Turkey in NATO: A Strategic Partnership Spanning Decades

Sweden’s application to join NATO was finally approved by the Turkish parliament this week, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promptly ratified the decision.

Sweden’s NATO accession has dragged on for more than a year. Except for Hungary, all other NATO members backed Stockholm’s admission; however, Turkish officials charged the Nordic nation of providing sanctuary to Kurdish terrorists. Resuming arms sales to Turkey, extraditing individuals suspected of terrorist activities in Turkey, and strengthening anti-terrorism laws were among their demands. The United States seems to have linked approval of Sweden’s NATO membership to future U. S. sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

Analysts warned of the alliance’s decline as Sweden’s membership process stalled and presented a variety of suggested rewards and penalties to hold Ankara in check. Some even suggested that Turkey be kicked out of NATO, even though its charter makes this practically impossible.

These concerns and threats come at a time when it has become common for U. S. experts to describe Turkish foreign policy as “transactional”—meaning that Turkish national interests override NATO’s common values. Once a reliable, Western-oriented U. S. ally, they contend, Turkey is now pursuing its own goals, many of which conflict with those of the US and other European nations.

It is worth looking to history to understand Turkey’s posture. The country waited nearly four years before it was finally allowed to join NATO in 1952. The experience persuaded Turkish policymakers that there is always some degree of bargaining in relations with the US, NATO, and Western nations. In the seven decades that followed, Turkey’s relationship with NATO has frequently supported this viewpoint, sometimes to Turkey’s advantage and sometimes to its detriment. American NATO official Charles M. Among world leaders, Spofford signs a protocol while seated at a table in this iconic 1952 black-and-white photo.

Turkey’s efforts to join NATO and other U. S. -dominated postwar institutions occurred under conditions of extreme insecurity for the country. Turkish leaders refrained from going to war with Germany and Britain during World War II, accepting aid from both countries without joining the conflict. At the conflict’s end, Turkey found itself with few friends among the Allied victors. Additionally, communist-run governments encircled it on multiple sides: the Soviet republics of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the northeast, and Bulgaria in the west.

In neighboring Iran, the Soviet Union and Britain occupied the north and south of the country, respectively. The Kurdish and Azeri ethnic groups in the area were granted autonomy by the Soviet Union, while Turkish leaders have long opposed the latter’s separatist movement. Additionally, Soviet representatives put pressure on Turkish authorities to renegotiate agreements governing passage through the Dardanelles and Bosporus and to give up control of a number of border provinces in the northeast. To Ankara, the Soviet threat seemed existential.

Rather than comply with Soviet demands, Turkey turned to Britain and the United States. The Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were two of Washington’s increased commitments to Turkey and Greece as a result of London’s inability to continue playing an expansive role in the eastern Mediterranean.

But U. S. and Western European leaders stopped short of including Turkey in NATO. Ankara first inquired about membership in 1948, when the alliance was taking shape, but it was rebuffed. Turkey tried again in 1950 but was offered only “associate status. The principles of “democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law” enshrined in the NATO charter were not the basis for Western leaders’ objections to Turkey’s full membership; the military alliance included Portugal’s dictatorship. Rather, their reasoning was strategic—not wanting to extend NATO’s political and military commitments so far east.

Turkey did not gain firm U. S. Until 1950 and 1951, when Turkey dispatched thousands of soldiers to fight alongside the United States in some of the most brutal months of the Korean War, support for its NATO membership was lacking. Washington proposed Turkey’s accession in May 1951, and support from and the whole NATO Council followed. Turkey was admitted in 1952, along with Greece.

From the beginning, Turkey’s relationship with NATO was transactional. Turkish leaders persuaded their Western counterparts that Ankara had strategic importance by putting Turkish citizens in danger in order to stop communist expansion in Korea. Turkey’s location on important waterways and between Europe and Asia seemed to benefit the Western alliance in the event of a conflict with the Soviet Union. So did Ankara’s large army. A crowd of Greek Cypriots participate in a communist-backed demonstration in this historic black-and-white .

Turkey was not always treated equally with its Western counterparts, despite the fact that it was frequently able to reap benefits from NATO. Turkish leaders felt their national interests were subordinated to those of the United States and other allies. Washington’s willingness to bargain with the Soviet Union over U. S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey during the Cuban missile crisis was one example of this dynamic. But the main source of frustration was Cyprus.

Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960 with a power-sharing agreement between its Greek majority and Turkish minority. Turkey started preparing to invade the island to defend its Turkish population after the agreement collapsed in 1963.

But then-U. S. President Lyndon B. Johnson told the Turkish government that in the event that an invasion resulted in Soviet intervention in Cyprus, it could not rely on NATO support. Johnson’s letter to Ankara stoked anti-U. S. sentiment in Turkey, placing Turkish leaders in a difficult position who backed the alliance and its numerous financial and security advantages.

A decade later, when Turkey did intervene in Cyprus, NATO membership worked to its advantage. In 1974, Greece’s military regime—which had come to power in 1967—supported a coup in Cyprus. Turkey responded by taking control of a third of the island, which remains divided to this day.

Then-U. S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger believed that Turkey was “more important” than Greece and expressed concern that pressuring Ankara might lead to the overthrow of a left-wing government. Unconvinced, Democrats in the U. S. Congress voted to halt weapons sales to Turkey. In response to the embargo, which wouldn’t completely expire until 1978, the Ford administration persuaded NATO allies like West Germany to boost arms exports to Ankara.

In response to the embargo, the Ankara government permitted several more Soviet aircraft carriers to cross the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and terminated unilateral U S. access to bases in Turkey. On the eve of the May 1978 NATO annual summit, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit told reporters that he saw “no threat” to Turkey from the USSR and declined to sign a joint declaration. He added that a continued U. S. embargo was likely to reduce Turkey’s contribution to NATO.

Two months later, the U. S. Senate voted to lift Turkey’s arms embargo. Turkey’s leaders appeased the public’s short-term resentment of the US by negotiating with NATO without completely jeopardizing their nation’s long-term strategic alliances. Transactional diplomacy had paid off. Following the military takeover, Kenan Evren, the chair of the National Security Council at the time, is seen in a November 10, 1980, photo in Ankara, Turkey.

After Turkey’s 1980 coup, NATO membership again became useful for the country. Military leaders emphasized their determination to honor NATO commitments. Additionally, they attempted to patch things up by suggesting possible territorial concessions in Cyprus (though they never followed through) and encouraging rival Greece’s reintegration into NATO’s command structure after its withdrawal during the 1974 crisis.

These actions coincided with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the start of the Iran-Iraq War, and the Iranian Revolution, which once more put Turkey at the “center stage” of U S. strategy—and gave Turkey’s military rulers more room to maneuver. Even after Amnesty International looked into allegations of torture, the United States increased its aid to Ankara, prompting Denmark and Norway to freeze their financial support. By 1991, only Israel and Egypt received more U. S. military aid than Turkey.

The dissolution of the USSR and the fall of the Berlin Wall between 1989 and 1991 posed a threat to NATO’s relevance and to Turkey’s standing with its Western allies. Then-Turkish President Turgut Ozal supported the U.S. effort to defend Turkey’s importance to Western interests. S. -led campaign against Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. He also liberalized Turkey’s economy to encourage foreign investment. Ozal anticipated receiving concessions in exchange from the US and other European allies, such as expanded access for Turkish textiles in the US S. market.

NATO began to expand its ambitions in ways that suited Turkish interests. The alliance provided Turkey with additional aircraft during the Gulf War to deter Iraqi attacks. It chose to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo, where Turkey was concerned about Serbian attacks against Muslims. There was even talk of an “enhanced partnership” between Ankara and Washington. The 1999 capture of a significant Kurdish separatist leader was made possible in large part by the United States and other NATO allies. That same year, the European Union formally acknowledged Turkey’s candidacy for membership. At a NATO summit in Lithuania, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pictured in a packed room with members of his security detail.

Despite these developments, Turkey in the 1990s was rocked by economic crises, violence, and political instability. These years of chaos contributed to the demise of long-standing parties, paving the way for Erdogan’s ascent to power in 2003 with his Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Initially, the AKP intensified Turkey’s efforts to engage with Western allies. But there were multiple setbacks. Following Cyprus’s admission to the EU and the election of European leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany, who both opposed Ankara’s EU membership, the talks between Turkey and the EU came to a standstill.

