Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Trump Tariffs Strain Relations Between U.S. And Turkey


The foreign minister of Russia is going for meetings in the capital of Turkey today. Now, alone, that doesn't sound like a huge deal, but what it signifies could be. There are signs Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is looking for more reliable allies, like perhaps Russia, as new tensions flare with the U.S.


Yeah, the Trump administration put additional tariffs on Turkish aluminum and steel last week. And Turkey's currency plunged. Trump's taken a hard line as Erdogan continues to blame a cleric here in the U.S. for the attempted coup against him in 2016.

GREENE: Now, whatever the cause of these tensions, if Turkey turns away from the U.S. and towards Russia, this could have big implications, including for the future of Syria. Elmira Bayrasli served in the U.S. State Department during the Clinton administration. She now teaches international affairs at Bard College with a focus on Turkey. Professor, thanks for joining us. Good morning.

ELMIRA BAYRASLI: It's great to be here.

GREENE: So it sounds like these U.S. tariffs have really pummeled the Turkish economy. What's the situation there?

BAYRASLI: Well, I think we need to take a step back. Certainly, the announcement by Trump on Friday did not help matters, but the Turkish economy had been in crisis for quite a while. And that crisis really stems from two things. One, when the Turkish leaders could have implemented structural reforms - that being increasing productivity of the Turkish economy and really trying to stem debt - and the root of this crisis really is debt. The current account deficit right now in Turkey is at about $3 billion.

The second part of the crisis is President Erdogan's unorthodox views on monetary policy. President Erdogan has a view that if you raise interest rates, it, quote, unquote, "makes the rich richer and the poor poorer." Well, that's a very big problem if you are an economy that is based on consumption pouring money into construction projects, which has been very prominent in Turkey over the past two decades. You end up accruing a lot of debt. And that's essentially - and without the central bank increasing rates, what you have right now is the currency responding to that.

GREENE: So all of this sounds like a mess that Erdogan is blaming the United States for at this moment, which sounds like maybe he shouldn't necessarily be doing. But he sees - what? - an opportunity now that Trump announced these new tariffs?

BAYRASLI: Certainly, the Turkish economic crisis is a result of Erdogan's actions. However, I have to say that the Trump administration does bear a responsibility here. Erdogan has - you know, I think it's been very known that he has lashed out at the West. And he is actually using Trump's tariffs and Trump's words to - as a cover for himself, as an excuse for why the economy is going so bad. This morning, the - his government announced that they would be investigating 346 social media accounts, holding them responsible for the economic crisis in Turkey.

GREENE: So it really is a blame game for him right now, even at this moment when the Russian foreign minister is coming to Ankara for talks. What would this mean if Erdogan begins increasingly to turn away from the United States. I mean, the U.S.-Turkey relationship has been, you know, rocky but so important for so long. As we think about the future of Syria, other conflicts, other problems, what would that mean?

BAYRASLI: Absolutely. As you point out, I mean, the United States-Turkey relationship is - it goes back many decades. Turkey is a NATO ally. Turkey actually has the second-largest armed forces in NATO. As you point out, U.S.-Turkey relations have been rocky for some time. That dates back to 2003 with the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it also dates back to the Syrian civil war, where you not only have an extremist group - the rise of ISIS - but you have about 3 million refugees pouring into Turkey. At the root of this crisis is also a Turkish cleric that is here in the United States. His name is Fethullah Gulen.

GREENE: Right.

BAYRASLI: And Erdogan holds Gulen responsible for the failed coup attempt in July of 2016. Erdogan very much wants the United States to hand Gulen back. And this has really been at the heart of a lot of these tensions.

GREENE: And is a lot at stake here, in the few seconds we have left?

BAYRASLI: There is absolutely a lot at stake here - and hopefully that both leaders will be reminded that they both need one another.

GREENE: OK. We really appreciate you talking with us. Elmira Bayrasli teaches international affairs at Bard College. Thanks.

BAYRASLI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.