Will Turkey and NATO Stay Together?

By Christopher Ynclan Jr.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a ceremony in Istanbul
Image Credit: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

How much longer will Turkey be a friend of NATO, and of the United States?

The long-standing security partnership between the United States and Turkey first began in 1952 when Turkey became a signatory member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). 

Its critical location made it an excellent candidate, as it had the potential to limit Soviet power in the Black Sea and could bolster the effectiveness of NATO’s projection into the Balkans. 

During the Cold War, Turkey allowed the alliance to place missile installations that provided credible deterrence against a Soviet invasion of NATO members. Ankara’s contribution proved to be indispensable to Euro-Atlantic security during this period.

However, the interests of Turkey and the other nations within the alliance began to diverge without the common enemy of the Soviet Union. 

The relationship seemed steadfast in the first decades of the post-Cold War era, as Turkey supported the liberation of Kuwait and NATO operations in the Balkans. 

That would begin to change when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003. Turkey felt that the United States ignored its concerns over the potential implications for Turkish security of American military operations near their border. Prior to the war’s commencement, Turkey had been the site of attacks on civilians by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party trying to advance their goal of Kurdish autonomy.

Despite their reservations concerning Iraq, Turkey remained committed to supporting the counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. It also contributed their service members to the International Security Assistance Force

Such actions demonstrated Turkey’s effort to maintain a relationship with the rest of the states in the alliance. By doing so, Ankara likely also hopes to win new supporters for its goal of EU membership one day.

However, this has not been enough to halt the weakening of relations between Ankara and the West.

Turkey employs a pragmatic foreign policy which makes decisions based on self-awareness of its geostrategic position. With the emergence of a multipolar international system, Turkey sees America as a nation which has filled a historical role in its defense but whose importance can now be reexamined. 

The same can be said of the European Union, which has not granted full membership to Turkey after decades of deliberation. As they have not achieved their policy aims with their traditional partners, the Turks have sought them through emerging powers such as China.

Amidst the current great power competition, it is important to seek a rapprochement of relations with Turkey by addressing the interests of Turkey while still reaffirming the liberal norms of NATO. The time to make this effort is running out, as developments within Turkey are not conducive for these norms. 

Turkey’s policy of strategic ambiguity will soon come to a flashpoint in which they will have to decide whether they will continue to be a part of the collective defense organization. This flashpoint will likely come in the form of whether they will continue to be ambivalent to Russian aggression and their own backsliding into authoritarian rule. 

Internationally, Russia has created a series of manufactured crises to test the resolve of NATO member states. Worryingly, Turkey has expressed that it would not intervene on behalf of Ukraine despite their past sales of weapons to the country. 

Domestically, Turkey has shown instances of democratic deterioration over the past decade. Rapprochement will likely be most effective through the economic aid of EU member states to help stabilize the currency of Turkey. 

In recent weeks, the Turkish lira has been ravaged by inflation which is quickly reducing its value. This has been made worse by an attempt to lower interest rates to solve their financial ails. 

As a result, the lira is expected to continue to lose more purchasing power in the coming months. Moreover, this affects not only Turkish citizens but also those living in Turkish protectorates such as Northern Syria and Northern Cyprus. 

While Turkey has questioned the political usefulness of the decades-old alliance, the member states of NATO can demonstrate their economic viability to Turkish interests.

NATO’s interests in this new era in global affairs will be achieved through a united front among its member states. To project their influence, China and other NATO rivals provide capital to nations of geostrategic importance for leverage over their politics. 

Should Turkey fall prey to predatory capital, there is a strong possibility for other signatory nations to be vulnerable as well in essence eroding the alliance’s deterrence. The maintenance of cooperation between NATO and Turkey is mutually beneficial to both parties. 

America and all of NATO must recognize that Turkey will be a crucial partner for the security challenges of the remaining 21st century. Now is the time to start mending fences. 

Christopher Ynclan Jr. is a recent graduate from the University of North Texas with a degree in Political Science. He is currently a counterterrorism research fellow at Rise to Peace.

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