By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu
Since it joined the alliance in 1952, Turkey has been a staunch NATO member contributing to the materialization of alliance’s interests decisively. Both NATO and Turkey have been driving benefits from this cooperation. Despite the fact that recent years have witnessed growing tension between Turkey and some NATO allies, this should not be read as a crisis between Turkey and NATO. Turkey’s membership is something beyond the sum of Turkey’s bilateral relations with each and every ally within NATO.
Despite some initial objections to Turkey’s accession to NATO, Turkey was admitted to the alliance when the world was at an inflection point back then. Just as the question of whether Turkey would remain neutral, join the Soviet camp or throw in its lot with the liberal democratic countries of the western world required an urgent response, we are now at a similar point in the year of 2021. As the Biden administration is trying help revive the transatlantic community around common values and strategic interests, the future of Turkey’s place in NATO could not be more important than ever.
Even though changing dynamics of international politics in recent years seem to have created some serious fissures within the alliance, a consensus is fast being formed that NATO’s adaptation to the emerging global realities, in particular the rise of non-western powers and the emergence of new forms of threats, might help shrink transatlantic gap and contribute to the resilience of rules-based liberal international order.
Similar to other NATO allies, Turkey has also been going through a soul-searching process in terms of its international orientation. NATO members now find it difficult, if not impossible, to be on the same page concerning some vital issues, such as the revival of Russian assertiveness in wider Europe, China's growing clout in international politics, enlargement of the alliance, or American commitment to the liberal international order. Since NATO adopted its latest security strategy in 2010 many things have changed in international politics whereby not only the possibility of great power competition has increased but also the rise of illiberal authoritarian powers in global politics have incrementally chipped away at the core principles of the rules-based liberal international order.
NATO now seems at a reflection point. The General Secretary of the Alliance Jens Stoltenberg has already commissioned a group of wise men to prepare a blueprint for the Alliance to chart its way in the next decade. The goal is to come up with a new strategic concept that would much better reflect the current realities of global politics and help the allies maintain their cohesion in the years ahead.
That said, whether NATO serves as force multiplier for Turkey or seriously constraints its quest for strategic autonomy deserves closer attention. As the process of re-adapting the Alliance to the emerging realities of the new world order has now been fully underway, Turkey and its NATO allies would do well if they focused on the points of commonalities among them rather than lashing out at each other on some conjectural points of frictions.
Even though some allies find Turkey’s recent international outlook as diverging from the West and accordingly treat Turkey as a potential geopolitical challenge to be managed, the big picture is that Turkey’s membership in NATO is beneficial for both Ankara and western capitals. Let’s leave aside the points of friction for a while and focus our attention on what Turkey and its allies could gain from closer cooperation within NATO.
Turkey gains from its NATO membership. First, it is in Turkey's interest to be in NATO because Turkey’s ability to deal with traditional threats to its territorial security would certainly increase under NATO's nuclear umbrella and given the 'one for all, all for one' understanding of NATO solidarity. A Turkey outside NATO will have to spend on its security more than it does today. Second, NATO is the most important international organization in today's world tying Turkey to the West. Assuming that Turkey still defines itself as a western country, membership in NATO would offer the strongest confirmation of Turkey’s western orientation. The prospects of Turkey's membership in the EU are not so high and Turkey's centuries-old westernization process has indeed begun as a security strategy. NATO membership has proved to beneficial by bringing Ankara closer to western capitals and securing western support against non-western security threats.
Third, Turkey's bargaining power vis-a-vis Russia, China and other non-western powers would certainly decrease should Turkey leave the alliance or experience acrimonious relations with its western partners. This point needs to be well understood by Turkey's rulers because neither Russia nor China are willing to admit Turkey to their geopolitical clubs and both of them view Turkey from an instrumental perspective in that the more Turkey becomes part of intra-alliance crises and weakens NATO from within, the better for them.
Fourth, membership offers Turkey an immense opportunity to negotiate its priorities with allies within NATO's multilateral institutional setting. It is much better and cost-effective to talk to allies within NATO’s multilateral platforms than engaging them bilaterally. No matter the issue is Eastern Mediterranean, Aegean Sea, Cyprus, Libya, Syria, S-400s, or etc., NATO's mechanisms and platforms provide Turkey with the ability to make its voice heard more loudly and be taken more credibly. The consensus-based decision making process within the alliance enables Turkey to prevent some member states from putting pressure on Turkey through NATO. Inside the alliance Turkey could also play a role in shaping NATO's transformation agenda in its national interests. From Turkey's perspective the emerging world order should not be built on rigid ideological polarizations between rival blocks. As a middle power, it is quite important for Turkey to maintain its ability to develop cordial economic and political relations with non-western global and regional powers. Despite its shortcomings Turkey is a liberal democratic country, yet it does not want a rigid ideological perspective informs NATO's transformation agenda.
Fifth, Turkey's membership in NATO, alongside the EU accession process, does not only contribute to Turkey's hard power but also shore up its soft power credentials decisively. This is particularly valid in the wider North Africa and Middle East regions where many Muslim-majority states could potentially look to Turkey as a role model in their attempts at combining religion and tradition with the requirements of a sustainable modernization process.
Just as Turkey derives immense benefits from NATO membership, the alliance in general and the United States in particular also benefit from Turkey's membership. First, since its entry to the alliance Turkey has played a key role in European security by shielding the continent from the east and the south. Turkey does not only act as a buffer zone insulating the Kantian Europe from the Hobbesian Middle East but also as a spearhead enabling NATO allies to reach out to the Caucasus, Black Sea, Central Asia and wider Middle East. During the Cold War Turkey acted as a bulwark against Soviet penetration into the wider Middle East and helped lessen the Soviet military pressure on central Europe by tying up sizable Soviet troops. Turkey's role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier has been well noted.
Second, Turkey is the only ally within NATO which has a Muslim-majority population. Turkey's membership serves as an antidote to the claims that NATO is an alliance of Christian nations. This has become more and more important in the post-9/11 era, as civilizational and identity-related considerations have increasingly colored international politics. For NATO's military operations across the globe not to be seen as biased against Islamic nations, Turkey's presence inside the alliance has been vitally important.
Third, if the Biden administration is sincere about revitalizing the rules-based international order and committed to strengthening NATO as a bulwark against Russia and China, securing Turkey’s cooperation within NATO would be decisive. Turkey is too important an ally to lose to the Russian-Chinese axis.
Fourth, as NATO's current Secretary General has underlined many times, Turkey's cooperation within NATO has been vital to the defeat of radical religious terrorism in the wider Middle East. Besides, Turkey is home to millions of refugees who would like to otherwise go to European countries. Fifth, having the second largest army within the alliance and participated in almost all NATO military operations to date, Turkey has decisively contributed to NATO's overall military capabilities. Turkey's participation in multinational NATO operations in Afghanistan and taking command of it numerous times speak volumes in this regard. Turkey hosting the upcoming negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban could potentially facilitate the peace process. Sixth, Turkey's membership in NATO provides western countries with important opportunities to have an influence on Turkey's international and internal policies/orientation as well. Why to lose this prerogative by pushing Turkey further away from the alliance?
All in all, both Turkey and NATO allies gain from Turkey’s membership. Unless NATO turns out to become an ideological weapon at the hands of the liberal hawkish cabals in the West, Turkey would feel quite comfortable within the alliance.