Turkey: NATO’s Rogue Member State

A US Patriot missile system deployed in the Turkish city of Gaziantep in 2013. cc Flickr U.S. Army Europe, modified, https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/

A Clash of Values

With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) once again has a leader with authoritarian tendencies in its midst, calling into question the alliance’s 21st century role as a defender of democratic values. The situation in Turkey has not yet deteriorated beyond repair, however. The roots of opposition to Erdoğan’s authoritarianism are deep and strong. The West’s challenge is finding the right balance between disciplining and encouraging Turkey to step away from the brink.

The NATO alliance prides itself on shared values and a common vision. In a 2011 speech at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, then NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen spoke of the fundamental desire to be free and NATO’s role in protecting that freedom. He went on to address the need for partnership and cooperation, foremost among NATO member states, to “carry forward the flame of freedom.”

Although most, if not all, political and military alliances experience discord between their members or member states at one point or another, the political character of Turkey has strongly countered the core character of the NATO alliance, moving beyond the simple realm of political discordance. For the past several years there has been a growing debate about whether Turkey belongs in an alliance that advocates freedom and security along liberal and Western lines.

Indeed, the argument that NATO represents illiberal democracy cleanly and clearly is not an easy one to make. NATO’s earlier members, Portugal and Greece, do not carry a clean bill of democratic health nor have they been quick to espouse the same values and principles as NATO. Hungary and Poland can be added to the list of democratic strays, with the former cozying up politically and economically with Russia.

NATO members called for Greece’s expulsion after Greek junta colonels checked the phantom communist coup in 1967. Eventually the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and eventually Canada turned their attention to members behaving badly, insisting on NATO to intervene in the interest of preserving NATO’s reputation and preserving the communal values of the alliance. NATO faced the grim reality of the three nations walking away from the alliance in an attempt to distance themselves from troublemakers. Then President Lyndon B. Johnson banned weapons exports to the Greek Junta and deployed the US 6th Fleet to Greek waters to put the pressure on Greece’s dictators.

NATO’s Article 10 presents somewhat of quagmire for the alliance and its current members, stating that, “by unanimous agreement, [parties may] invite any other European State in a position to further the principles of this Treaty and to contribute to the security of the North Atlantic area to accede to this Treaty.”

Even with the deposit of instruments of accession, there are no conditions outlining that invitations are to be extended to democratic states. Article 10, however, does unambiguously refer to the invitations being extended to states to become party to the alliance to further its principles.


NATO’s Autocrat

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went from a model democrat to an avid pupil of authoritarian politics in a relatively short span of time. Since, 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which once saw a formal invitation by the European Union (EU) in 2004 to begin negations to enter into the democratic club, saw a new trajectory under Erdoğan.

The Kurds, with whom Erdoğan once initiated peace talks, are once again bearing the brunt of Turkish repression – both politically and militarily.

Erdoğan’s drift away from a ghostly democratic promise took foremost place in the wake of the attempted coup. In the coup’s aftermath, Erdogan launched a campaign of state-wide repression against political opponents (some on charges of terrorism), implemented strict new security and counter-terrorism laws, cracked down on civil society, engaged in media bloodletting, and strategically employed violence to entrench his power and create a one-man autocratic state

The Kurds, with whom Erdoğan once initiated peace talks, are once again bearing the brunt of Turkish repression – both politically and militarily. In the parliament, Erdoğan is seeking to expel and ban members of the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which in recent elections had achieved success, including among non-Kurdish citizens. On a military level, the Turkish army re-started its anti-terror campaign against southeastern Turkey, where the situation has quickly become dire and human rights violations seem to be the norm

Erdoğan has departed from the democratic norms Turkey supposedly shares with its allies, particularly in NATO. Yet neither Erdoğan’s strongman rule nor his military efforts against the Western-allied Kurds in Syria have earned him strong rebuke from Washington, though much critical flak has come from Brussels.


