West’s Türkiye/NATO Expansion Conundrum

June 6, 2022

Last week, the Turkish government sent a letter to the United Nations formally requesting that henceforth it be referred to as “Türkiye” which was immediately agreed upon. The move was seen as part of a push by Ankara to dissociate its name from the bird, turkey, and some negative connotations that are associated with it. The Turkish word for Egypt is “Mısır”. The word also means corn. Yet, never in my life, not even once, have I thought of corn, popcorn, or genetically modified corn when I heard the word Mısır. For me, regardless of being called Turkey or Türkiye, my country will always be Atatürk’s Republic.

Türkiye’s joining the Council of Europe and NATO in 1949 and 1952 respectively, and the launching of the EU accession process in 2005 provided a progressive institutional framework for our country’s relations with the West. But our democracy started to falter as the Arab spring threw the region into turmoil. Türkiye’s ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) government put all its eggs in the Muslim Brotherhood basket. It assumed a leading role in the regime change project in Syria. Non-interference in Arab affairs ceased to be an axiom of Turkish foreign policy.

The AKP, enraged by a string of foreign policy failures most of which were mostly its own doing, started engaging in belligerent language until there were no more bridges to burn. Our problems from A to Z were attributed to conspiracies by foreign powers desperate to prevent Türkiye’s rise as a global power. The government’s fight against such dark schemes was even likened to our War of Independence, defying reason. Although names were not called everybody knew that what was meant by those centers of evil were Western powers. Failures on a broad front brought authoritarian tendencies to the surface.

Today, our relations with the West are at their lowest point in the history of the Republic.

On the one hand, most Western governments now regard AKP’s Ankara as a “nominal ally” if not an adversary, but they cannot turn their back on a country that enjoys a geostrategic location surrounded by three seas and joining Asia and Europe when tensions with Russia are on the rise. Türkiye is a unique window into the Middle East. Sadly, it has also acquired a critical role in Europe’s dealing with its refugee problem. Moreover, Türkiye has a history of democracy despite its ups and downs. Despite its current economic difficulties, it has important investment and trade relations with Europe.

On the other hand, AKP’s anti-Western rhetoric has found a receptive ear among the party faithful. The anti-Western anti-US sentiment is on the rise even among those yearning for Türkiye’s return to the democratic path. Many believe that the West has no interest in Turkish democracy so long as the country remains “anchored” in the West and “behaves”.

Some, to prove their point, draw attention to the fact that the West has enjoyed cozy relations with Middle East countries with no history of democracy, and no respect for rule of law. For example, after the Khashoggi murder presidential candidate, Joe Biden had said that he planned to make the Saudis “pay the price and make them the pariah that they are.” But now, following President Erdoğan’s footsteps, he is also going to visit the Kingdom. Probably in preparation for the visit, the State Department announced on May 5, that the US and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) concluded two days of successful talks in Washington, D.C. on topics ranging from regional policy issues to climate change, the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing human rights, food security, and countering violent extremism. “Two days of talks” with a non-entity that remained invisible during the past decade of Middle East turmoil? Could these talks be another way of pleasing Saudi Arabia before President Biden visited Riyadh? Probably.

While such disillusionment is understandable, this overlooks the fact that none of those authoritarian Middle East countries are members of either the Council of Europe or NATO. I am no stranger to the West’s double standards, profound anti-Turkey bias, and the contradictions between its record of external interventions and public discourse on the so-called rules-based international order. But I also know that a total rupture with the West would mean a final goodbye to democracy. 

Now there is another Türkiye-West crisis emerging. On May 18, Finland and Sweden, both members of the EU, simultaneously handed in their official letters of application to join NATO. Turkey raised objections.

In an article titled “On NATO Expansion” published in The Economist on May 30, President Erdoğan reiterated Türkiye’s commitment to NATO. He also said:

“Likewise, we made legitimate and necessary demands upon NATO, as multiple civil wars broke out in Türkiye’s neighborhood, to ensure the security of our borders and airspace as well as human security, as the largest refugee wave since World War II had emerged in the region. Largely abandoned, our country dealt with all those crises by itself and paid a high price during that effort…

“As all NATO allies accept Türkiye’s critical importance to the alliance, it is unfortunate that some members fail fully to appreciate certain threats to our country. Türkiye maintains that the admission of Sweden and Finland entails risks for its own security and the organization’s future. We have every right to expect those countries, which will expect NATO’s second-largest army to come to their defense under Article 5, to prevent the recruitment, fundraising and propaganda activities of the PKK, which the European Union and America consider a terrorist entity.

