Is Turkey a Crucial or Corrosive NATO Ally?

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Erdogan’s foot-dragging on Sweden and Finland is causing headaches for Western leaders.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson attend a joint press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 8, 2022.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson attend a joint press conference in Ankara, Turkey, on Nov. 8, 2022. MUSTAFA KAYA/XINHUA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Emma Ashford: Hey, Matt! Happy new year to you. It’s our first column of the new year, and we’ve already got a lot to sink our teeth into: an attempted insurrection in Brazil, a change of military leadership in Russia’s war against Ukraine, and NATO member Turkey causing all kinds of problems for other member states.

It's Debatable

Matt Kroenig: Let’s start with Turkey? Is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan going to ever let Finland and Sweden into NATO or what?

EA: Who knows? I suspect that he will relent at some point in the future—perhaps after the Turkish elections in June, or as part of his reelection campaign—and agree to ratify Finland and Sweden’s entry in exchange for Western concessions.

But Erdogan has been increasingly playing both sides in recent years, and it’s not impossible that he could refuse entirely. In addition to his troubled relationship with the United States, Erdogan is one of the few leaders who has managed to keep ties open with both Russia and Ukraine. The Turks are even arming Ukraine while doubling their trade with Russia. And they helped to orchestrate the grain export deal last year between the two sides.

It’s clear that Turkey plays an important role as a diplomatic middleman between Russia and the West. But it’s far less clear why Western leaders tolerate its veto over issues such as NATO membership, at least to me.

MK: Well, before I give my assessment, what do you mean by tolerating its veto? What would you recommend instead: Washington threatening that all options are on the table?

Why continue to defend the Turks? Why should they take shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella when they offer nothing in return?

EA: Not everything requires military strikes, you know. But Washington doesn’t have to commit to defending Turkey as part of NATO or give it a bunch of diplomatic and economic concessions to overcome its veto while the government saber-rattles against other NATO allies (e.g., Greece) and invade their neighbors (e.g., Syria). NATO may not have an explicit mechanism for kicking out members, but if there was ever a good case for threatening to do so, it’s Turkey.

Why continue to defend the Turks? Why should they take shelter under the U.S. nuclear umbrella when they offer nothing in return?

MK: Turkey has been a difficult ally in recent years, but Ankara still brings much to the alliance. And I think tolerating its veto is one of the beautiful things about the U.S.-led order. Washington gives smaller allies a full voice in the operation of the alliance. Can you imagine the Soviet Union asking Romania for permission before taking action in the Warsaw Pact?

The best Turkey experts I’ve talked to think that we will get to yes after the election. The Turks have a legitimate complaint. Turkey has accused Nordic countries of sheltering groups that Ankara sees as terrorists. Washington would not appreciate it if NATO allies were providing cover for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. This issue also helps Erdogan politically in Turkey. There are elections coming up in June, so he will play this for all that it is worth until then. Moreover, Sweden has made some real concessions, including lifting an arms embargo on Turkey, promising to combat terrorism, and distancing itself from Kurdish armed groups. So, my sources say he is likely to quietly approve Sweden’s and Finland’s entry into NATO sometime this summer.

EA: What does Turkey bring to the alliance? Geography seems to me to be the most logical thing—particularly given the country’s strategically important location on the Dardanelles—but I’m not sure that’s sufficient. It was helpful that Turkey invoked the Montreux Convention last year, constraining Russia’s ability to use naval power in Ukraine, but it’s also repeatedly resisted allowing the U.S. military to use Turkish territory or airspace over the last few decades. I’d go as far as to say that Turkey’s geography only benefits NATO when Turkey wants it to.

You can’t take the geo out of geopolitics. Turkey shores up the southern flank of NATO and controls access to the Black Sea. It has one of the largest and most capable militaries in NATO.

MK: You can’t take the geo out of geopolitics. Turkey shores up the southern flank of NATO and controls access to the Black Sea.

Moreover, Turkey has one of the largest and most capable militaries in NATO. It hosts U.S. bases and radars. Washington and Ankara mostly share threat assessments related to Russia, Iran, and terrorism. And it has been a good ally in the not-too-distant past.

EA: And while Turkey has a real problem with terrorism, it’s also true that some of the people that Erdogan wants to have extradited are journalists, and the evidence that others committed crimes is murky. It’s a reminder that Turkey is not just authoritarian but also actively engaged in human rights abuses against Kurdish groups both domestically and in neighboring states. I think you’re probably right that Erdogan will eventually approve this, but I increasingly wonder if it’s worth keeping Turkey inside the tent when the country adds such limited value. You have to balance the geostrategic benefits the country brings to the alliance against the fact that Turkey picks and chooses when it wants to be aligned with NATO.

