Sanctions overreach: On U.S.'s decision to impose sanctions on Turkey

The U.S. should realise it cannot dictate terms in a changed global order, with its new powers

Updated - December 18, 2020 12:27 am IST

Published - December 18, 2020 12:02 am IST

The U.S.’s decision to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of the S-400 missile defence system from Russia further complicates the already troubled relationship between the two NATO members. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this week that the Trump administration was obliged to impose sanctions on Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed in 2017 and aimed at discouraging third countries from buying weapons from Russia. Earlier, the U.S. had suspended Turkey from its F-35 fighter jet programme which Washington feared would be undermined by the Russian system. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the sanctions “an attack on Turkey’s sovereignty”. The U.S. decision will have implications for India as well, which has also ordered the S-400. The Trump administration has been non-committal on giving India a sanctions waiver. In the case of Turkey, Washington had said it would not invoke sanctions if Ankara did not activate the system. But why would Turkey have purchased this anti-missile system for billions of dollars if it did not want to activate it? In October, Turkey test-fired the system and in two months, sanctions are in place.

The U.S.’s decision to suspend Turkey from the F-35 programme was well within its rights. It is up to Washington who it should sell the weapons to. But punishing other countries with sanctions for their decision to buy weapons from a third party is transborder bullying, if not meddling with their sovereignty. Each country takes decisions on defence buys based on its requirements and security challenges. The S-400, which has been deployed by Russia in Syria, along its borders with Eastern Europe and in the Arctic Circle, is seen as a highly advanced aerial shield. It is hardly surprising that Turkey, China and India, which are rising, ambitious powers with daunting security challenges, opted for the S-400. Punishing them is coercion sans strategic thinking. From a geopolitical point of view, the U.S.’s actions could drive Turkey further into the hands of Russia, despite their serious disagreements over crises such as Syria, Libya, and now Nagorno-Karabakh. That Mr. Erdoğan still chose to buy Russian weapons shows that there is a paradigm shift in Ankara’s strategic thinking. The U.S.-Turkey tensions, coupled with the war of words between French President Emmanuel Macron and Mr. Erdoğan and the Greece-Turkey spat over the Eastern Mediterranean region, point to cracks in NATO. The U.S. should ask itself whether it wants to widen these further or take a broader view of the changes that are under way in the global order. The 1990s unilateralism has already paved the way for a new multilateralism. There are many rising powers and their demands may no longer be dictated by the wishes of Washington.

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