An Uneasy Relationship: Turkey and US/NATO

Prof. Dr. Tarık OĞUZLU
09 February 2015
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Since its entry to the Alliance in 1952, NATO has occupied a prestigious place in Turkey’s external relations, particularly concerning relations with western powers and issues of foreign and security policy. For a long time, notably during the Cold War era, Turkey’s approach towards the alliance had been shaped by the confluence of two factors, namely identity and security interests.  According to foreign policy elites, membership in NATO would not only enhance the credentials of Turkey’s western/European identity but also protect the country against the existential security threats emanating from the north, namely the Soviet Union. Despite the occasional quarrels with the United States, particularly concerning the Cuban Missile crisis, the infamous Johnson letter, the Cyprus dispute and the US-led military embargo on Turkey in the second half of the 1970s, Turkey accorded membership in the Alliance with the highest place in its institutional engagements.


With the end of the Cold War and the growing salience of democracy and human rights issues in global politics, questions arose as to the merits of viewing Turkey as a western/European country. Not only has the EU begun to replace NATO as the prime organization that could be of use in determining the credentials of Turkey’s western/European identity, but also the growing salience of non-European geographies, notably the Middle East, in Turkey’s foreign and security policy calculations has led many westerners to question Turkey’s relevance to western/European security interests as a western/European country. Increasingly Turkey has been considered as a non-European/Middle eastern country that could potentially contribute to the materialization of western/European security interests in the context of the wider Middle Eastern geography.


Looking from the other side, Turkish decision makers have gradually adopted the view that Turkey would do well to adopt a more multidimensional and multidirectional foreign and security policy outlook at a time when the international system has increasingly turned out to be more multipolar and multi-faceted with the ascendancy of non-western powers in global politics and when Turkey’s foreign and security policy interests have been increasingly exposed to developments taking place in more non-European than European locations. Besides, as Turkey has become more powerful in terms of material power capabilities, Turkish decision makers have increasingly underlined the wisdom of not putting all of Turkey’s eggs in the western/European basket. As Turkey’s relations with Russia and Middle Eastern neighbors have radically improved over the last decade, Turkish rulers have paid utmost care to make sure that deteriorating relations between western powers and Russia on the one hand and the erosion of western actors’ soft and hard power presence in the Middle East on the other, do not impair Turkey’s relations with its neighbors to the north and south. Stated somewhat differently, Turkey wanted to avoid the nightmarish scenario of remaining in the middle of a crossfire between its western allies on one hand and neighbors to the south and north on the other. Turkish rulers have wanted to preserve their strategic autonomy in viewing the external environment from Ankara’s perspective.


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