Why is Turkey’s NATO membership valuable?
NATO’s entire staff of diplomats, military officers and employees are these days waiting excitedly to move to the alliance’s new headquarters. The old HQ, which has served the alliance for the past 50 years, recently hosted NATO foreign ministers for the last time, just days before the entire relocation begins. Heads of government and heads of state from NATO countries will meet in the new premises at the NATO summit to take place in July.
The changing of premises is taking place at a time when security challenges are tough in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and beyond, with NATO-Russia tension likely to escalate in the coming period. Unfortunately, there is little sign of improvement in global peace and stability.
It is in this context that one should analyze Turkey’s place in the alliance. It is no secret that there are some significant problems between Turkey and leading NATO countries, particularly the United States. There are scores of news reports in the Western media and commentaries released by Western think tanks questioning Turkey’s place in the alliance. Ankara’s developing ties with Russia, its plans to procure Russian S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems, and ongoing tension with the U.S. in Syria have long been cited as major reasons for growing skepticism about whether Turkey is still a loyal ally.
No one can deny these existing problems. But beyond all of them an assessment of Turkey’s role and place within the alliance requires a broader, holistic and historical perspective. Situated at the core of one of the most unstable regions in the world, only a few prejudiced people would deny Turkey’s contribution to allied security throughout the Cold War and post-Cold War era.
Today, Turkey is actively taking part in many NATO operations - from Afghanistan to Kosovo, from Bosnia-Herzegovina to the Horn of Africa. It has been hosting the NATO land command in İzmir and strategically important radar systems in Kürecik, has been allowing allies to use its highly strategic İncirlik and Konya bases for NATO operations, and has been actively fighting against jihadist terror in the Middle East. Turkey is today the fifth most active country in NATO operations and the eighth biggest contributor to the NATO budget.
This is certainly not one-way relationship. Turkey has long benefited from its membership of NATO. NATO never hesitated to provide anti-ballistic missile systems to Turkey in the first and second Iraqi wars in 1991 and 2003, and most recently over the course of Syrian civil war. Turkey has activated NATO’s Article 4 for four times in a bid to garner alliance support and solidarity against threats posed from Syria.
What’s more, Turkey has long actively used NATO as a platform to express its concerns and views about key strategic and political issues. For example, some of the harsher reactions against Turkey’s military operations into Afrin were able to be avoided through frequent updates under the NATO roof.
The reason why all these well-known facts are cited in this column is the fact that a perception is snowballing that Turkey is an isolated member of the alliance. In some cases Turkey is even mentioned as a kind of non-NATO country.
Both Ankara and the NATO HQ are aware of and worried about this trend. This is why there are so many things that both need to do to reemphasize Turkey’s place in the NATO. From NATO’s perspective, an active media and social media campaign to highlight Turkey’s longstanding contributions to the alliance is a must. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has been pursuing this campaign for some time, but obviously more needs to be done, particularly in prominent NATO countries. Turkish contributions to and participations in NATO activities should be better promoted in the Western media.
Turkey’s stake in this regard is much heavier and more substantial. Take the S-400 anti-ballistic missile procurement issue: It seems that Turkey will not abandon its plans to buy them from Russia and deploy them. But it should be much more open and convincing that this deployment will not in any way cause any weakness or loopholes on the collective defense systems of the NATO. Turkey should also be able to explain its allies that its ties with Russia will not weaken its commitment to NATO.
Public bashing of NATO allies and NATO itself is not helpful either. Turkish politicians should avoid further tarnishing the image of the alliance if they want NATO and allied members to highlight Turkey’s role in the defense organization. Last but not least, Ankara should prioritize improving its image in the West by revisiting long-suspended democratization reforms.
Turkey and NATO should work together to emphasize once again that former’s membership in the alliance of value to both sides. Neither side has anything to win by undermining this value.