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Trump’s letter to Erdogan: are strongmen politicians redefining global diplomacy?

President Trump, in a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has threatened to ‘destroy’ Turkey’s economy if the invasion into northern Syria doesn’t stop.

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US President Donald Trump, in a letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has threatened to ‘destroy’ Turkey’s economy if the invasion into northern Syria doesn’t stop. This news comes four days after the US decided to withdraw troops from Syria’s restive region. Trump warned Erdogan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

ThePrint asks: Trump’s letter to Erdogan: are strongmen politicians redefining global diplomacy?

To expect Turks to play ball and not attack the Kurds after the US troops’ withdrawal is unrealistic

Navtej Sarna
Former Ambassador and author

US President Donald Trump is unique in the way he communicates with leaders of other countries. I don’t think however that this will result in any redefinition of global diplomatic practices. If this letter to President Erdogan is authentic — and I believe White House has confirmed it as such — then it will go down in diplomatic history as a most bizarre communication from one head of state to another.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the northern border between and Syria and Turkey is being seen as the US abandoning the Kurds, who have been a valuable US ally against Daesh and have reportedly lost 11,000 fighters. The decision has been rejected by the US’ House of Representatives 354-60, which effectively means Republicans too have voted against Trump’s decision.

Senior Republican leaders like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump supporter Senator Lindsay Graham have openly criticised the President’s decision.

On the ground, the US has ceded diplomatic and strategic space to Turkey, Russia, Iran as well as Syria’s capital city Damascus.

The possibilities of a Daesh resurgence are that much stronger now. To expect the Turks to play ball and not attack the Kurds after the US troops’ withdrawal was always an unrealistic thought.

This letter has ensured that Erdogan will not climb down, and I would not like to be in US Vice President Mike Pence’s shoes as he travels to Ankara to try and persuade the Turkish President.

Diplomatic language doesn’t work anymore, we have to be vicious & clear, like Trump

File image of Abhijit Iyer-Mitra | Twitter

Abhijit Iyer Mitra
Senior fellow, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies

Trump and Erdogan are redefining global diplomacy norms. They are getting blunter for sure. We deliberately took out bluntness from diplomatic language because it was counterproductive. But in an era where everything is about political correctness, diplomatic language loses its sharpness if it has to be censored. A classic example being— in his book, Hussain Haqqani writes about when Hina Rabbani Khar after meeting Hillary Clinton, who apparently dressed them down in diplomatic language, came out and said that it went really well without realising she had been eviscerated.

Diplomatic language doesn’t work anymore. We have to be vicious and clear, and not leave wriggle room. That’s exactly what Trump has done. Erdogan has given shelter to ISIS and al-Qaida before and he will do so again. At some point you’ve got to draw the line, and I’m glad President Trump did.

Note the date on which the letter was sent— 9 October. Erdogan received it and has decided to ignore it. I’m waiting for the next step Trump will take.

Also read: What led Turkey to launch a military offensive against Kurds in Syria

Trump’s crude letter to Erdogan violates norms of diplomacy, does not redefine them

Kanwal Sibal
Former foreign secretary and executive council member at VIF

Trump’s letter to Erdogan makes for a bizarre reading. It violates all diplomatic norms with its crude and offensive tone.

The heads of state of other countries do not communicate so crassly with their foreign counterparts. Communication between sovereign governments must meet a certain standard of courtesy and politeness, even if the message is a tough one.

Oral communication can be more direct and unvarnished, but written communication that goes into records must be more carefully drafted. Trump’s letter is most boorish as far as diplomatic communications are concerned.

But, it’s not that Erdogan is a paragon of discretion and civility either, at least in his public utterances. While defending his invasion of Syria, he has spoken very disparagingly of Arab leaders and has sought to crudely blackmail Europe on the influx of refugees.

Both Trump and Erdogan speak as strongmen: the former as the leader of the world’s most powerful country, and the latter as the most powerful regional player. This explains the hubris that clouds the judgement and expression of both the leaders.

To suggest that Trump’s letter redefines global diplomacy norms would be an exaggeration. Diplomacy has undoubtedly become less formal, and many traditional ways of communication have been discarded. But Trump, whose fitness for office is being increasingly questioned in America, certainly does not represent a new international norm.