MK: As I argue above, I think it does bring value to the alliance. I do worry about the decline in democracy under Erdogan, but I am not sure that will last—I am told there is a decent chance he could lose the election in June and step down.

But, speaking about backsliding democracies, what just happened in Brazil?

EA: We spoke at the end of last year about the defeat of incumbent and wannabe strongman Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s presidential election, who lost to the leftist Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Despite Bolsonaro’s unwillingness to concede, it seemed like the transfer of power went fairly smoothly. On Jan. 8, however, Bolsonaro supporters stormed and ransacked the presidential palace in Brasilia after months of trying to convince the military to stage a coup to reinstate him.

I thought it was really interesting that many in the United States portrayed this insurrection as inspired by Jan. 6 and former U.S. President Donald Trump, even though Brazil itself has a much longer and more complicated history of military dictatorships and democratic backsliding. Jan. 6 was a huge shock in the United States, which has rarely seen organized political violence over the last few decades and has never really been authoritarian.

In Latin America, by contrast, many countries—including Brazil—were military dictatorships until the 1980s. The continent has a history of strongman rulers and of violence against left-leaning political figures. Some experts on civil-military relations in Latin America appear to have been pleasantly surprised that the military refused to back the Bolsonaro supporters en masse.

How did you interpret it?

MK: Well, first and most important, I think it is hilarious that Bolsonaro is hanging out in Orlando, Florida. Can you imagine the screenplay?

(Queue: “When You Wish Upon a Star”)

Narrator: You just undermined the rule of law in one of the world’s largest democracies. What are you going to do now?

Bolsonaro: I’m going to Disney World!

EA: Ha! That is certainly one notable difference between Jan. 6 and this violent incident: Bolsonaro wasn’t even in the country when his supporters tried to storm the presidential palace. Some in the U.S. Congress are calling for Bolsonaro to be extradited back to Brazil, but they’re mostly arguing that he incited the violence over recent months and weeks, not that he was directly involved.

MK: Yes. At first glance, it seems similar to Jan. 6, but there are some important differences. You highlight one. In addition, the rioters’ goals were different. In Brazil, they didn’t seem to be motivated to overturn the democratic process but to smash the levers of government power altogether. Moreover, they seemed to telegraph their intention on social media days in advance and some security forces did not initially do much to resist. In the U.S. case, almost everyone was surprised by the violent insurrection, and the Capitol police fought back valiantly.

Just a few days into 2023, the violence in Brazil seems to be a setback for democracy.

More broadly, though, this episode does interrupt one of 2022’s hopeful trends. For more than 15 years, we have seen the decline of democracy around the world. In the second half of 2022, the autocrats seemed to be on the ropes: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the mullahs in Iran all faced domestic resistance to their failed policies. I was even hoping that we might see a fourth democratic wave. But, just a few days into 2023, the violence in Brazil seems to be a setback for democracy.

EA: I’m not so sure about that. I know I’m usually the voice of pessimism here, but in abstract terms, a conservative-leaning former military officer in South America lost an election, his supporters rioted and tried to provoke a military coup against the new left-leaning president, and it all failed. The rioters are under arrest and being charged. Not just that; the military helped to arrest them! Brazil has only been a democracy for 30 years or so. This isn’t nearly as bad as it could be. If you want real examples of democratic backsliding in South America, Peru might be a better one: Institutional gridlock and partisan fighting is the norm and the country has descended into violence in recent weeks as protests against the ousting of former President Pedro Castillo have spread across the country and authorities have responded with deadly force.

MK: You know what, I rarely say this, but you are right. The Biden administration should also reinforce this message by inviting Lula for a state visit to Washington soon to show that the United States supports democracy and hemispheric allies in difficult times.

EA: Speaking of U.S. allies with questionable democratic principles, there’s been an interesting scandal up at the Harvard Kennedy School over the last few weeks related to criticism of Israel. As folks may know, the Kennedy School is one of the top professional schools of government and foreign affairs in the United States and routinely hires former officials, think tankers, and diplomats to teach many of its up-and-coming students about the world of policy.

MK: They also accept mediocre postdocs. I spent an idyllic year there between graduate school and my professorship.

EA: Sounds lovely. Nothing says “idyllic” like Boston in winter, after all.

But when the school’s Carr Center tried to hire the outgoing head of the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, last year, it appears to have been dissuaded from doing so by university administrators and potentially by donors, who allegedly pointed to Human Rights Watch’s criticisms of Israeli security policies during Roth’s tenure, accusing Roth, who is Jewish, as pushing an anti-Israel position. The whole scandal resurfaces a difficult question for policy folks: Is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic?

