Turkey and NATO

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
19 February 2013
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This article is about the changing dynamics of Turkey’s approach towards NATO. This is an important subject to consider given that NATO has occupied a central place in the definition of Turkey’s foreign, security and defense policies since 1952 when Turkey joined the Alliance. The centrality of NATO in Turkish foreign policy was nearly undisputed during the Cold War era, whereas the questions concerning Turkey’s commitment to the Alliance have been heard more frequently over the last two decades, particularly since the coming of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in late 2002.


To what extent Turkey still sees itself as a part of the West can be answered by closely examining the positions Turkey has adopted on the key issues coming to the agenda of the Alliance since the onset of the post-Cold war period, such as NATO’s enlargement towards Russia and the concurrent globalization of the Alliance, NATO’s adoption of out-of-area crisis management activities and NATO’s adoption of missile defense capability.


The main point to be underlined in this context is that Turkey’s attitudes towards the Alliance have been to a significant degree informed by the changes in Turkey’s national identity and foreign policy interests. The way how Turkey’s identity and interests were defined during the Cold War era began to profoundly change over the last two decades, particularly following the rise of AKP in Turkish politics. Having defined its foreign, defense and security policies on the basis of NATO membership for many years, Turkey began to adopt a more critical perspective towards the Alliance since the end of the Cold War.


Despite the support at elites-level, the number of people who consider membership in NATO indispensable for Turkey’s security interests has dropped significantly over the last decade. An important observation to make in this context is that Turkish people do not differentiate between the United States, NATO and the European Union. As attitudes towards one get hardened, the others follow suit. The last ten years have seen a steep increase in Turkish skepticism towards the Western international community in general, and the EU, NATO and US in particular. The negative consequences of the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq on Turkey’s territorial integrity and societal cohesion, the growing anti-Turkish and anti-Islamist feelings across Europe, the declining prospects of Turkey’s eventual accession to the EU, the growing self-confidence of Turkish people and Turkey’s increasing outreach to non-western geographies as part of economic development process seem to have culminated in rising skepticism towards the West. 


Not having the means to cope with the threats stemming from the Soviet Union on its own, Turkey looked to NATO as a security guarantee during the Cold War. Thanks to Turkey’s institutional presence in the crown-jewel of the western international society, Turkish leaders could also long argue that Turkey is a western/European country. This suggests that one could easily justify Turkey’s quest to join the Alliance, and remain a staunch member of it, on the basis of both identity and interest related motivations.  


Despite the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Johnson Letter crisis in 1964 and the arms embargo crisis in 1975, NATO’s privileged position in the definition of Turkey’s national identity and interests remained solid during much of the Cold War period. The risks of being abandoned by NATO far outweighed the risks of being entrapped in unwanted contingencies. Besides, NATO had been the prime western organization at this time defining the contours of western identity. Neither EU nor other western international organizations had been in a position to represent the West as much as NATO could do. In the eyes of Turkish rulers, membership in NATO had proved to be the main institutional platform through which Turkey could claim to be a part of the West. For the EU to gain such a status, the end of the Cold War would have to be waited.

Once the Cold War ended and the threat stemming from the Soviet Union disappeared, Turkey's perspective towards the Alliance began to take a more critical turn. While on the one hand Turkey’s security has begun to be affected by developments taking place more to the south than the north, the lessening of the Cold War pressures on the other hand has gradually created more room for Turkey and Russia to improve their relations. Simultaneously, prospective membership in the EU has gradually become a more important yardstick to measure whether one state is European or not. The end of the Cold War has resulted in the bifurcation of the West, as the two pillars of the transatlantic security community, namely the US and NATO’s European members, have adopted somehow different geopolitical outlooks absent the common Soviet threat. 

Considering that NATO, as a collective defense organization, was primarily created in the context of European security, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strengthening of the European Union as a distinctive political and security actor and the gradual shifting of US attention towards non-European geographies combined to have eroded NATO’s ‘European’ identity as well. The last two decades bear witness to the fact that NATO has gradually transformed into a post-European collective security organization. Not only has the area of responsibilities where NATO is supposed to perform activities extended beyond Western Europe, but also crisis management, expeditionary warfare and post-conflict stability kind activities have become more pronounced than NATO’s traditional collective defense rationale. Non-article 5 activities have gained as much an equal status as conventional collective solidary clause. 

