The Promise of NATO to contribute better relations between Turkey and Greece: The Cold War Legacy

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Why could not Turkey and Greece develop a security community between each other in and around the Aegean Sea despite their decades long membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and strong relationships with the United States? The recent tension in bilateral relations requires analysts to offer an explanation as to why Turkey and Greece are still far away from finding sustainable solutions to their perennial problems over the Aegean Sea and the Cyprus island, and potentially adopting a non-realpolitik security outlook toward one another, despite their common membership in the most powerful security alliance the world has ever seen, viz. NATO, and their strong ties to the United States, the country which has long acted as their chief security provider. Could their membership in NATO help them resolve their bilateral problems in mutually satisfactory ways? If not, why? This short essay tries to answer this question in the context of the Cold War era. A follow-up essay will tackle this problem in the context of the post-Cold War era, as the dynamics of Turkish-Greek bilateral relations on the one hand and international politics on the other have substantially changed over the last thirty years. 

The role of the Alliance during the Cold War era in helping Greece and Turkey establish a long-term cooperative relationship did not prove promising for a number of reasons. First, the international/security identity of the Alliance did not necessitate a concerted and committed approach on the part of the United States, as the most powerful country in NATO, towards the resolution of their disputes. The NATO of the Cold War era was mainly a military alliance that came into existence around the US goal to contain Soviet communism. While the security culture of the Alliance was based on the realpolitik security strategy of containment, it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to think of the possibility that membership in NATO would spread the norms of non-realpolitik security culture.

Second, the Alliance did neither have intra-alliance conflict-resolution mechanisms nor strongly emphasize the necessity of the resolution of territorial disputes among members as a precondition for the continuation of their membership. Turkey and Greece were simply admitted to membership because of their strategic and military contributions to the security interests of the Alliance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The rhetorical usage of normative arguments by the then US President, Truman, only aimed at convincing the reluctant US Congress and some European allies to the need of Turkey and Greece's incorporation into the Alliance. 

Third, the Alliance's major area of concern during the Cold War era remained to be Western and Central Europe and the security concerns resulting from the Eastern Mediterranean region did not receive the high attention of the Alliance. Neither the alliance could devote a concerted action to territorial disputes between Greece and Turkey nor a comprehensive approach had been developed independent of the Cold War era strategic limitations. The technical and mechanical approach of the Alliance towards particular Turkish-Greek disputes did not contribute to their ever-lasting resolution. All Turkish-Greek disputes gained meaning in Washington only in terms of their possible implications on the struggle with the communist threat. The costs of sorting out comprehensive solution packages seemed to be higher than adopting a low-key attitude in an effort to defuse the tensions. The consideration was that it would have cost the alliance the most if one of the parties felt aggrieved by a specific set of propositions of the Alliance and in turn left the Club.

Fourth, as long as their military commitment toward the defense of the Euro- Atlantic security community against the Soviet threat was in place, the damaging repercussions of their disputes over the Aegean Sea and Cyprus were somehow tolerated. The most important concern of the US governments during the Cold War era was to prevent Turkey and Greece from fighting each other, as well as to forestall Soviet attempts at meddling in any intra-NATO dispute. It was assumed by many NATO officials that any undertaking to resolve Greek-Turkish differences is a no-win proposition for the Alliance. Besides, if NATO proved its impartiality by maintaining an attitude of detached concern, it was sometimes argued, Athens and Ankara would eventually realize that the alliance is not going to bail them out. Only then would they accept the responsibility for resolving their own differences.

Fifth, the US' involvement in the bilateral Turkish-Greek disputes was predicated on the assumption that if the United States wanted to see a stable environment she would have to value the military balance between Greece and Turkey, taking utmost care not to discriminate one against the other. This was, and still is, a realpolitik way of reaching peace or stability in interstate relations. When the US viewed the mainstay of Turkish-Greek stability based on military balance in the region, Greece and Turkey were strongly affected by this in the formulation of their security policies vis-à-vis each other. This approach decreased the credibility of the Alliance in both countries. The Turks tended to interpret the US' 7 to 10 policy in terms of military sales to Turkey and Greece as the confirmation of the Turkish threat by the Americans. The fact that it was the Greeks, who first pleaded the Americans with adopting such a stance on the basis of the so-called menacing Turkish threat in the East, the Turks did not see the US logic towards the region as impartial but lopsided in favour of Greece. Likewise, the Greeks would have also interpreted any whatsoever inaction on the side of Americans as the US' acquiesce in Turkey's greater geo-political value, as well as the legitimacy of Turkish arguments.

