Turkey's future in NATO: Let shared concerns take center stage in Lisbon
WASHINGTON -- As U.S. and European leaders gather for the NATO summit in Lisbon, their main focus will be the institution’s new strategic concept. But they cannot afford to ignore Turkey’s precipitous drift out of the NATO orbit and its implications for peace and stability in the Middle East and the West’s relations with Russia and Iran. Scores of articles have been written in recent months on Turkey’s growing disenchantment with the European Union. Far less attention has been paid to Turkey’s growing disaffection with NATO, the Western security alliance that Turkey has been a member of since 1952. Ankara maintains the second largest army in NATO and plays an active role in the mission in Afghanistan. Turkey’s location—with Russia to the North, the volatile Caucasus to the northeast, and Iran to the east—gives it a pivotal geostrategic role. A growing economy, healthy demographics, and proactive foreign policy suggest that Turkey’s value to NATO will only continue to grow. But Turkey’s positive role in NATO is anything but certain.
Recent Transatlantic Trends surveys show vast differences between Turkish public opinion and that of other NATO members on a number of key foreign policy issues. Asked specifically about NATO’s importance to their own security in 2004, the majority of Turks (53%) found NATO essential—somewhat less but still similar to support in the U.S. (62%) and the EU (64%) at the time. Since then, support for NATO has remained largely unchanged in the other countries surveyed, but Turkish support has eroded drastically to less than one-in-three (30%) in 2010. According to the polls, Turks are turning East rather than West. Turks who said Turkey should act in closest cooperation with countries of the Middle East doubled to 20% from last year while those who said Turkey should cooperate with EU countries (13%) declined by nine points during the same period. Despite Turkish leaders’ reassurances to Western policymakers, public opinion shifts like this in a democratic country inevitably have consequences. To counter these trends in Turkey, NATO and Turkey’s leaders should highlight the issues where the Turkish public sees eye-to-eye with other NATO members. They should quietly negotiate the more challenging issues behind the scenes.
To start, in discussions of the new strategic concept, they should highlight the ongoing commitment of Turkey’s partners to come to the country’s defense if attacked and NATO’s role in helping Turkey respond to nontraditional threats such as terrorism. When asked what should be the top priority for the American president and European leaders, fighting international terrorism remained the top concern for a plurality of Turks (38%). And NATO acting out of area is relatively common ground—supported by a plurality of Turks (48%) and the majority of Americans (77%) and other NATO members surveyed (62%). When asked about Turkey’s role in NATO at a recent speech hosted by GMF in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen did just this by emphasizing concerns over terrorism as common ground for Turkey and NATO. On the other hand, NATO leaders would do well to quietly negotiate strategies for dealing with Iran. While an Iranian nuclear weapon is seen as a threat by the vast majority in the U.S. (86%) and EU (79%), the plurality of Turks (48%) do not feel threatened. This is not only in public opinion but also reflected by Turkish leaders. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu mentioned recently that "We do not see any threat from any of our neighbouring countries, whether it is Iran, Russia, Syria, or others.” Propping up support for NATO in Turkey would also help anchor Turkey in Europe at a time when the allure of membership in the European Union is waning. The number of Turks (38%) who think joining the EU would be a good thing has declined 35 percentage points since 2004. Turkey will not join the EU soon, and a drawn-out accession process will only further sour Turkish attitudes about membership. With only 23% of those surveyed in the European Union believed Turkey’s EU membership would be “a good thing,” European leaders should be eager to use NATO as an alternative “anchor” without bucking public opinion in their own countries.
Any significant goals laid out in NATO’s new strategic concept will most certainly be aided by Turkey’s active role in the institution. NATO leadership should actively engage Turkish leaders to carefully plan which issues should be discussed aloud and in full public view and which should be whispered about in the negotiating room. A little strategic communication could go a long way toward advancing NATO’s ability to carry out its strategic concept with Turkey’s full participation.
Zsolt Nyiri is the director of Transatlantic Trends, and Ben Veater-Fuchs is a program assistant for Transatlantic Trends at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.