Turkey’s changing view towards NATO has gained a more visible character during the AKP governments over the last decade. For the AKP-ruled Turkey to follow a Ankara-centric, multidimensional and multi-directional foreign policy, Turkey’s decades-long NATO-centric foreign policy mentality would have to be revisited. Accordingly, Turkey’s national identity in the content of global power politics should no longer be defined solely in reference to East-West confrontation. Aspiring to acquire a multi-directional global actor identity would increasingly require the instrumental use of Turkey’s historical cultural, geographical and political links to the defunct Ottoman Empire, rather than prioritization of Turkey’s westernization process as embodied, among others, by membership in NATO. Looking to the outside world through the prism of NATO would yield no fruit if Turkey wanted to establish pragmatic cooperative relations with key non-western actors. 


Reflecting this emerging role conceptualization, Turkey’s attitude towards the Alliance has begun to change. Firstly, Turkish leaders have taken an utmost care to express their views on the various issues coming to the agenda of the Alliance. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has many times underlined, Turkey wanted to become an owner of the Alliance, rather than an issue or object of Alliance policies. Turkey’s goal has been to ensure that improving relations with neighbors is not negatively affected by the potential consequences of NATO's transformation. For example, it was assumed that if NATO came closer to Russia’s vicinity and increased its military presence in the Black Sea, Russian leaders might perceive such steps as threatening and consequently adopt nationalistic and expansionist policies in return. This might in turn bedevil Turkey-Russia relations. Another example concerns Turkey’s demand that the operationalization of NATO’s missile defense shield initiative not impair Turkey’s relations with Russia and Iran. Turkish rulers spent great efforts to make sure that NATO’s latest strategic concept adopted in Lisbon in November 2010 does not mention Iran by name in the context of NATO’s missile defense system. Turkey has also been adamant that NATO does not turn out to become a global policeman conferring legitimacy on US-led military operations across the globe. From Turkey’s perspective, NATO’s globalization should not occur at the expense of its European collective defense organization identity and culminate with its further Americanization.

Secondly, Turkey sent troops to the NATO-led multinational ISAF operation in Afghanistan and took its command more than once, yet made sure that Turkish troops do not perform any combat operations. Turkish leaders showed a maximum effort for NATO's fight against Al-Qaeda and Taliban forces not to be perceived as a fight against Islam. For Turkey’s improving status across the Muslim world to remain on solid grounds, Turkey should not be seen as supporting any NATO activity that might be potentially interpreted that NATO is at war with Islam.  


Thirdly, despite adopting a critical and questioning attitude within the Alliance, Turkish leaders paid an utmost care not to veto any NATO policy if other allies agreed on. Turkey did not want to be seen as the maverick within the Alliance, sabotaging NATO’s consensus oriented culture. The best example to this situation is the military operation carried out by NATO in Libya. For example, Turkey initially objected to NATO's intervention in Libya, yet later took part in it provided that all allies agreed on the mandate of the operation.

Fourthly, Turkey has played an active role to help NATO reach out to the Middle East and Gulf regions. The Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) are the best examples of Turkey’s efforts to contribute to the security cooperation between the Alliance and the countries of these regions in the context of NATO’s exposure to non-traditional security challenges.

Fifthly, Turkey’s stance within the Alliance has been driven by more interests than identity-related motivations. Membership in the Alliance has increasingly begun to be seen as Turkey’s efforts to develop pragmatic security cooperation with the key actors of the western international community in the emerging non-polar/post-western global environment. NATO has continued to confer western/European identity on Turkey, yet this has not overshadowed Turkey’s efforts to adopt a truly global identity. The last two decades have witnessed that the risks of being entrapped by the policies of the Alliance in non-wanted contingencies seem to have outstripped the risks of being abandoned by the Alliance. As Turkey's dependency on NATO in terms of security and identity decreased, it adopted a more questioning and critical attitude towards the Alliance.

Despite such an attitude, Turkey still attaches importance to NATO. Worth noting in this regard is that the developments taking place in the Middle East within the context of the so-called Arab Spring seem to have brought Turkey once again closer to the Alliance. As Turkey began to feel threatened by the emerging realpolitik security challenges in the region, such as the increasing possibility of Iraq and Syria’s dismemberment, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism, NATO seems to have gained some of the ground it lost in the eyes of Turkish political-security elites over the last two decades.


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