Turkey out of NATO? Turkey is making a comeback to NATO!

Turkey out of NATO? Turkey is making a comeback to NATO!

Every time there is a development that feeds the perception that Turkey favors radical Islamic groups over Kurdish groups in the Syrian civil war, the hashtag “kick terrorist Turkey out of NATO” in different forms becomes viral. This was again the case when last week the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) staged a bombed attack in Kurdish-controlled Kobane. 

To those who think that Turkey is drifting from NATO, or that the alliance members are uncomfortable with Ankara and that there are strains in Turkey-NATO relations, I have bad news for you! On the contrary, at the expense of making an overstatement, I will say that Turkey is making a comeback to NATO and this has not gone unnoticed by alliance members, who seem to appreciate it.

But why am I saying that Turkey’s comeback to NATO might come as an overstatement? Because Turkey has never drifted away from NATO. It was and always has remained one of the most active members of the alliance.

True, at the public diplomacy level, NATO has never loomed high in the rhetoric of Turkey’s leaders. How many times did we hear Recep Tayyip Erdoğan or Ahmet Davutoğlu talk about NATO? In fact it was a huge mistake on the part of Erdoğan when he was prime minister to say “What is NATO doing in Libya,” when the alliance decided to stage a military intervention in 2011. The statement is unfortunate because NATO cannot do anything without the consent of Turkey. In other words Turkey is NATO and NATO is Turkey. 

Perhaps the ruling elites of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) needed more time to internalize NATO as the strongest link tying Turkey to Europe and enabling it to act as a regional power with both soft and hard power; but let me say in plain confidence that 63 years of membership has taken deep roots within the Turkish state apparatus which cannot be uprooted with a 10-year single-party government.

Indeed, some of Turkish elites and ordinary citizens do suffer from the delusion of the so called “lone wolf” syndrome. In other words, there has always been a desire to act alone. But wishful thinking is one thing; dictating realities is another. 

And reality tells us otherwise than the widespread conviction in the international public opinion that relations between Turkey and NATO are sour. “When Turkey asked for NATO patriots as deterrence against Syria, there was much less hesitation on the part of the alliance when compared with Turkey’s similar request in the first Gulf War,” said Professor Gülnur Aybet, from Bahçeşehir University.

As an academic in intensive contacts with diplomatic and military quarters in both Turkey and NATO, Aybet hosted a conference last week in Istanbul on NATO-Turkey relations, which also served to launch Bahçeşehir University’s Center for Security Studies.

“Turkey and NATO have never drifted apart and behind the scenes cooperation always continued both at the diplomatic and military levels,” said Aybet. “But there is definitely a revival in more intensive cooperation and public diplomacy.”

A list of recent developments can serve as proof of that intensification.

- Turkey hosted a NATO foreign ministers’ meeting last May, the first meeting in a long time that took place outside of Brussels.

-Turkey has pledged to lead a specialized, rapidly-deployable military force within the Rapid Reaction Force established to counter threats in the east and north.

-Turkey recently invited the NATO secretary general and member countries’ permanent ambassadors to visit the new NATO land command headquarters, active in İzmir since 2012.

Is that the profile of a country that has risked being kicked out of NATO because it is a “disloyal, untrustworthy partner?”

Unfortunately, both Turkey and NATO fail the public diplomacy test. Turkish leadership should do more to endorse a NATO-friendly rhetoric while NATO should do more to counter worldwide anti-Turkish propaganda. 

Finally, rarely does one see radical changes in countries’ foreign policies. Yet they are not static and there is always room for adjustment. There is no doubt Turkey’s foreign policy will be fined tuned in case of a coalition government. It is a good sign that the revival or reprioritization of relations with NATO was started by the AKP, which is expected to remain in government in the immediate future.