MK: I have conflicting views on this episode. The academy’s greatest strength is protection of intellectual freedom. Scholars should be able to conduct research or advance points of view that are unpopular or politically incorrect. As a political scientist who has argued for the viability of the military option for Iran and the value of American nuclear superiority, I have a personal stake in upholding this foundational, scholarly principle.

Indeed, if universities start policing points of view, the entire enterprise is dead. In recent years, the policing has tended to go in the other direction with “woke” becoming the official ideology and conservatives silenced.

In this case, however, Roth is just a visiting fellow. He does not enjoy the protections of a tenured academic. In such a case, I think universities are mostly free to do as they wish.

EA: They are free to do it, but should they? Harvard made a similar decision a few years back about Chelsea Manning, rescinding an invitation to visit the Kennedy School as a fellow after outcry from the intelligence and national security communities—including senior members who were working at the Kennedy School at the time. In that case, I think it was clearly the right choice: Inviting someone who has broken the law and leaked classified information to teach Harvard’s aspiring policy wonks sent a terrible message.

But the Roth case seems much more problematic. As head of Human Rights Watch, Roth has been sanctioned and denounced by a dozen different authoritarian states, including China, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The group even puts out reports criticizing U.S. policy in some areas. Many knowledgeable observers—including faculty at Harvard—agree that the organization didn’t single out Israel. It just applied the human rights standards it applies everywhere to Israeli conduct in Gaza and the West Bank. That shouldn’t be a problematic view; describing it as such is absolutely censorship. And it’s worrying to see one of the United States’ top schools discriminate in this way.

MK: I guess I think the controversy is a bit overblown. Harvard also employs scholars (such as FP columnist Stephen Walt) who have written scathing critiques of Israel. Roth was only up for a temporary appointment. And people lose out on job opportunities all the time for taking stands on controversial issues. Moreover, Human Rights Watch probably did go too far in its assessment of Israel; it’s the only “free” country in the Middle East, according to Freedom House.

I mean, if we want to talk about real human rights violations, let’s talk about Russia.

EA: Hmm. Is it still “whataboutism” if you invoke Russian human rights abuses to deflect from Israeli ones, I wonder?

But we should finish up with updates from Ukraine. The Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, although there’s been very little progress on the ground from either side in recent weeks. Even a suggested Russian truce for Orthodox Christmas went nowhere, as Kyiv judged that it would be far more militarily beneficial to Russia than to Ukraine. Outside Ukraine, however, there have been a few interesting developments.

The debate in the West over whether to provide Ukraine with tanks seems to be moving toward a resolution. A number of countries—including France and the United States—have committed to sending so-called light tanks. This category includes vehicles such as the French AMX-10 RC and the American Bradley, which are relatively mobile armored vehicles used for reconnaissance and transportation.

And just this week, the United Kingdom and Poland have considered sending main battle tanks—the Leopard II and Challenger II, respectively—making them the first Western countries to do so. That could help shape the battlefield in the coming months, allowing Ukraine to retake the initiative, though we’re still talking about pretty small numbers here. I’m skeptical it will make a significant difference now that Russia has managed to reinforce its lines with new conscripts.

MK: I agree, but for different reasons. The West needs to stop pussyfooting around. I agree with former U.S. secretaries of defense and state, Robert Gates and Condoleezza Rice: Time is not on Ukraine’s side. Washington should provide Ukraine with the weapons that it needs to win the war now.

Will tanks really help Ukraine win the war?  These systems will provide a boost to Ukraine, but they’re not a silver bullet.

EA: Again: Will tanks really help Ukraine win the war? Mobility is useful, but the Russians have consolidated their lines and are dug in in relatively defensible positions. These systems will provide a boost to Ukraine, but they’re not a silver bullet. And it’s a significant escalation of Western aid: These systems are clearly not defensive in the traditional sense.

MK: If Ukraine is going to win the war, what they need is a lot more escalation. To quote Rice and Gates: “NATO members also should provide the Ukrainians with longer-range missiles, advanced drones, significant ammunition stocks (including artillery shells), more reconnaissance and surveillance capability, and other equipment. These capabilities are needed in weeks, not months.”

EA: The other interesting news is that Putin has replaced the general in charge of the invasion—Sergei Surovikin—to bring back his crony Valery Gerasimov. Putin portrayed this move as a demotion for Surovikin after the losses of recent months, but in reality, most Russia watchers agree that it was Surovikin who stopped the bleeding and stabilized the Russian position in Ukraine after a bad autumn. Putting Gerasimov—the man who botched the initial invasion in February and March of last year—back in charge seems like a poor choice for Putin.

MK: Poor choices are Putin’s specialty. Apparently, poor choices on sleep habits are mine. It is getting late in Washington, but I want to keep arguing. Are you in?

EA: Thanks, but no tanks.

Emma Ashford is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War. Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is a columnist at Foreign Policy and deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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