Face-off: Does Turkey still belong in NATO?

Founded in the aftermath of World War II as an agreement between 12 allied countries, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has become the most important security organization in the world, now comprising 30 member states. As the cornerstone of transatlantic cooperation between the United States and its allies, NATO expansion has been a goal for some, particularly during the Cold War when the bloc was critical countering Soviet influence. 

It was under these circumstances that Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and became an important actor in the Mediterranean and Southern Europe. Turkish involvement in NATO has been critical for decades, as it acts as a geopolitical bridge between Europe and the Middle East and once bordered NATO’s historical adversary, the Soviet Union. In recent years, however, the Turkish government under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has broken with NATO consensus, caused fractures in the alliance, and flouted its values, threatening the organization as a whole. 

Given both the historical significance of Turkish involvement in NATO along with current divisions and intransigence, how does Turkey fit into NATO in the future, if at all?

Matt Slade: The Case for Inclusion

Despite current tumult, the historical and strategic significance that Turkey has as a member of the alliance has not changed. NATO needs Turkey as a partner rather than as an adversary, and expelling the country would undoubtedly result in increasingly hostile relations between Ankara and NATO members in the Meditteranean and Balkans. 

As the 16th most powerful country in the world and the 11th most powerful military force, expelling Turkey from NATO would take out one of the most important players in the organization and leave NATO considerably weaker as a result. Turkey controls the 4th largest military in NATO, after the United States, France and the United Kingdom, and currently has the 2nd most military personnel, behind only the U.S. Removing Turkey would reduce NATO personnel numbers by nearly half a million. In the interest of maintaining NATO as a functioning and meaningful organization, Turkey plays an important role as the NATO country closest to the Middle East and on the southern flank of Russia. Even amid tensions between Ankara and other member states, the core factors for Turkish involvement in NATO remain sound, and both Turkey and the entire alliance benefit from continued cooperation. Through Turkey, NATO is able to greatly expand its operational reach and influence and Turkey’s own power is bolstered by its membership in the military alliance. If NATO hopes to continue to play a role in the Middle East and North Africa, Turkish involvement is required. 

That Turkey has committed egregious human rights violations and experienced significant democratic backsliding under Erdoğan is undeniable and deserves serious consequences. However, expulsion from NATO is not a constructive way to achieve the kind of reforms that are desired. Given how intractable Erdoğan has proven himself to be, it’s highly likely that expulsion would elicit an aggressive reaction from him and further complicate conflicts in the Meditteranean. Furthermore, Turkey is by no means the only offender within NATO. Both Poland and Hungary have experienced similar resurgences of authoritarian rule and crackdowns on liberal democratic values. To expel all three states, which form part of the Eastern edge of NATO and stand as the Bloc’s border with Russian influence, would be unthinkable, and to selectively expel Turkey would weaken the bloc only to accomplish very little. Turkey has aspired to deepen ties with Europe and even began the process of attaining EU membership in 2016, so a NATO expulsion would be politically charged for a number of reasons. 

Going even further, under the Trump Administration the United States itself saw deomcractic values weakened and the President railed against NATO throughout his term. Despite frequent attacks from the White House, no discussions prodded the idea of expelling the United States. WIthout Washington, NATO as we know it would fall apart entirely; clearly there is a certain level of leeway that must be afforded to member states, leeway which Turkey is entitled to just as much as the United States. Finally, given that NATO has only expanded in the decades since its creation, any decrease in member states, especially amid a rise in Russian aggression and provocations, would be counterproductive and shortsighted.

Additionally, to lay the blame solely on Turkey for the deterioration of NATO relations in recent years would be an unfair judgement that ignores long-standing complaints from the Turkish government. In the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, Turkey’s security environment rapidly changed, with Ankara quickly having to adapt to a new reality of unrest and civil war in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Shortly after, U.S. disengagement from the Middle East in 2016 and American backing of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)  in the fight against the Islamic State was at odds with Turkish goals. The SDF is mostly made up of People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters which Turkey considers a “terrorist” group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party. In response to the U.S.’ stance , Turkish relations to NATO were strained, prompting  Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay to ask:  “The United States must choose. Does it want to remain Turkey’s ally or risk our friendship by joining forces with terrorists to undermine its NATO ally’s defence against its enemies?” It’s clear that the dismal state of NATO relations with Ankara today is not only the result of an extreme regime in Turkey but also of a disregard for Turkish goals by the U.S.-led alliance.