“Türkiye wants the candidate countries to curb the activities of all terrorist organizations and extradite the members of these organizations.” [i]

Many in Türkiye support these objections. The question now is whether that is all that matters. Because the current standoff is leading to more and more questions.

Would President Erdoğan venture veto the applications unless his demands are met? Does this new Türkiye-West confrontation have a Russia/Putin dimension? Would Ankara relent on the Finnish application but stand firm on the Swedish one? What is meant exactly by the reference to the risks that the admission of Sweden and Finland would entail for NATO’s future? Could President Erdoğan be waiting for President Biden to step in to find a way out? After all, if Mr. Biden can travel to Riyadh, why not Ankara? Are Turkish objections just about the PKK/YPG or more? What are the other issues on our list, Eastern Mediterranean, the Cyprus conflict, S-400s/F16s/F35s, Feto? What are the domestic policy dividends of Ankara’s objections?

Turkish analysts of international politics are offering different answers. Some are questioning if all the remaining 29 members are indeed totally united on NATO expansion. They are also highlighting the security risks involved in the Alliance’s further expansion. Others are encouraging the government to seek Western concessions across the board. They wish the West to admit all its mistakes and turn a new page.

On May 24, the leader of the junior partner of Türkiye’s ruling coalition Mr. Bahçeli said, “Turkey is not without options. Even leaving NATO should be put on the agenda as an alternative if the circumstances become inextricable. We did not exist because of NATO, we will not perish without NATO.” And the leader of the opposition thundered that if the government were to bring a motion to the parliament to close down the US defense facilities in Türkiye, his party would support it. This is how Finland’s and Sweden’s joining NATO, has evolved appallingly into one about our exiting the Alliance.

I disagree that as multiple civil wars broke out in our neighborhood, NATO failed to ensure the security of our borders and airspace as well as human security, as the largest refugee wave since World War II emerged in the region. Syria was the AKP’s war of choice and it was the wrong choice. This is why today’s Türkiye is home to more than five million Syrians and faces security questions on its southern border. Moreover, in time of need, members of the Alliance did not fail to deploy Patriot missile systems in Turkey. And one needs to remember that NATO is not only about defense arrangements. It is a political alliance committed to democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and the separation of powers.

As for the diplomatic talks now underway on Finland’s and Sweden’s membership in the Alliance, if there is a will, curbing the activities of all terrorist organizations would be the easier part. Agreement on the extradition of the members of these organizations will prove impossible. Would Ankara then block Finland’s and Sweden’s accession or would others, particularly the US, step in to offer other incentives to Ankara to drop its objections?

As the war in Ukraine entered its fourth month, claims of victory and declarations of determination to win have started to lose their initial vigor. What is clear is that there would be no winners in this war. Ukraine, unfortunately, would lose territory. Russia’s global status would suffer. The unity and resolve the West showed in the face of the Russian invasion would inevitably lose momentum as emerging cracks already signal. President Macron’s comment that the West must not humiliate Russia so that when the fighting stops an exit ramp could be built through diplomatic means does not rhyme with Secretary Austin saying that he “wants to see Russia weakened”.  Thus, especially Washington could be inclined to see NATO expansion as the ultimate price Russia should pay for its aggression. In brief, after saying more than once that the NATO accession process of Sweden and Finland is not a bilateral issue between Washington and Ankara, the Biden White House may reluctantly get involved. What such American engagement or the continuing stalemate would entail for the Türkiye-US relationship remains to be seen.

A final word on recent Greek-Turkish tensions. Although disappointing, this recent episode is nothing new. It is a replay. Long-time observers of Greek-Turkish relations have seen it over and over again. It is simply boring.

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[i] https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/articles/1900/138159/the-article-published-in-the-economist

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions he held in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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