Sixth, the fact that geo-strategic position and military power of members defined their bargaining powers within the Alliance did shore up Turkey's relatively more important status over Greece. Internal mechanisms of the Alliance made the power disparity between Greece and Turkey very clear, particularly to the Greeks. This has contributed to the Greek thinking that any NATO-framed solution of the Cyprus and the Aegean disputes would likely favor Turkey at the expense of Greece. Although it was argued that NATO in general and the United States in particular embraced a kind of low-key policy in order not to offend both Greece and Turkey, it is generally the case that Turkey appeared as the country that the western community did not want to antagonize the most. In the face of such allegedly pro-Turkish leanings of the Alliance, the major dilemma for the Greek foreign policy makers within the Alliance was how to strike a balance between the two competing strategies, to favor better Turkish-Greek relations in accordance with the strategic priorities of NATO on the one hand and to work for the realization of the unification of Cyprus with the mainland Greece in accordance with the Hellenism ideology on the other.

Seventh, just as the United States established strong bilateral security relations with other members of the Alliance, Turkey and Greece also signed such treaties with the United States. Such a character of NATO membership made the resolution of Turkish-Greek disputes difficult for the main reason that the United States became a natural party to the conflict as both countries lobbied their cause in Washington. This trilateral character of the disputes made their resolution difficult. When it was the case that the continuation of the alliance’s functions in the Eastern Mediterranean were made possible in the face of lingering Turkish-Greek problems, no need aroused in the Western circles to come up with serious and detailed solution proposals.

Eight, the Turkish and Greek feeling that the United States and other major members of the Alliance did not care about their problems and were content with the maintenance of their conflictual relationship at the tolerable and manageable limits seems to have put Greece and Turkey into a position in which they tended to vie for the resources and benefits of the alliance in order to strengthen their bargaining positions via-a-vis each other. Because the importance of allies within NATO, particularly in the eyes of the Americans, varied according to their military capabilities and geo-political significance, such kind of thinking fueled rivalry in and around the Aegean Sea. This was a clear realpolitik outcome caused by the constitutive principles of the Alliance. The mentality that I could better represent the Western interests in the region had inevitably pitted Turkey and Greece against each other as contenders and rivals.

Both Greece and Turkey considered that NATO undervalued their membership, albeit for different reasons. Paradoxically, the alliance's hands-off policy, although intended to project NATO’s impartiality and encourage Athens and Ankara to settle their own differences, seemed to have had the opposite effect. Both capitals were led to interpret NATO’s attitude as proof that the organization did not take them seriously and, accordingly, to see less prospects for rewards from the alliance, should they adopt more flexible policies, or penalties, should they fail to do so. It is also logical to suppose that what Greeks and Turks alike viewed as the relatively low priority accorded to the southeastern flank gave them little reason to place NATO priorities above their own when it came to force planning and deployment, weapons procurement and other aspects of their national defense policy.

The American guarantee that the alliance would defend them against the Soviets made them concentrate on regional foreign and security policy issues. When the first priority of their foreign policy, e.g. the security guarantee against the Soviet Union, was met by the Americans, Greece and Turkey became able to pay their attention to their regional security issues more easily. They did not feel the need to resolve their disputes as part of their effort to resist the communism. This shows that Turkey and Greece did even fail to cooperate with each other within NATO on the basis of their collective interests. This to a great extent led them to view the Alliance as a strategic instrument to serve their pre-conceived national interests, rather than as an institutional platform to materialize their collective security interests. They gradually believed that their support to the US's efforts to contain the Soviet Union in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean region would in return beget a holistic US support to their every single security policy.

Where NATO met the number one security consideration of Greece and Turkey, the flow of arms from the United States and other western European members of the Alliance to Turkey and Greece contributed to the emergence and perpetuation of a security dilemma situation in the Aegean because they no longer shared in the collective interest to cooperate against the Soviet threat. This is a pure realpolitik outcome caused by a particular NATO policy. Furthermore, when the Alliance armed Turkey with a view to helping her defend its (the Alliance’s) borders against the Soviet Union, the main purpose behind the flow of arms to Greece was to buttress Greece’s capability to check the communist threat within the country. When this was the case, the military disparity between Turkey and Greece manifolded as the Cold War years passed by. The logic of NATO inadvertently contributed to the widening of the gap between Turkey and Greece in terms of their military capabilities.

Turkey and Greece were never asked to settle their disputes and internalize the security norms of the western international community before their accession to the Alliance. The detailed and comprehensive membership criteria were missing during the Cold War era enlargement of NATO. This might have indirectly curtailed the promise of the Alliance in contributing to the transformation of Turkey and Greece’s realpolitik security cultures into non-realpolitik ones.

Finally, under such conditions, the transparency NATO’s internal mechanisms provided did not prevent Turkey and Greece from perceiving the military instruments of each other as threats. Indeed, the more Greece became aware of Turkey’s superior military capabilities within NATO, the more she adopted an exclusive attitude towards Turkey. The sheer military power of Turkey did not lessen the Greek fears of Turkey even though Greece could monitor Turkey's military capabilities through the NATO channels. Their joint NATO membership revealed the power disparities between Greece and Turkey more acutely. Therefore, the intra-alliance mechanisms made it time again clear that significant power differences exist between Greece and Turkey both in terms of their military potential and their representational force within the Alliance. Thought of this way, their NATO membership contributed to the perpetuation of the realpolitik security culture in the Eastern Mediterranean region.