Why is Turkey still a member of NATO?

Foreign Affairs

Why Is Turkey Still in NATO

The U.S. should cease catering to Turkey.

Europe’s eastern NATO member countries fear that they could be the next target of Moscow’s gunmen as war escalates between Russia and Ukraine. Finland and Sweden requested to be a part of the transatlantic alliance. And Turkey, a member since 1952, treated the opportunity as a visit to the bazaar, demanding that Stockholm crack down on Ankara’s Kurdish critics in return for its assent.

Why are the U.S. still considering Turkey an ally? ally?

President Joe Biden will be visiting Saudi Arabia soon to ask for more oil. He is also advocating a similar approach towards Turkey. Despite Ankara’s obstruction of NATO expansion and previous purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, the president advocates selling F-16s to and upgrading existing models for Turkey.

Biden insists there is no qud proquo involved but his suggestion conveniently occurs after Recep Tayyip Erdan, Turkish President, dropped objections to the Finnish and Swedish joining NATO. This is not all. The Biden administration had earlier this year proposed that Turkey be sold missiles and radars. The plan was said to face “stiff headwinds” in Congress, which had insisted during the Trump administration that Ankara be sanctioned for buying the S-400s.

When Turkey joined the transatlantic alliance there was a subdued despair in Washington. Washington was trying to defend a weak Western Europe against the Soviet Union. Washington used the threat of “massive reprisal” using nuclear weapons to protect the continent, despite being outmatched by conventional arms. The Korean War raged on, and was ended only one year later by Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader.

No one wanted to concentrate on Turkey’s democracy infirmities or later military coups. Indeed, Portugal was a dictatorship when it was named a founding member in 1949. And Greece remained a member despite its infamous 1967 “colonels’ coup.”

But, NATO was quick to embrace the fall of the Soviet Union and declared its determination to support democratic reform. Even as NATO’s lead member wandered the globe bombing, invading, and occupying nations at will–resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths along the way–alliance members proclaimed their democratic credentials: “NATO strives to secure a lasting peace in Europe, based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.” If Ankara applied for membership today, it would be firmly and brusquely rejected.

Two decades ago, Turkey had been a restricted democracy. Its military set the boundaries of civilian rule. The nationalism that was associated with the founding of the Republic of Turkey wasn’t allowed to be abandoned by any prime minister. The military also enforced strict secularism and was ready to exterminate any party or politician who attempted to approach the third rail in Islamic politics.

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However, over the last two decades, Erdogan, an adept politician who rebounded from a jail stint for publicly quoting a forbidden Islamic poem in his time as Istanbul’s mayor, broke the military’s power by means fair and foul. What little independence remained in the armed forces disappeared after the failed July 2016 coup.

At that time, he had already become an authoritarian and was being persecuted. Uri Friedman wrote: “In the past year and a half, government prosecutors have opened almost 2,000 cases against Turks for insulting the Turkish president…. Since 2002, Turkey has dropped from 99th to 151st in Reporters Without Borders’ annual ranking of press freedom in different countries, largely because of the government’s intimidation of critical journalists and censorship of the Internet.”

Erdogan used the botched putsch like Adolf Hitler used the 1933 Reichstag fire: as an opportunity to punish political opponents and critics. Tens of thousands of Turks have been fired, barred from traveling, or imprisoned, most for little more than holding a critical view of Erdogan or having a distant relationship with Fethullah Gulen’s social movement, which Erdogan unconvincingly accused of orchestrating the coup. Erdogan made the transition from parliamentary government to a presidential one, increasing his power. Years later, the regime continues to use Gulen to justify a continuing crackdown. In Turkey, belief that the U.S. was involved in the incident is widespread.

According to Freedom House, Turkey has fallen to just 32 out of a possible 100 points and is now rated “not free.” The organization explained that despite “initially passing some liberalizing reforms,” the Turkish president’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) “government showed growing contempt for political rights and civil liberties and has pursued a wide-ranging crackdown on critics and opponents since 2016. Constitutional changes in 2017 concentrated power in the hands of the president, removing key checks and balances.”

Repression will likely intensify as the next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections near. The economy, once Erdogan’s great political strength, is a wreck. The official annual inflation rate has hit a record 70 percent, and some economists believe the real rate is higher.

Moreover, as his popularity has declined and former political lieutenants have challenged him, Erdogan has turned to nationalists for support. He is not yet clear if he would accept a free election. For the first time in 2019, Erdogan refused to accept an election outcome, forcing a revote for Istanbul mayor, which his party lost disastrously. He might just fix it from the beginning next year.

