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Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, is chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly “World Review with Ivo Daalder” podcast.
One day last month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stood hand in hand with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahimi Raisi – two of the West’s most impeachable enemies.
Then, a few days later, he was there again, this time sitting next to UN Secretary-General António Guterres as he signed an agreement allowing Ukrainian grain exports to transit through the Black Sea.
Erdoğan both villain and hero – just as the mercurial Turkish president likes him. But it is a very complicated ally.
Turkey’s strategic importance to NATO is obvious. Geographically, the country is located along the southern Black Sea, representing a bridge between Europe and Asia – with the Middle East to the south, Central Asia to the east, and the Caucasus to the north. And for countries bordering the Black Sea, the Turkish Strait offers the only navigable route to the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean and the oceans beyond.
Politically, Turkey is the largest Muslim country in NATO and can be a useful interlocutor with the Arab and Persian world. And while its diplomacy can be disruptive, Ankara’s close relationship with so many key players gives it political clout – as the conclusion of the Ukrainian grain deal recently underscored.
Finally, militarily, Turkey deploys the second largest military in NATO, with combat experience against internal enemies and external threats, and houses US forces and other military capabilities critical to defense. NATO and the United States.
And yet, over the years, Ankara has hardly been a reliable ally. Its list of offenses is long, some dating back decades, such as its illegal invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and its repeated clashes with Greece in the Aegean Sea.
But Erdoğan’s presidency has taken Turkey’s crimes to a whole new level. At home, he has tried to stifle opposition, imprisoned his opponents, and his government has imprisoned more journalists than any other in the world. It is also the only NATO country classified as “not free” by Freedom House.
As worrying as this recent decline in freedom is, domestic unrest and autocratic rule are nothing new for a country that has seen four military coups since the end of World War II. Rather, it is Turkey’s increasingly erratic behavior abroad that has called into question its status as a reliable ally.
Erdoğan is not the only NATO leader to have established warm relations with Putin. Think of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a few years ago, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán today.
He is, however, the only NATO leader to have purchased advanced air defense missiles from Russia, instead of buying Western equipment that could be integrated into NATO’s air defense network.
He is also the only NATO leader – though not the first Turkish – to threaten an ally with force, as he did a few weeks ago in a series of tweets in Greek.
Within NATO, Erdoğan has also been disruptive, often using the Alliance’s reliance on consensus to try to get his way – or block the deal. Unlike almost all other allies, Turkey is happy to exercise its veto and be left alone to try to get what it wants.
For example, upset by Israeli military actions against a Turkish supply ship attempting to breach the blockade of Gaza, Ankara blocked NATO collaboration with Israel for years. Insisting that NATO consider the threat of Kurdish terrorism as a threat to NATO, Erdoğan also blocked approval of the Alliance’s contingency plans to defend Poland and the Baltic states.
And just a few weeks ago, Turkey used its veto again, this time to block an invitation from Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Although the issue was resolved in time for a formal invitation to be issued at the Madrid summit in June, given that final membership requires all NATO countries to ratify the step, Ankara still holds the final map to find out if and when the two Nordic countries will join the Alliance.
But now, after Erdoğan’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia for his outrageous invasion of Ukraine, his support for unsavory leaders and Islamic extremists, and his tactics in NATO, some have began to argue that the time had come to suspend or expel Turkey from the Alliance.
There are, however, a few problems with this proposal – one practical, the other strategic.
By its very nature, the very principle of consensus that Turkey has successfully exploited for its own ends makes it impossible for it to be suspended or expelled from NATO without Ankara’s agreement. While Turkey can withdraw from NATO at any time – as France did from its military structure in 1966 – the Alliance would need consensus to eject a member. So NATO’s Catch-22: its consensus rule can only be changed by consensus.
There is also a strategic reason to keep Turkey in NATO and to try to use diplomacy, persuasion and pressure to play the game in Ankara: inside or outside, Turkey occupies a strategically vital place for the Alliance, with close ties to the Middle East and the caucuses that no other ally has or can replicate. It sometimes plays a useful role in bringing together otherwise recalcitrant parties, as its relations with Kyiv and Moscow have already underlined. And it can and has made a significant contribution to the common defense of the Atlantic Alliance.
In other words, Turkey is an ally that is increasingly difficult to live with and almost impossible to live without. Or, as former US President Lyndon Johnson said of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing, than outside.” ‘outside the tent pissing.’