Turkey, the West’s ‘bothersome ally’

Turkey, the West’s ‘bothersome ally’

Turkey is featuring prominently in the European media these days. Most of the coverage deals with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has become something of a bête noire for Europeans. 

This was discernible during my time in The Hague and Bucharest last week with a group of Western reporters who were briefed about NATO’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system, and later attended the inauguration of the system’s new facility in Deveselu (Romania).

NATO officials were keen to compliment Turkey in almost all of their discourses, given that the radar system deployed in Kurecik, Malatya in 2012 is a key element of BMD as a forward tracking station for incoming ballistic missiles from the Middle East.

The facility also confirms that Turkey, as a long-standing NATO member, still plays a central role in providing security for the West. Of course, Turkey also benefits from the security cover provided by NATO.

However, Ankara is usually reluctant to highlight its role in NATO because nationalist, left-wing, and Islamist quarters in this country have never looked favorably on the alliance, albeit for different ideological reasons.

For Islamists who support Erdoğan, NATO is a U.S.-led anti-Muslim alliance to be condemned. They would like Turkey to leave the alliance and form a similar grouping among Islamic countries. The logic of what Erdoğan has been saying in his recent addresses, such as the speech he delivered at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summit in Istanbul in April, also reveals this desire. 

But it has proven to be a mere pipedream. The Islamic world has given no indication that it can form such an alliance and make it work. The 39-member “Islamic Alliance” against terrorism, formed recently by Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has yet to prove its mettle.

Many also suspect that Riyadh merely wants an alliance that has Iran in its crosshairs. This also complicates matters for Ankara, which has to maintain a workable relationship with Tehran whether it likes it or not.

The simple truth today is that the established orders in Saudi Arabia, and in the Gulf states like Qatar, remain dependent on their military alliances with the U.S., no matter what grievances they may have against Washington.

The same applies to Turkey’s ties with the U.S. and Europe, despite Erdoğan’s continued anti-Western rhetoric. The fact that he is now threatening the EU with severing ties and charting a new course for Turkey does not alter this basic fact.

In fact, there are many Europeans who wish for Erdoğan’s threat to become a self-fulfilling prophesy. He represents a Turkey that they do not want to see in Europe or have any strategic dealings with. But most European governments are aware that they have to deal with Turkey, for one reason or another. Today’s prime concerns are the refugee crisis and the threat from radical Islamist groups. 

The strategic ties between Turkey and the West are therefore likely to continue, despite Erdoğan’s antipathy toward the West and the desire of many Europeans for Turkey to be kept out of the EU and “thrown out of NATO.”

It is very easy for Erdoğan to blast the “treacherous West” and to threaten to steer Turkey toward alternative waters. But do these alternatives really exist? What alternatives there are seem to lie purely in the imaginations of Erdoğan and his followers. 

Still, this fact will not stop Erdoğan’s angry and populist rhetoric against the West aimed at securing political gains in Turkey. But this rhetoric will make the proper maintenance of mutually beneficial ties between Turkey and the West more difficult.

Turkey will remain a “vital ally” for the West, but only on a sufferance borne of necessity. In other words, Erdoğan’s Turkey will continue to be a bothersome ally for NATO, even if both sides benefit from the alliance.

How long the alliance can withstand the strains caused by Erdoğan remains to be seen.