhile, is pushing for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American clergyman held in Turkey on espionage and related charges.
Both men are digging in, sending already uneasy relations between the two countries into a downward spiral. Neither will back down and both seem intent on sending the stakes higher.
With the Turkish economy in deep trouble and the lira in free-fall, Trump threw gasoline on the fire. And he did it in his preferred fashion, not in negotiations but with a tweet for all the world to see:
“I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”
Well, that may be the understatement of (a very turbulent) year.
Erdogan returned Trump’s rhetoric in kind — though he spelled out his grievances against the United States not on social media, but in speeches and an essay published on the opinion page of the New York Times.
He told supporters:
“If the U.S. is turning its back on us….choosing a pastor instead, sorry…we continue our path with decisive steps…This treatment by America of its strategic partner has annoyed us, it has upset us.”
And to the readers of the Times, he wrote:
“… unilateral actions against Turkey by the United States, our ally of decades, will only serve to undermine American interests and security.”
Trump has said little in response, not even when Erdogan announced Turkey would retaliate for the doubling of tariffs on metals with a boycott of U.S. electronic goods, including iPhones.
Maybe it’s because President Trump is currently taking some time off from dealing with the state of relations with Turkey to focus on other matters — mainly the ongoing investigation into his presidential campaign and a new book by a former White House staffer (an African-American woman who accuses him of incompetence and racism.)
Most Americans have also turned their attention elsewhere. Quite frankly, many of us have reached the point where we are taking these Trumpian trade rants in stride. The stock market has become largely immune to his bullying, and trade retaliation has not yet hit at the consumer level.
But there are economists who are raising red flags and warning that Turkey’s currency woes could spur a new global financial crisis. And experts in the region are urging Americans to sit up and pay attention, while hoping cooler heads prevail.
Cooler heads? We are talking here about Trump and Erdogan. Both know this rhetoric is playing well with the people who matter the most to them — their respective political bases.
Erdogan is diverting attention from his own economic miscalculations (which led to massive debt and a plummeting currency) by focusing on the action taken by the United States. He is blaming an “economic war” for Turkey’s fiscal woes.
Trump, meanwhile, knows that the case of Andrew Brunson is a winner with evangelical Christians, who are among his strongest supporters. They care deeply when one of their own is held in a foreign country under house arrest for crimes they are certain he did not commit.
Is a total split likely?
It is way too early to tell, especially given the erratic Trump approach to foreign policy.
In comments to the Axios news service, Ozgur Unluhisarcikli — head of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara office, says a split is “not the intention of either side… but events could lead Turkey there.”
And who stands to gain the most from a rift? Consider who was the first world leader to reach out to Erdogan after the Trump tariff announcement.