Don’t throw away well-worn alliances

In the year 2008, while investigating the role of NATO in US-Turkish security relations for my doctoral thesis at Bogazici University, I illustrated my theoretical model with a graphic that I referred to as “the Christmas tree”:

Collaborations between different sides, which were each displayed as coloured points on the graphic, generally appeared clustered in the bottom centre. This is because the moment that one country realises it is being cheated by another, it ends the collaboration.

NATO, in accordance with my theoretical predictions, enabled much fairer distribution of rewards across a series of collaborations than was facilitated by bilateral relations, due to its equalising institutional framework and rules regime.

There were exceptions, however few in number, and these I called “Christmas tree decorations”:

These were unequal collaborations that, for various reasons, carried on in spite of the stakeholders cheating one another.

These exceptions were found most frequently in areas related to the Middle East.

At the root of today’s crisis between Turkey and the USA is the situation that developed  as NATO and the two countries’ relations transformed after the Cold War.

Relations between Turkey and the USA had always been problematic on a bilateral level. Even during periods when the perception of shared common threats or interests was at its strongest, the imbalance in power, and differences in their intentions, led to mutual distrust and regular eruptions into crisis.

NATO, meanwhile, on the one hand kept the pair’s relations focussed on high-level interests in the scope of the alliance, and, on the other, ensured that the power imbalance between the US superpower and the medium-sized power of Turkey did not result in distrust and disloyalty.

After the end of the Cold War, NATO began to undergo a period of transformation, changing from an organisation of collective defence to one of collective security. Then, after 2001, its operational field shifted to the Middle East, the most problematic area for Turkish-American relations.

Fundamentally, the crisis experienced in the countries’ relations today stems from the fact that, while the USA still considers its own hegemonic interests to be in line with the common interests of the NATO alliance, Turkey’s own interests have gradually changed.

The issue is no longer the defence of Europe from a common threat such as the Soviet Union, but the reshaping of the Middle East against a threat like “terror”, the very definition of which is highly subjective and varies according to the speaker’s stance.

As a country neighbouring the Middle East, Turkey’s definition of “terror” and terrorist actors to an increasing degree differs from the USA’s, and consequently the alliance, which had previously safeguarded the partnership in such situations, is no longer able to fulfil this function.

A significant part of NATO’s regulatory role towards its members’ relations lies in its capacity, either coercively or voluntarily, to ensure that member states “keep to the alliance’s line”.

Yet for Turkey, which sees the USA’s Middle East policies as a threat to its own survival, keeping to the alliance’s line was impossible when this meant the threat would draw ever nearer, rather than being eliminated.

This impossible situation lies at the root of the unprecedented problems experienced both in US-Turkish relations, and with NATO:

On the one hand, we have the USA, which has chosen partnership with Kurdish forces over its official allies in the Middle East, Turkey.

On the other hand, we find Turkey, which views these forces chosen by the USA as a greater terror threat than the radical Islamist elements they battle with.

Under these circumstances, NATO, which is expected to find a level of compromise between the two and rearticulate their interests at a higher level, is acting as an instrument for the USA’s Middle Eastern policy.

This, in brief, is the contradiction that has driven Turkey, aiming to address issues of strategic survival, away from her Western allies and towards the Russia-China axis.

While there is no reason to be very optimistic that this contradiction will be solved under the given circumstances, nor is there a need to prepare ourselves for an extreme scenario.

Just as peace does not simply mean the absence of war, war, too means more than the absence of peace. It is one thing for the two sides’ perceptions of shared threats and benefits to have eroded on a conjunctural level, but it is quite another for each to see the other as an existential problem that requires a military response.

It is impossible under the present conditions to rebuild an ideal relationship based on a shared perception of interests and threats, founded on reciprocal trust, backed up by written agreements and institutional alliances, and sharing a common security culture, (though of course, whether such a security relationship ever existed between Turkey and the USA is another matter).

However, the two sides will not necessarily continue to behave increasingly belligerently towards one another as a consequence of all this.

According to circumstances, mutual interests and threat perceptions may return to the agenda. When this happens, both sides will benefit greatly from the habits and regulations that their established alliance relationship has given rise to.  

I therefore advise those who argue that we should leave NATO due to the current disagreements, “Don’t throw away well-worn alliances”.

For, in turbulent political periods, it would be reckless for a mid-size power like Turkey to end one strategic alliance without putting in place another, particularly as the field of manoeuvre widens and threat perceptions diversify.