All eyes this week were on the Madrid summit, where NATO leaders were expected to announce new military postures, security cooperation, and future planning for collective defense in light of the ongoing Ukraine crisis. The biggest thing to come out of the summit was Turkey’s ultimate reversal of its block on Finland and Sweden from becoming new members — new member admittance requires a unanimous vote to pass. This issue loomed largely and reiterated Ankara’s confrontational and often complicating role in the alliance to date.
As a great many changes in Europe’s security organization are expected to evolve in the near future, now is an ideal time to address issues with Turkey’s actions as a NATO member, for the sake of future accountability and legitimacy within the alliance.
With Russia backpedaling from global pressure, to say nothing of its flagging efforts in Eastern Ukraine, Turkey’s most significant geopolitical clout outside of NATO is at its weakest point in years. Historically, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played both sides of the alliance. The Turkish president has courted Moscow’s favor (purchasing S-400 air defense systems) while enjoying benefits of mutual security and military aid, such as F-16s and other aviation equipment expected later this year in a “make or break” moment in the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Turkey has never hesitated to exploit unrest in Europe to further Erdogan’s personal agenda. In 2019 it crossed the Syrian border to butcher formerly American-allied Kurds, while also throwing its considerable military weight behind Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict to bolster its regional influence. More recently, Ankara has simultaneously closed off the Bosporus to Russian warships and offered to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv — mere months after meeting with President Vladimir Putin hat in hand to bargain for economic and military concessions and aid. President Erdogan’s bid to block Finland and Sweden from joining NATO was due to their alleged support of Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) members, whom Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization, a point of contention — though not accountability — between Ankara and the West.
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Turkey has been able to conduct itself thusly because of the unique importance of its geography. Its close proximity to the Levant served as a waystation (Incirlik Air Base) for nearly two decades of the global war on terror, where tens of thousands of U.S. and coalition service members passed through on their way to Iraq and Afghanistan — meaning Ankara’s actions were often ignored when addressing global policy, so long as the bases and airspace allowed for the use in the ongoing war efforts elsewhere. Assertions that “there is a strongman holding NATO hostage, and it’s not Putin” are both accurate and compelling and require NATO to rethink what it demands of its member states.
Like much else regarding European security, the war in Ukraine upset existing norms of state conduct and geopolitics, or at least simplified them. NATO member states have all increased defense spending, vowed to take more pronounced roles in ensuring the continents’ stability and have universally condemned the conduct of authoritarians like Vladimir Putin — all signs that the alleged ‘brain death’ of NATO is now in recovery. Yet for Turkey’s part, hamstringing the needs of the alliance over its own regional power brokerages, even if it has reversed course on the matter of Finland and Sweden joining NATO, has been a regular and consistent means of undermining the alliance.
NATO has excelled at unifying against unacceptable behaviors since Feb. 24, when Russian troops first crossed into Ukraine. It has thus far achieved tremendous success in finding means to counter Moscow while not directly engaging in the conflict in Eastern Europe, demonstrating resolve and fortitude in preparing for further aggression. But much of legitimizing the alliance in the future hangs on member states acting in common purpose on all accounts — and Ankara’s actions to date demand a higher level of accountability.
The reversal by President Erdogan to confer Finland and Sweden is a positive sign, one that should be seized upon by NATO leaders to demand greater accountability for one of its oldest and foremost member states. The alliance’s own purpose statement, chiefly asserting collective trans-Atlantic security, also provides that the institution “engages where possible and when necessary to project its values further afield, prevent and manage crises, stabilize post-conflict situations and support reconstruction.” Any claim that Turkey has prevented or managed crises, stabilized conflict situations, or upheld the collective values of the Alliance is sorely misplaced.
NATO must demand the highest conduct of its member states, both as a means to discredit authoritarian tyrants and to ensure its future cooperative security efficacy. This includes incentivizing Turkey’s responsibility in NATO membership and retracting from Russian cooperation. Permitting new NATO members should only be the beginning of Turkey’s return to credible alliance membership.