With the AKP losing the backing of Western-oriented factions in its coalition, such as liberals and the Gulen religious movement, Erdogan was forced to rely on political groups that supported a less Western and more engaged “Eurasianist” foreign policy with Russia and Central Asia.

The most significant of all the post-Cold War disputes between Turkey and its NATO allies has been over ties with Kurdish nationalist organizations. In its military operations, Washington has frequently looked to Kurdish groups to serve as local allies—first against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

The governments of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran have all implemented anti-Kurdish policies, which has contributed to the growth of a substantial and politically engaged Kurdish diaspora in Europe. Sweden is one of the most notable examples. There, in 2021, a sharply divided parliament gave a lawmaker who had fought alongside Iranian-Kurdish guerrillas in her youth the opportunity to cast the decisive vote that increased support for Kurdish groups in Syria.

But Turkey’s reluctance to allow Sweden to join NATO quickly was not caused by the actions of a single lawmaker. In fact, Sweden itself is not the issue. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) was first designated as a terrorist organization in 1984 by Sweden, following Turkey. Other NATO members, including Germany, also have significant Kurdish diasporas.

Instead, Turkey’s leaders chose to engage in combat within NATO as it continues to be one of the few platforms through which they can apply pressure to their Western counterparts. Through NATO, Ankara can draw attention to its security concerns—and gain important concessions along the way.

Turkey’s membership in NATO, a cornerstone of its defense and security policy, has spanned over seven decades, marked by a complex and evolving relationship. This article delves into the history, current state, and future prospects of this strategic partnership.

A Long and Winding Road to Membership

Turkey’s journey towards NATO membership began in the aftermath of World War II, amidst rising tensions with the Soviet Union. Seeking security guarantees against potential Soviet aggression, Turkey actively pursued membership in the newly formed alliance. However, its initial bids in 1948 and 1950 were met with resistance from some members

The Korean War proved to be a turning point. Turkey’s deployment of troops alongside UN forces demonstrated its commitment to collective security and earned it the respect of its potential allies. This, coupled with the escalating Cold War tensions finally paved the way for Turkey’s accession to NATO in 1952.

A Pivotal Role in NATO’s Defense Architecture

As a key member of NATO, Turkey has played a vital role in the alliance’s defense architecture. Its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East makes it a crucial bulwark against potential threats.

Turkey hosts several important NATO military bases, including Incirlik Air Base, a major hub for air operations, and Konya Air Base, home to NATO’s AWACS surveillance aircraft. Additionally, the Allied Land Command headquarters is located in Izmir, further solidifying Turkey’s position as a key player in NATO’s military structure.

A History of Cooperation and Challenges

Turkey’s involvement in NATO has been marked by both cooperation and challenges. The alliance has provided Turkey with crucial security guarantees and has facilitated its participation in various NATO operations including the Korean War, the Afghanistan mission and Operation Active Endeavour.

However, relations have also been strained at times. The Cyprus dispute, Turkey’s objections to the accession of certain countries, and its recent military operations in Syria have all generated tensions within the alliance.

Navigating a Complex Future

Looking ahead, the future of Turkey’s relationship with NATO remains complex. The ongoing conflict in Syria, the rise of new security threats, and Turkey’s domestic political landscape all present challenges that will require careful navigation.

Despite these challenges, both Turkey and NATO remain committed to maintaining their strategic partnership. Continued dialogue, cooperation, and a shared commitment to common values will be crucial in ensuring that this partnership continues to serve the interests of both parties and contribute to regional stability.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: When did Turkey join NATO?

A: Turkey joined NATO on February 18, 1952.

Q: What are the benefits of Turkey’s membership in NATO?

A: Turkey benefits from NATO’s security guarantees, participation in joint military operations, and access to advanced military technology and training.

Q: What are some of the challenges facing Turkey’s relationship with NATO?

A: Challenges include the Cyprus dispute, Turkey’s objections to certain countries’ accession, and its recent military operations in Syria.

Q: What is the future of Turkey’s relationship with NATO?

A: The future of the relationship is complex and will depend on factors such as the ongoing conflict in Syria, the rise of new security threats, and Turkey’s domestic political landscape.

Additional Resources

Turkey’s membership in NATO has been a complex and evolving journey, marked by both cooperation and challenges. As the alliance navigates the uncertainties of the 21st century, Turkey’s strategic role and its relationship with NATO will continue to be a subject of significant importance.

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