With these incidents in mind, the schism facing Turkey and its NATO partners is merely a symptom of a larger issue facing the security alliance; addressing this core issue is the best way to deal with Turkish intransigence and work cooperatively moving forward. Despite recent efforts to turn NATO into the “military backbone of democracy”, the organization must contend with the fact that post-Cold War, NATO has struggled to find a new role for itself. After the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO no longer faces the risk of Soviet invasion of Europe, at least not to the extent that this threat loomed during the late 20th century. Without an overarching strategic mission, individual members have begun to see the value in autonomous action outside of NATO consensus. One such member is Turkey. The perception that Turkey alone can act in Turkish interests arose as a result of the aforementioned disagreements with the United States and NATO members over security concerns. Finding new areas for mutual cooperation between Ankara and other nearby states is the best way to reign in Turkey and ensure that moving forward, Turkey acts in a way that supports NATO interests, whatever those may be.

Turkey and NATO members Greece, Romania and Bulgaria all have an interest in countering growing Russian influence in the Black Sea. With its annexation of Crimea in 2014 and movement into the Syrian civil war, Russia has significantly increased its presence and combat capabilities in both the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean, an issue that threatens Turkey and NATO missions as a whole. Additionally, the refugee outflow from the Syrian civil war continues to present substantial issues for Turkey and European states. Finding issues where Turkey and other NATO members caan align their strategic goals in the best way to ensure that Turkey remains a cooperative member of the alliance. Expelling Turkey from NATO would only undermine these efforts and present a dangerous scenario where Erdogan is unrestrained to an ever greater degree. 

The preamble for the NATO charter explains that member nations “are resolved to unite their efforts for collective defence and for the preservation of peace and security. They therefore agree to this North Atlantic Treaty.” At the core of the NATO mission is not a focus on human rights, but on mutual defense and security. To that end, Turkey’s continued membership in the alliance is not merely beneficial, but essential. With one of the largest military forces in the world and one of the most strategic positions in the Meditteranean, it is crucial not to understate the importance of Turkish NATO membership. NATO without Turkey is a far weaker organization, and one that has no easy way to maintain influence in regions outside of Europe and North America. 

If NATO hopes to stay relevant and adapt to the changing state of conflict in the world, Turkey must be a part of that conversation. It is one thing to deal with an internal threat from a member state acting out of sync from other allies; it is quite another to face that same threat from an outside member, untethered by organizational norms. Ankara should undoubtedly face retribution for the human rights abuses under Erdogan, but to punish these with NATO expulsion would be shortsighted and incongruent with strategic goals in Washington and Brussels, not to mention dangerous. 

Ryan Witter: The Case for Exclusion

To start, the military strength and critical geostrategic position that Turkey brings to NATO should not be discounted. According to Foreign Policy, the Eurasian nation anchors NATO’s southern flank, guards the gateway to the Black Sea, and acts as a corridor to the Middle East. Despite the undeniable benefits Turkey provides NATO, the alliance must finally take a decisive stand against Turkey’s unacceptable actions under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The only way for NATO to send a clear message that it will not tolerate blatant disregard for institutional values, human rights abuses, and actions that threaten allies’ national security is by removing or suspending Turkey from its ranks. 

Some argue that doing so would be unfair to Turkey, as fellow NATO member states Poland and Hungary also have shifted toward authoritarianism in recent years. However, their actions have not been as consistently antithetical to NATO’s purpose as Turkey’s. Moreover, penalizing Turkey would not preclude punishing Poland and Hungary in the future. If anything, it would establish a precedent for doing so.

In recent years, NATO has begun styling itself as the “military backbone for democracy.” However, the rapid deterioration of the rule of law and democratic institutions in Turkey that has taken place under Erdogan’s leadership would suggest otherwise. Since Turkey’s failed military coup in 2016, the courts have come under the control of the executive branch, leading to the imprisonment of those Erdogan views as political foes, including “journalists, opposition politicians, and activists and human rights defenders.” Freedom of expression and the right to assembly have been significantly curtailed in recent years. Additionally, accusations of torture and “degrading treatment in police custody and prison” have grown in “the past four years.” Those bringing these allegations have often been Kurds, leftists, or alleged terrorists — all groups Erdogan’s regime has targeted as political enemies.

Beyond its own borders, Turkey has taken numerous actions with disregard for both humanitarian concerns and its allies’ security concerns. Two prominent examples of this can be found in Turkey’s involvement in Syria and the Caucasus. In late 2019, Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring, a military offensive against Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria that had been critical U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. Within weeks the operation left over 200,000 people displaced. Turkey’s military operation has been aided by Syrian militias that have been accused of war crimes. In February 2020, Turkey intensified its assault and raised humanitarian concerns in the process, conducting airstrikes and ground sieges in civilian locations, killing at least seven civilians in one day and forcing countless others to flee their homes. Meanwhile, Turkey explicitly defied NATO’s wishes in the 2020 outbreak of violence between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. While the alliance made efforts to broker a ceasefire between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey provided military support and armaments to aid Azerbaijan’s efforts. Ultimately, hundreds of civilians were killed during the fighting, and tens of thousands more were displaced

