What NATO’s 2030 vision is and why it matters for Turkey-US relations

By THO Nonresident Fellow, Suha Cubukcuoglu

The NATO Summit held in Brussels on June 14, 2021, set a cornerstone in the 30-member bloc’s history. The secretary general Jens Stoltenberg affirmed the alliance’s commitment to protect the international rules-based order, reinforce collective defense, enhance resilience, and ensure that it’s ready to “face the challenges of today and tomorrow” [1]. In between the lines of his speech were remarkable statements that, for the first time, mentioned “China’s growing influence”, and the urgency to address “climate change”. Also, as a sign of warning to Russia, NATO stated that it will consider cyberattacks formally under Article V of the treaty. These should hardly come as surprise for an informed observer. According to the US president Biden’s liberal internationalist approach, America is back on the stage as the leader of the Western industrial-democratic model, pushing for globalization at a faster pace through multilateral platforms like NATO. 

There are two main reasons behind this revival in NATO’s mission, which comes only a couple of years after the French president Macron branded it as “brain dead”: First, getting buy-ins of states such as Turkey, France, and Germany and converging their decision-making procedures around a common set of rules is a more efficient way to consolidate American leadership than to coerce them separately. Also, in the turbulent US-Turkey bilateral relationship, for instance, Ankara would like to chart a more predictable course on a set of mutually acceptable parameters and mitigate security dilemmas on such issues as the YPG/PKK in Syria and S-400s/F-35s. Second, institutions like NATO supposedly have a life of their own that transcend the incumbent in the event of a decline in its super-power status. What matters most is the hierarchy of each actor’s relative power in the system. In this regard, institutionalists believe that structural changes in underlying capabilities like China’s rapid rise in AI/space technologies may lead to armed hostilities in the mid to long run. Therefore, strong emphasis on Russia and China in the final declaration signals a “dual-track approach” [1] that is aimed not only to rein in their adversarial positions but also to ease tensions and leave a door open to more accommodative, smoother policies if conditions ripen. 

It is no secret that there is growing anxiety in NATO over a number of issues, most notably Russia’s cyber capabilities, as demonstrated during SolarWinds and Colonial Pipeline attacks, and its expansion/presence in Ukraine and the East Med. This is why the US president Biden gave 16 “off-limits” targets for cyber-attacks to Putin in the follow up meeting. The Ukrainian president Zelensky’s tweet about joining the NATO and the subsequent British-Russian naval tension off the coast of Crimea demonstrated rising stakes and geopolitics of the region. Perhaps more important in the long run from the US defense perspective though are China’s anti-area/access-denial (A2/AD) bubbles in the South China Sea. For one, China has quietly become the EU’s largest trade partner this year and Europeans are no longer as invested to an all-in, blanket-cover Transatlantic partnership. Still, as an area of common interest, the US and the EU both want to align their technology, investment, and infrastructure to better compete against China. Also, as a sign of solidarity and policy alignment with the EU, NATO for the first time set zero-emissions target by 2050 to mitigate climate change. Two, simultaneous tensions on both fronts, such as in Ukraine and Taiwan, would stretch US capabilities beyond an acceptable level of deterrence to protect Europe. Put simply, it would be extremely difficult for the US to fight a two-front war. Therefore, despite all the upheaval (and verbal fallout after a CNN journalist’s harsh criticism of Biden’s rather “soft” approach to Putin), America needs a united Atlantic front and strategic stability with Russia in order to deal with China. In other words, the US is re-building the alliance spirit, keeping Russia at bay, and pulling NATO into the Asia-Pacific sphere beyond its initial mandate to externally balance against China. The former SACEUR Commander Admiral (Ret.) James Stavridis candidly confirms and writes that “the US will press on NATO allies to deploy maritime forces to a standing maritime task force in the Pacific” [2].

The combined impact of these developments on Turkey are mixed. For reasons explained above, the US president Biden preferred to hold his first face-to-face meeting with the Turkish president on a multilateral stage rather than in private. This was a message to Turkey that it should go along with the group and accept its norms if there is to be any progress in the bilateral relationship towards reconciliation. In spite of the positive atmosphere in Brussels and encouraging messages from both sides, there is an array of outstanding issues, some of which go beyond the US-Turkey bilateral level and into intractable conflicts like Cyprus. Some critics argue that thirty years after the end of the Cold War, the persistent view from Washington towards Ankara is “primarily as a piece in the strategic puzzle of NATO’s common defense” [3][4]. Indeed, Turkey’s regional activism goes far beyond NATO’s regional presence, but there is a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship against all the odds. Geography, once again, comes at Turkey’s help. Beyond the NATO-EU partnership and the Mediterranean Dialogue, NATO’s ability to adapt to the changing security environment is an important propellent for the Turkish military-industry complex. Poland, for instance, is the first EU-NATO member country to acquire Bayraktar TB-2 drones under a $250 million deal to patrol its borders with Russia. Hungary might soon follow, as do other allied states. Drones, cyber weapons, autonomous/AI platforms, and space technologies have become soldiers of this new era of fifth generation warfare, where Turkey made quantum leaps in recent years to prove its capabilities. Contributing to the Euro-Atlantic peace and stability, Turkey’s expanding partnership with Central Asian Turkic states and possible further deployment in Afghanistan are also critical in the fight against all forms of extremism. In a complex region saturated by ethnic and religious rivalries, Turkey is positioned as an effective power on the ground to bridge the security gap. From this perspective, in summary, and despite challenges ahead, NATO’s 2030 Vision brings new opportunities for Turkey to raise its profile and claim a higher status in resolving its outstanding issues with other member states on an equitable platform.


Sources

[1] North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). “Leaders agree NATO 2030 Agenda.” June 14, 2021. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_184998.htm?selectedLocale=en

[2] James Stavridis. 2021. “NATO Targets the ‘3 C’s’: China, Cyberattacks and Climate Change.” Asharq Al-Awsat, June 18, 2021. https://english.aawsat.com/home/article/3033846/james-stavridis/nato-targets-%E2%80%983-c%E2%80%99s%E2%80%99-china-cyberattacks-and-climate-change

[3] Finkel, Andrew. 2012. Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 77. 

[4] Shapiro, Jeremy, and Aslı Aydıntaşbaş. 2021. “Biden and Erdogan Are Trapped in a Double Fantasy.” Foreign Policy (blog). January 6, 2021. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/06/biden-america-and-erdogan-turkey-are-trapped-in-a-double-fantasy/