Trump & Pentagon are pursuing different policies. We don’t know if this is good-cop, bad-cop game

Bhadra Kumar
Former diplomat

Now, Trump is also a ‘strongman’ in his own way — he is breaking the US’ long record of military interventions abroad. The cliche of the strongman is from a liberal international viewpoint. A man who can take unconventional decisions is also a strongman.

I think this is less about being a strongman and more about deal-making. US President Donald Trump has always taken pride in being a ‘dealmaker’. That is the proposition he made to Erdogan in his letter. In recent years, Turkey and the US have been discussing a solution to normalise the situation in northern Syria.

However, Trump and Pentagon are pursuing different policies and we don’t know yet if this is a good-cop, bad-cop game. The US is left with just few allies in Syria and those are the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) and the YPG (People’s Protection Units) – both are homegrown defence forces of the Kurdish region of Syria. Everyone else has backed out.

The US offered them a deal – create a contiguous homeland for the Kurds in northern Syria, which is clearly anathema to Turkey.

Second, the US also said that it will snap this alliance once the fight against the ISIS is over, and take back all the weapons given to the Kurds. Third, the US offered to help Turkey to create a buffer zone in northern Syria. But the US never delivered on these promises.

If you analyse Trump’s stance on the Syrian crisis, he has not behaved like a strongman. America has, in fact, never shown such restraint as seen during Trump’s presidency.

Also read: Trump reinforces middle easterners’ view of U.S. as unreliable and weak

Letter to Erdogan symptomatic of Trump’s dysfunctional, inconsistent, divided administration

Talmiz Ahmad
Former diplomat

The Donald Trump administration is possibly the most dysfunctional administration the US has seen in several years. It has no consistency, offers no clarity, and remains divided.

We see Trump taking off-the-cuff decisions and conveying them to foreign leaders. By the time these leaders act on those decisions, Trump has already changed his mind. Trump’s letter to Erdogan is symptomatic of this dysfunctionality. His action has been criticised across the world, especially by the European allies. Even his political allies don’t support him on this.

The White House had given a green signal to President Erdogan to enter Northern Syria and very clearly stated that the US forces would be withdrawn.

It appears that Trump is committed to withdrawing his troops from the Middle East. The US President has made it clear that he doesn’t wish to see American troops stationed abroad and wants them back home, where they belong.

Trump very often functions entirely on his own, and whimsically. This letter is most ill-advised and shows his presidency in extremely poor light.

If people in West Asia have security concerns, they don’t turn to Washington anymore, but to Moscow. It is ironic that even as we speak, Putin is probably striking deals with the UAE and Saudi Arabia to build strategic ties, because these countries can no longer rely on the US for any stability.

Not for me to say how Trump should communicate with foreign leaders, Americans should decide that

Amar Sinha
Former diplomat

Any democratically elected president with a strong mandate is not necessarily a strongman. The letter sent from US President Donald Trump to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been confirmed by the White House, so the authenticity cannot be questioned. However, it is an unusual way of communication.

The level of informality between any two heads of state depends on their personal relationship, but this letter goes beyond that. It is rather strangely worded.

The only parallel I can think of and one that he may have been inspired from is Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s rant on Kashmir. I don’t think that this letter would change the basis of diplomacy because it has not become a global trend yet.

Global discussions happen every day, between nations who don’t see eye to eye, but in a much more formal way. The language used is more appropriate, and the message is put forth much more subtly.

Having said that, this is an aberration, but it’s not for me to advise Trump on how to run his nation. It is on the American public to decide how their President ought to behave in public.

Also read: Turkey’s military assault in Syria continues, thousands flee to escape violence

By Taran Deol, journalist at ThePrint

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  1. No one takes President Trump as seriously as his august office requires. More than 50% of Americans now support his impeachment and removal from office. That is a number a Republican politicians will watch while deciding how far to support his indefensible behaviour. Having given President Erdogan the green light to attack the brave Kurds whose sacrifices helped defeat ISIS, he is trying some damage control. Not drafting letters according to diplomatic etiquette is the least of his failings.

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