But Washington’s biggest problem is Ankara’s loyalty to NATO. The U.S. ought to have handed the transatlantic alliance to Europe long ago. They have shown their willingness to take a cheap ride on Americans despite their outrage over Russia’s invasion. It is vital that NATO members continue to be committed, even if Washington continues to rely on NATO. Turkey isn’t.

Ankara is essentially at war against both NATO member Greece and member of the European Union, Cyprus. In 1974, Turkey invaded the former and carved out an ethnic Turkish state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara. Of late, Erdogan’s government has interfered with regional energy development, claiming those resources for the TRNC. Moreover, successive Turkish governments have refused to accept Greek sovereignty over contested islands and routinely invaded Greek airspace, triggering regular military confrontations. Athens spends more of its GDP on the military than America but it does this mostly in order to face Turkey and not Russia.

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Erdogan is more assertive and independent than his predecessors in foreign policy. This foreign policy often opposes the West. He suggested revisiting the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which set the boundaries of modern Turkey. There is conspiracy talk that the agreement will expire next year. However, it does not have an expiration date. He is pushing what has been called an Ottoman foreign policy, whose nationalist supporters dream of significantly expanding Ankara’s reach. The maritime doctrine Blue Homeland, which looks to control Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus, Egypt, Greece, and Israel, is gaining support. Indeed, Erdogan’s government has clashed with French and German vessels seeking to enforce an arms embargo on Libyan forces and U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces, which with American support defeated the Islamic State’s “caliphate.”

Of even greater importance is Ankara’s complicated, but close relationship with Russia. This makes perfect sense as a country that is a neighbour of great powers with whom it has fought many wars throughout its history. But, being NATO member and playing Moscow as a friend and comrade is not the same thing. Russia is today’s only potential military enemy. Turkey has been buying Russian arms, preventing allied naval operations at the Black Sea and refusing to abide by allied sanctions on Moscow. If NATO goes to war with Russia, who in the alliance thinks Ankara is reliable?

Naturally, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg resolutely defended Ankara, in March declaring “that Turkey’s strong leadership and commitment to NATO’s collective security is highly valued.” However, that was in the past. After Erdogan’s takeover, Turkey started to move away from the West. In 2003, the new Turkish government refused to allow Americans to operate against Iraq out of Turkey. Ankara allowed its fighters to move in and out Syria early in the conflict. Today Turkey wages war on U.S.-backed forces in Syria, exhibiting what Amnesty International described as “a shameful disregard for civilian life, carrying out serious violations and war crimes, including summary killings and unlawful attacks.”

After Erdogan’s attempted coup, he expelled officers from NATO and made way for those who were more open to an “Ottoman worldview”. These officers are now able to serve as the fifth column in any conflict against Erdogan and his successors, refusing aid or even obstructing operations. American University’s Mustafa Gurbuz quipped that some analysts may come to see Ankara as “Russia’s trojan horse within NATO, rather than the other way around.”

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Inwaiting Erdogan is not the answer. While some critics believe that Erdogan’s health may force him out of office, he is not showing any signs of wanting to leave. There is also no assurance that his successor can be elected democratically or that the new successor will bring about significant improvements. Possibilities include the interior and defense ministers, and intelligence head, who might prove even more nationalistic and authoritarian.

Indeed: There is very little support from the public for America cooperating. Favorable sentiment toward the U.S. ran at just 20 percent in 2019. This number dropped to 9 percent over the past two decades. Last year, six of ten Turks named the U.S. as the greatest threat to Turkey, thrice the number who pointed to Russia. In March, a poll found that nearly half of Turks blamed the Russo-Turkish war on the U.S. or NATO; almost 8 percent said Ukraine, and only one-third pointed to Russia.

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The U.S. should cease catering to Turkey. The alliance should demand loyalty from its members, and be open to joining collective action against an antagonist if it is serious. Other members must consider removing a government from the alliance if it is acting in a way that does not align with the alliance’s goals.

The U.S. shouldn’t be hostile towards Turkey. Europe must forge its own relations with Turkey, which will be more difficult given their closer economic relationship. There are also ongoing fears about refugees coming through Turkey via the Middle East. The U.S. would be free to leave Ankara alone if it felt the need. Adding Finland and Sweden to NATO does not help America. Instead, Washington will be able to expand its defense obligations by doing this.

Washington has had military friends for years. Both the former and latter have been just as valuable as the former. The U.S. should reverse its position with Turkey. NATO must have serious discussions about how to handle a situation where a member is no longer trusted. The Turks may be more friends than allies if they are not expected to become so.

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