The future of Turkey in NATO, a 2020 outlook

By THO Academic Liaison, Sean Russell

With 2020 entering its final leg, the decade feels similar to staring down the barrel of a gun. Individuals, companies, and countries frantically prepare for what lies ahead. So far, uncertainty characterizes 2020. Regardless of what happens this decade, it will be written in bold for future history books. Uncertainty brings the need to organize, a skill that will be challenged within all institutions, at home and abroad. Monday, June 8, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg outlined NATO’s game plan for taking on the impending decade. Institutions such as NATO are being put to the test as the world enters a strenuous stage of history. 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization(NATO), since its inception in 1948, has acted as a bastion of democracy. A strong, cooperative military alliance that balanced the scale of global power against the Warsaw pact of the USSR, this alliance has withstood the stress of the twentieth century. But now, in the twenty-first century, geopolitics appear less black and white, their footing on the global stage seems uneasy, the alliance must brace for what is ahead.

NATO’s 2030 plan seeks to strengthen the military alliance through increased investment into joint military operation, encourage and strive for political consensus within the organization, and take on a more global approach as the world becomes increasingly interconnected. In 2018, Norway hosted the largest NATO joint military exercise since the Cold war(Trident Juncture), and 2019 saw roughly 100 NATO military exercises consisting of land, air, and maritime scenarios.The first goal being an obvious continuation of NATO’s charter, the other two goals, political consensus and a global approach, shed light on the challenges that approach the North Atlantic Alliance. Both of these goals highlight an on-going rift with the alliance and one of its most valuable members: Turkey.

Turkey, being the second largest military within the pact and a vital strategic ally, will be eager to see how NATO incorporates the country in the decade plan.  Since Turkey’s admittance to NATO in 1952, the country's strategic importance to the alliance has only increased. However, in recent years Turkey has felt neglected by their western allies, arguing that Turkey’s security needs are not being considered by the alliance as a whole. 

The US, being the largest contributor to the alliance and de-facto leader, will also come to a crossroads with its trans-atlantic partnership. The Trump administration has shown its opinion of NATO clearly over the last four year, believing it to be a drain on American resources and a ‘bad deal’. However, the US Department of Defense and Vice President Joe Biden have called for consensus and cooperation within NATO, both will be needed for NATO to retain influence in the coming decade. 

The alliance itself has felt pressured by Turkey in recent months ever since Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S400 surface-to-air missile defense system. This standoff over military hardware will be one of the largest foreseeable obstacles for NATO in the 2020s. 2020 has also seen an increase in tensions between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members, over offshore energy rites. This standoff has led France to bring about naval frigates as a “guarantee of peace”, a move Ankara has not been pleased with. Alongside the S400 standoff and offshore natural gas tension, recent events in Libya and Syria have pitted Turkey against NATO allies - only increasing tension within the alliance. 

While there appear to be obvious differences in geopolitical interest within the alliance, let us weigh the alternative to sustained cooperation.

Without membership in NATO, Turkey would be thrown into a new political landscape with little room to form friendships. By alienating Europe, Turkey would have to resort to the many autocratic leaders of North Africa, Middle East, and Russia. While Turkey may see this as an opportunity, it will not bode well for their burgeoning economy and democratic institutions. With regards to NATO, the alliance stands to lose its second largest military, its most geographically strategic bases, and its wide breadth of military protection. 

Will Turkey and NATO be able bridge divisions and differences in 2020? Or will we witness a continued decline in multilateralism, so far characteristic of the twenty-first century? Regardless of differences in stance or strategic interest, it is in both Turkey’s and NATO’s best interest to tough it out and compromise. 

Work Cited:

Erlanger, Steven. “Turkish Aggression Is NATO’s ‘Elephant in the Room.” The New York Times, 3 Aug. 2020.,

Key NATO and Allied Exercises in 2019. 1902-factsheet_exercises_en.pdf, NATO/OTAN, Feb. 2019, p. 3,

NATO. “Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Launching #NATO2030 - Strengthening the Alliance in an Increasingly Competitive World.” NATO, Accessed 9 Sept. 2020.

Smith, Helena. “France to Send Warships to Support Greece in Turkish Standoff.” The Guardian, 29 Jan. 2020.,

Turkey and NATO: A Relationship Worth Saving. Accessed 9 Sept. 2020.