President Donald Trump’s new tariffs on Turkish steel, aimed at punishing Turkey over its incursion in Syria, are unlikely to deter President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from overrunning Kurdish territory in its neighboring country. Crushing Kurdish nationalism has been a Turkish goal for decades. Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw US troops from northern Syria gave Erdogan a golden opportunity to fulfill that objective.
As for economic punishment on Turkey, Trump’s new tariff of 50 percent, up from 25 percent previously imposed citing national security, will probably come close to eliminating US imports of steel from Turkey. US imports of Turkish steel in 2019 are running at an annual rate of just $280 million, already down sharply from $765 million in 2018 thanks to Trump’s previously imposed tariffs. To the extent that Turkish exports to the United States are further reduced, the sanctions will hurt US exports of steel scrap to Turkey, which is a component in producing finished steel in Turkey.
But world steel imports are huge, over $400 billion, and by lowering its export prices, Turkey can easily sell elsewhere all the steel formerly shipped to the United States. Trump’s vow that he is “fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path” is thus being heard throughout the region as an empty threat.
The United States sometimes imposes heavy economic sanctions in a serious attempt to change a foreign adversary’s policy. Such an objective, for example, has been clear in Trump’s suite of measures against Iran—finance, trade, and more. In other cases, US sanctions are imposed just for show—to pacify domestic critics of the president. It would appear that Trump’s tariffs on imports of Turkish steel rank high on the long list of show sanctions.
The sanctions against Turkey can be compared with President Ronald Reagan’s feeble sanctions against apartheid in South Africa in the 1980s, in response to rising public demand for him to act, President George H. W. Bush’s weak response to China’s violent crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and President Barack Obama’s qualified answer to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. In none of these cases, and dozens of kindred episodes, did the sanctions change the adversary’s policy, and in most of them domestic critics were not fooled.
In the best of circumstances, it’s hard to dislodge an acquisitive country from occupying foreign territory through the imposition of economic sanctions. The League of Nations learned that lesson in 1935 when it tried to dissuade Mussolini from occupying Ethiopia. In more than 80 years since, little has changed. And with his token slap on Turkey, President Trump does not seem even to be trying.