Turkey’s Questionable Commitment to NATO
"Thanks to years of complacency in Washington and Ankara, Turkey’s commitment to NATO has become questionable and it will take very strong political will on both sides to reverse the situation." – Özgür Ünlühisarcıklı
After almost 70 years as a member of NATO, Turkey’s long-term commitment to the alliance has become debatable. The story of Turkey’s membership begins with President Harry Truman’s policy of supporting the country, alongside Greece, against Soviet expansionism. Turkey joined NATO in 1952, only three years after its founding, and the alliance quickly became the central pillar of Turkish defense strategy. The country benefited from membership not only through the collective defense mechanism, but also through the modernization of its army, mainly with U.S. aid. NATO facilitated the relationship with the United States and brought Turkey closer to Europe. The alliance has also been important for the country as a political platform in which it has equal voice with its European allies and the United States. At the same time, Turkey’s contribution to NATO was significant, as it played a very important role in the alliance’s southern flank.
Things started to change with the end of the Cold War, albeit slowly. First, separatist terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) replaced the Soviet Union as the main security threat for Turkey. While NATO could provide a very credible security guarantee against the former, it has practically been irrelevant for dealing with the latter. More generally, the strategic framework of the U.S.-Turkish relationship crafted during the Cold War became obsolete and did not provide a relevant guideline for cooperation against contemporary threats such as terrorism.
Furthermore, the Gulf War in 1990 and the Iraq War in 2003 provided the PKK with a safe haven in northern Iraq, aggravating the challenge for Turkey. More recently, the United States’ policy of working by, with, and through the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in the campaign against Islamic State in Syria has further complicated the situation as Turkey considers the PYD to be organically linked to the PKK. Turkey’s reluctance to fully cooperate with the United States in the Gulf and Iraq Wars and the campaign against Islamic State, as well as the lack of U.S. attention to Turkey’s security concerns, have eroded trust between the two allies. Today the relationship between them suffers from mutual suspicion, the absence of a relevant strategic framework, and a lack of ownership on both sides. Turkish policymakers suspect that the United States has a long-term plan to establish a Kurdish state on Turkey’s borders, and there is growing suspicion in the United States that Turkey could turn to the “dark side”—for example, Russia—at some point in the future.
While Turkey continues to fulfill its alliance obligations, complies with all NATO decisions, and participates in all NATO operations, demonstrates its commitment, there is a visible effort in the country to decrease its dependence on NATO and the United States.
This effort has led Turkey to compartmentalize its foreign policy and to engage in flexible alliances, including cooperation with adversaries of NATO, as with Russia in Syria, when such a course of action suits its interests. Another example of this kind of cooperation is Turkey’s plan to buy an S-400 missile defense system from Russia in reaction to not receiving a plausible offer in terms of price, technical specifications, and technology transfer from the United States for the Patriot missile system. While Washington finally made Turkey a very good offer for Patriots recently, this may have come too late as Russia is a few months away from delivering the S-400s.
The United States has warned the government that going ahead with the S-400 deal would cost Turkey access to the F-35 program and make it subject to sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This could put Turkey on a path away from NATO and toward an inviting Russia in the medium to long term, even though this is against the interests of both countries and neither U.S. nor Turkish policymakers desire such an outcome. The question “Who lost Turkey?” may finally become relevant. Thanks to years of complacency in Washington and Ankara, Turkey’s commitment to NATO has become questionable and it will take very strong political will on both sides to reverse the situation.
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