Turkey sticks to NATO

After a build-up of fire and fury, this week’s NATO summit in Brussels did feel a tad anticlimactic. In the build-up, U.S. President Donald Trump traded punches with his European allies. He went as far as threatening the United States could go it alone unless the Europeans ramp up their defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. Trump singled out Germany as the chief villain and said Berlin’s energy ties to Russia made it dependent on Moscow. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, along with other European officials such as Donald Tusk, fired back.

So after so much drama, the NATO get-together ended up on a rather cheerful note. Trump claimed a victory. The Europeans reconfirmed their long-standing promise to reach 2 percent of GDP. The specifics remain nebulous, however. Team Trump believes its bull-in-a-china-shop tactics extracted a pledge to meet the target well before the original end date of 2024. That, of course, remains to be seen. We will no doubt see whether the U.S. president achieved his other objective of striking a deal in which European leaders bend on the ongoing trade disputes with Washington in exchange for a firmer U.S. commitment to NATO. 

Against this backdrop, Turkey did relatively well at the summit. The EU-U.S. spat drew attention away from Ankara’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface to air missives. With the Helsinki talks between Trump and Putin looming and French President Emmanuel Macron twice in Russia over the past weeks, it is hard to fault Turkey for falling into Moscow’s arms. Ankara should be in the good books when it comes to defence expenditure, too. Following six years of contraction, its military budget rose from 1.8 percent of GDP in 2015 to 2.1 percent in 2017 (though this is still a far cry from the 4 percent spent in the 1990s).

Last but not least, the decision to invite Macedonia to join NATO, one of the summit’s key achievements, highlights Turkey’s positive contribution to the alliance. Ankara has been a staunch advocate for Skopje’s entry. Back in April 2008, when Macedonia was blocked by Greece, Turkey was highly supportive of the Macedonian bid. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stressed that membership should be extended to Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Georgia, too. Not a message Russia would appreciate, though, to be fair, neither of those two countries has a realistic prospect of joining at this juncture.

The Brussels summit furthermore provided an opportunity for Erdoğan to meet face-to-face with Trump. The atmospherics were positive, it seems. “I like him, I like him.”, the U.S. president remarked about his opposite number from Turkey. Aside from Trump’s well-documented fondness for strongmen, it is not clear whether his praise reflects any substantive progress on the heap of vexing issues which divide the two countries; from Washington’s alliance with the Syrian Kurds, to the U.S. citizens detained in Turkey.

On a more general note, the summit came as a reminder that Turkey is not calling it quits on the Atlantic alliance. Yes, its commitment is somewhat shallow. Erdoğan and his lot see NATO as an instrument to achieve certain national objectives rather than a community of values. What is more, anti-Americanism in Turkey is skyrocketing.

Kadir Has University’s annual survey measuring public perceptions of foreign policy this year found that 60.2 percent of Turks see the United States as the greatest threat to the country’s security, followed by Israel with 54.2 percent.

West-bashing played a central role in whipping up nationalist passions during the election campaign – and served Erdoğan and his allies well. However, that does not mean that Turkey is intent on walking out of NATO. The alliance and the collective defence guarantee embedded in Article 5 of the Atlantic Charter is the ultimate insurance policy guarantee for the country.  

In a more uncertain world where Turkey’s power ambitions are more than matched by those of mighty and assertive neighbours such as Russia and Iran, that counts for something. As a recent report by the International Crisis Group on Russian-Turkish relations argues, “Moscow’s military build-up in Crimea and power projection across the Black Sea has increased Ankara’s reliance on NATO in that region even as Turkey’s relations with Western powers tank.”  

The Atlantic alliance is useful in that it contains Russia and that allows Turkey to hide behind all other member states and avoid direct confrontation with Moscow.  Erdoğan might enjoy his never-ending dance with Putin, even profit from it, but is that a reason enough to burn bridges with NATO?


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.