Turkey and NATO: Is there life after brain-death?

Rifts over Turkey were on full display in London this week, but the country’s place in NATO remains secure. Here’s why.

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In the annals of global events, NATO summits used to be among the most uneventful, up there with annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and United Nations conferences on financial reform. Usually, previously drafted resolutions would be announced in bland language of consensus, and the summit itself would barely make the news, unless an attending leader commented on an unfolding international story.

No more. These days NATO is anything but boring. With the arrival of President Donald Trump and growing internal rifts within the transatlantic alliance, NATO summits now resemble a military version of the TV programme Dancing with the Stars. There are the jurors, the dancers, and an audience. Somewhere off camera onlookers gasp, applaud, or cry at every proclamation – whether it is Trump’s comment from a few years back that NATO is “obsolete”, or this year’s “brain-death” remark by President Emmanuel Macron. There are dramatic build-ups to each episode: a few days before the London gathering, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised the temperature by calling Macron’s NATO assessment “sick and shallow,” telling his counterpart: “you should check whether you are brain-dead.”

This summit, held on the alliance’s 70th anniversary, saw bickering aplenty about military spending, transatlantic relations, and Russia, all spilling over in the form of off-the-cuff remarks and impromptu news conferences. But, whatever the individual incidents, one longer story arc playing itself out is Turkey’s growing estrangement from its Western partners. In London, relations with Turkey were an undeniable topic of debate, on a number of levels. For instance, this included the spat between Turkey and its European NATO partners, most notably France, on issues like the country’s incursion into Syria and how to deal with ISIS prisoners. And, in the background, a larger debate is continuing about Turkey’s place in the Western alliance – both in Turkey and in Europe. Prior to this year’s meeting, Turkey blocked a NATO defence plan to support the Baltic states and Poland in the event of Russian aggression, on the grounds that NATO should support Turkey’s own fight against Kurdish forces in Syria. Most European nations regard the US-backed Syrian Kurds as allies and not as terrorists, and Turkey’s demand for NATO to label the Syrian Defense Forces a terrorist group stands little chance of success. But Ankara’s hand is not weak, thanks to the 2016 refugee agreement with Europe and its overall ability to leverage growing ties with Moscow.

One longer story arc playing itself out is Turkey’s growing estrangement from its Western partners

The plotline got only more complicated in London: the Macron-Erdogan quarrel rumbled on throughout the summit but Trump made clear his preference for Erdogan over the leaders of France and Germany. Speaking alongside NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg, Trump criticised European powers for not contributing enough while praising Turkey – “a country that I happen to have a good relationship with” – for its defence spending and for allowing US commandos to fly over its territory to capture ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (US commandos only flew over Turkey-controlled Syrian territory for this mission but were tipped off by an SDF informant.) When asked about Macron’s comments, Trump remarked, “Turkey responded by saying he was brain-dead, which is interesting.” When Macron and Trump held their own bilateral, Turkey again came to the fore. The French president accused the Turks of working with Islamic State proxies: “When I look at Turkey, they are fighting against those who fought with us shoulder to shoulder against ISIS and sometimes they work with ISIS proxies”, he said. Macron added that the country’s “ambiguity” toward the group was “detrimental” to NATO in the fight against terrorism in Syria and Iraq.

Trump’s friendliness towards Turkey stands in contrast to Congress’s current desire to sanction the country for its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile system. Indeed, this is a fundamental challenge for NATO. Congress wants the administration to impose CAATSA sanctions on Turkey. But Trump has already made clear his disinclination for such a move,  having argued in public against sanctioning Turkey during Erdogan’s visit to Washington last month. This week Trump again defended Ankara’s S-400 decision, at times appearing almost to be using Turkish talking points: “They tried to buy our [missile system] and Obama administration said you can’t have the Patriots. So Turkey went out and bought the Russian missiles. They were not allowed to buy Patriots. Turkey bought billions of orders of F-35s. Now they can’t have them and will go to another country – Russia or China.”

This complex state of affairs says as much about the condition of the NATO alliance and the Western order as it does about Turkey itself. NATO is divided, and the Turkey debate is a manifestation of this. With an alliance so disharmonious, issues like the Syrian Kurds or Turkey’s purchase of S-400s, will not be resolved easily. It is hard to imagine either progress in resolving these matters, or Turkey departing the alliance altogether. Ankara knows there is no risk of it being pushed out of the club. As long as it feels it has Trump’s unconditional support, Turkey will continue to regard NATO as a platform to further its interests – not an arena for compromises.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Associate Senior Policy Fellow

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