Failed Approaches

To what extent does Turkey share the fundamental values of the NATO alliance? Discussions between Erdoğan and Trump that took place in late January 2018 are illustrative of tactical and strategic shortsightedness and suggest a new for new approaches with the aim of managing Turkey’s authoritarian slide.

Trump’s sympathy toward Erdoğan and his perception of security threats in and around Turkey presents a major barrier in any attempts to temper Turkey’s authoritarian character under Erdoğan, but NATO is laden with strong democracies able to soften the harsh regime. Given that Turkish society has already become deeply polarized, efforts should not be directed toward strengthening Turkey’s internal opposition, but rather NATO and Europe’s “normative power” states should be dealing with Erdoğan directly.


Strengths and Weaknesses

Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis responded to NATO’s position by withdrawing a sizable force of some 300,000 as part of the NATO military architecture. Waving “goodbye” to Turkey, a country ranked 25 in terms of its defense spending budget – some $8.2 billion USD – would also result in the loss of nearly 750,000 total military personnel, 382,000 of which are currently active. Today, Turkey holds the number 4 spot in NATO’s military strength ranking.

Turkey’s drift away from the West is an opportunity for Russia to try to weaken NATO in the Black Sea region. Vladimir Putin has become an expert at exacerbating divisions within the West alliance, using natural gas and information warfare strategies as tools and weapons. Erdoğan’s penchant for making enemies is the West’s saving grace. He can’t seem to help but isolate himself, yet the Turks must know they cannot go it alone in the world.

Supporting Turkey’s internal opposition would polarize it further and incur Erdoğan’s style of governance. One of the major questions that should come to the fore is not whether Turkey itself is still a dependable or democratic country sharing that same values as NATO collectively, but rather whether the Turkish military more specifically should still be referred to as a reliable and effective instrument of force.

The question becomes salient given the schism between Erdoğan and the Turkish military, and the subsequent purge that has taken place since the 2016 military coup, referred to as an act that has “degraded” NATO.



EU accession was the West’s best carrot. It worked marvelously in the past. Having lost a great deal of standing, the allure of EU membership has not entirely dissipated and the EU can still influence Turkey’s behavior. When the EU warned in 2016 that reintroducing the death penalty would end Turkey’s hopes of membership, Erdoğan backed down.

Bringing the discussion of EU membership to the table would still be beneficial to the EU, NATO, and Turkey. For the EU and NATO, its presence would be illustrative of an opportunity to increase their representation, diversity, and signal their position on welcoming new members. For Turkey, it offers the possibility of belonging to a diverse but common political, economic, and security community.

Bilateral engagement also presents a constructive pathway to swaying Turkey and bringing it back in line as opposed to going through full NATO channels.

Bringing the discussion of EU membership to the table would still be beneficial to the EU, NATO, and Turkey.

Pushing Turkey accession up the political agenda shows an interest on the part of the EU that Muslims are welcome in Europe, that it values a connection with the Muslim world, instead of demonstrating an interest in feeding into a Europe-and-other dichotomy. Because the EU occupies a stronger economic position, European states are in a position to make enticing gestures to Turkish citizens eager to travel through the EU.

National and community security can act as appealing goals at a time when Erdoğan is facing a dearth of allies. Over previous years, Turkey has shown that development and change is usually enacted from the top, however, as with authoritarian development, constraints come in the form of socio-economic barriers.

The EU and NATO can offer Erdoğan far more political instruments than he can to achieve his policy objectives. Past success of the EU’s economic and political conditionality practice re-establish the pragmatic feasibility of engaging Turkey in these ways.

The EU’s normative character, “more for more” practice, and influence through military capacity, underpin an influence that the EU still retains. However, the nature of its discourse, its actions, and the manner in which both are enacted are important traits when approaching and engaging Turkey.

NATO has evolved beyond being purely a military alliance. Just as there are consequences with enduring a member falling out of line with its common values, shutting doors carries a degree of cost as well. The West will have to do more than answering threats (canceling the migrant deal) with more threats (ending EU accession talks).


The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed by the authors are theirs alone and don’t reflect any official position of Geopoliticalmonitor.com.

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