Moreover, Turkey has begun acting increasingly adversarial toward its NATO allies. In 2019, Turkey purchased an S-400 missile defense system from Russia despite U.S. officials cautioning against the decision. In response, the U.S. eliminated Turkey from its F-35 fighter jets program, arguing that Russian intelligence would collect data on “its advanced capabilities” with the goal of bolstering Russia’s defenses. Subsequently, Erdogan has stated that Turkey will consider buying Su-37 and Su-57 fighter jets from Russia due to its being pulled from the F-35 program. It is patently unacceptable for Turkey, as a NATO member, to turn to Russia — which has consistently been a hostile actor toward the U.S. under Vladimir Putin — for military support. Turkey’s efforts to bolster its military through purchases from Russia against the wishes of the U.S. are not the actions of a longtime ally. 

In 2016, Turkey agreed to reduce the number of Syrian refugees it would allow to leave for the European Union. But in October 2019, Erdogan threatened to “send 3.6 million refugees” into the EU in response to rising calls in Europe to label Turkey’s military presence in Syria as an occupation — a designation that would imply a breach of international law, thus opening the door to sanctions against Turkey in the future. Then, in February 2020, Erdogan announced that he was opening the door for millions of refugees to enter Europe through Greece, also a NATO member state, arguing that the EU had failed to help resettle refugees in “safe zones” in Syria. This added tension to Turkey’s already contentious relationship with Greece, which has long been plagued by disputes “over maritime borders and offshore gas and oil exploration rights” in the Eastern Mediterranean. Prior to that, Turkey exacerbated the rift in August 2020, when it sent a research vessel flanked by warships “near disputed waters” to search for “offshore natural gas between Greece and Cyprus.” This stunt led to each country briefly mobilizing their warships and warplanes against each other. Hence, if NATO does not take strident action against Turkey for its saber-rattling directed at Greece, the alliance runs the risk of an armed conflict between member states breaking out.

In addition, Turkey recently began directing harsh rhetoric toward France due to it’s pro-free speech response to the murder of a school teacher who was beheaded by vigilantes for displaying a caricature of the Muslim prophet Muhammad for educational purposes in a classroom setting. This incident came after years of rising hostility between France and Turkey over conflicts in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus and brought tensions to new levels. Erdogan joined leaders of majority-Muslim nations around the world in condemning French President Emmanuel Macron’s response to the beheading as anti-Muslim and calling for a boycott of French goods. Moreover, Erdogan publicly questioned Macron’s mental health, claiming Macron “has lost his way” and “needs treatment on a mental level.” Erdogan’s words in the wake of the beheading speak volumes about his lack of respect for freedom of speech and the liberal democratic values in general that NATO purports to defend. NATO risks losing its power to promote democracy by allowing Turkey to go unpunished for its anti-democratic actions and rhetoric.

If any of the above were isolated incidents, they would not constitute reason for NATO to consider suspending or expelling Turkey from the alliance. But these are not isolated incidents.

Unlike many other international organizations, NATO has no formal process for suspending or ending an allied nation’s membership. This may drive leaders to conclude that they should not attempt to do so in the case of Turkey, with the belief that it would be impractical and unlikely to succeed. However, the NATO allies could still pursue a fairly straightforward avenue to remove Turkey from the alliance or suspend its membership, utilizing Article 60 of the UN’s Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties. Indeed, NATO could argue that Turkey’s actions in recent years constitute a “material breach” of the treaty. A material breach, as defined by Article 60, consists of either “a repudiation of the treaty” or a “violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” In other words, a “violation of the principles underlying the treaty” that are “so extensive in scope, so severe and so persistent as to effectively ‘disavow’” the treaty. 

According to Article 60, if Turkey’s 29 fellow NATO member states were to unanimously agree that the country had committed violations egregious enough to constitute a material breach of the treaty, they could vote it out of the alliance. It may be difficult to convince each member state to vote to end or suspend Turkey’s NATO membership. But it would also be difficult to argue that the sum of the country’s recent actions has not risen to the level of a material breach of the alliance’s treaty.

NATO’s preamble states that its members “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Turkey’s state-sanctioned erosion of judicial independence, punishment of political opposition, and muzzling of free speech clearly run counter to these tenets. Furthermore, the preamble asserts that all NATO members are “resolved to unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security.” Turkey also has defied these values by compromising its allies’ security interests for the sake of military adventurism, supporting violence in the Caucasus, and acting with increased hostility toward fellow NATO member states. 

If NATO truly cares about protecting its values and integrity, it must expel or suspend Turkey, whose continued membership is currently the greatest internal threat facing the alliance. 

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