TAG V-Conference: Are NATO and Turkey Compatible? October 7th, 2021 

“We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them”

The question is to a significant extent moot because whilst Turkey can be a difficult member of NATO, it is also indispensable and there is no mechanism for expelling Ankara. However, the retreat from the secular Kemalist constitution, the Islamisation of society, and the Ottomanisation of Turkey’s foreign and security policy under an increasingly autocratic President Erdogan sits uncomfortably with NATO’s mission to defend liberty and democracy. Turkish policy has become particularly repressive since the failed July 2016 coup attempt with many officers and academics under arrest, press freedoms severely curtailed, education increasingly politicised, and the constitution amended to give Erdogan more powers.

Turkey’s foreign policy has also become increasingly aggressive. Not only has Ankara moved closer (but not close) to Russia with its acquisition of the S400 air defence system and other weapons systems, it has also become increasingly aggressive towards Greece and Cyprus, particularly in the Aegean Sea.  Turkey has also harassed French oil exploration in the Aegean and become increasingly active in Libya and the Zohr gas field off the Egyptian coast.  Turkey also refuses to recognise the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and in support of its “Blue Homeland” policy is making exaggerated maritime claims in the Black Sea. 

Equally, the strategic location and weight of Turkey means some form of accommodation must be sought. The Allies must also recognise that Erdogan has some grounds for his mistrust of the West.  For many years the EU held out the promise of eventual Turkish membership when there was little or no prospect.  Washington also mismanaged aspects of its relationship with Turkey. The result is that little further pressure can be exerted on Turkey without also damaging NATO with the added danger that if Ankara becomes a permanent spoiler it could paralyse the Alliance.  Such a ‘brain-dead’ NATO would likely lead to coalitions emerging within an increasingly de-institutionalised Alliance. Whilst such coalitions could offer opportunities to better manage Erdogan it would also likely lead to further frictions within an already fractious NATO. 

The dilemma for the West is essentially one of values versus interests.  For the moment NATO has no alternative but to deal with President Erdogan.  Whilst Turkey is indispensable to NATO Ankara also needs the West because of the dire state of its economy, the conflict in Syria and instability on most of its borders.  Specifically, the need to keep Turkey onside without betraying the Kurds will prove very difficult.  There is no easy solution and given recent shifts in Western policy in both Syria and Afghanistan the Kurds have every right to fear they will be abandoned in favour of Turkey.  

Going forward NATO’s major powers need to discuss how to deal with Erdogan and better handle him personally by “at least talking to the guy”.  They will also need to play a long game and make some distinction between Erdogan and wider trends in Turkish policy.  Options? The NATO Strategic Concept could include language on the Black Sea, the Balkans, Georgia and Ukraine that is seen as constructive by Ankara. The EU has an important role to play by possibly further extending the customs union with Turkey and enabling a strengthened political role for so-called Third Countries that support CSDP operations. Turkey has the second largest army in the world and many EU-led operations will likely be close to Turkey. 

Turkey is an incompatible but indispensable member of NATO.  Therefore, just as Turkey’s membership of the Alliance will remain at best ambiguous, the Allies will also need to “play with ambiguity” when dealing with Ankara.  What if Turkey left NATO? Given Ankara’s recent tilt towards the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation Turkey could become a strategic competitor of the West, particularly in the Middle East. Therefore, incompatibility or not it is better that Turkey remains a difficult member of the Alliance, rather than an aggressive competitor power outside. 

Julian Lindley-French