Relationship status difficult

American, German, English and Turkish flags are waving in the wind. A NATO fighter jet flies above them.
Geostrategic reasons and the bridging function between the West and the Islamic world make Turkey an important ally, photo: Marcus Brandt via dpa/picture alliance.

A more active role for Turkey in NATO, as demanded by the Turkish government, would be appropriate in view of the geopolitical challenges, but is meeting resistance within the alliance. How can the defence alliance achieve greater unity?

By Yasar Aydin

When Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan confirmed in early June 2024 that Turkey was seriously considering membership in the BRICS group, he may have added a side issue to the agenda of the NATO summit on July 9, 2024, in Washington. During the celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the alliance, the focus will naturally be on Russia. However, strength requires unity. Regarding the unity of the alliance and Turkey, three questions arise: How reliable is Turkey? What is the Turkish government's position on the transatlantic-European security architecture? How can mutual mistrust be overcome?

One thing is clear: further alienation of the geostrategic important ally Turkey must be prevented. This requires a solution-oriented agenda, a commitment to pragmatism, and constructive communication between NATO countries and Turkey.

Regional power of geostrategic importance

Turkey's importance for NATO is primarily based on its geographical location. At the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the country controls the sea route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and is situated on the Asia-Europe maritime trade route, which is crucial for the global economy. It also serves as an important transport corridor for oil and natural gas between the Caucasus, the Middle East, and Europe. In terms of security policy, Turkey is significant due to its rapidly growing arms industry, NATO's second-strongest security forces, and a corresponding security culture. As a frontline state, it also acts as a natural shield, helping to curb Russia's influence in the Black Sea region, the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Caucasus.

„As a frontline state, it also acts as a natural shield, helping to curb Russia's influence in the Black Sea region, the eastern Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Caucasus“

Over the past decade, Turkey has developed into a regional power with an almost global radius of action, positioning itself at the centre of geopolitical rivalries and setting its own security and geopolitical priorities. Most recently, in the Russian war in Ukraine, Turkey has supported the country militarily by supplying weapons and ammunition, politically by endorsing Ukraine's desire to join NATO, by not recognizing the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, by preventing the Russian navy from entering the Black Sea, by facilitating a grain agreement, and by mediating between the warring parties. Thus, Turkey plays a decisive role in the defence of Europe. It is therefore a military-political imperative that the country be more closely involved in Europe's defence and armament plans. The Russian war of aggression on Ukraine necessitates a massive increase in national defence budgets and improvements in the military capabilities of European NATO countries. Above all, there must be a merging of national armies into a unified combat force and a consolidation of defence efforts under the umbrella of NATO. The military alliance serves as a politico-military forum in which European member states can coordinate with the USA, Canada, and Turkey.

Ukrainian President Zelensky poses in front of a navy ship
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses in front of the keel of an Ada-class submarine corvette being built at the Turkish STM shipyard for the Ukrainian Navy on 11 June 2024, photo: Ukraine Presidency/Ukrainian Pre/Planet Pix via ZUMA Press Wire/picture alliance.

The eyes must also be directed towards the Asia-Pacific region. If the conflict with China intensifies there, the US would be forced to relocate its air defence systems and its transport and tanker aircraft to the Indo-Pacific. Russia could seize this opportunity to challenge NATO's eastern flank. In such a scenario, Turkey would have a twofold strategic role. First, deeper cooperation with the Turkish arms industry would offer the opportunity to reduce Europe's dependence on the overburdened US arms industry. The Turkish defence industry has outstanding capacities to produce ammunition and short- and medium-range air defence systems. Secondly, the Turkish Navy, together with the naval forces of other NATO countries, would secure the maritime trade routes in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean.

„The Turkish defence industry has outstanding capacities to produce ammunition and short- and medium-range air defence systems. Apart from that the Turkish Navy, together with the naval forces of other NATO countries, would secure the maritime trade routes in the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean.”

Turkey has long since risen to become a regional power and is decidedly using the increasing multipolarity of world politics and the diversification and fragmentation of national interests to pursue a multi-vector foreign policy. This is particularly evident in its relationship with Russia. Ankara has not joined the EU's sanctions against Russia. This has caused resentment among NATO partners and raised the question of loyalty: How reliable is Turkey?

A highly difficult, but reliable partner

In numerous European countries as well as in the USA, there are reservations about Turkey, which are reflected in opinion polls. These reservations are well-founded, especially regarding Turkey's domestic political developments such as democratic deficits, deficiencies in the rule of law, and human rights violations. The criticism of Turkey also refers to the military offensive in northern Syria and the NATO expansion to include Sweden and Finland. Despite existing differences with NATO members, especially the United States, regarding national interests and threat perceptions, Turkey has fulfilled its security and military alliance obligations with due diligence.

In the 2000s, relations between Turkey and NATO intensified and diversified. The country is one of the five member states with the highest participation in NATO operations. It was actively involved in Afghanistan as part of the Resolute Support Mission, deployed troops to Kosovo under Operation KFOR, and supported efforts in the Aegean Sea to combat irregular migration. Turkey hosts NATO Land Command (LANDCOM) and several NATO facilities, including the Rapidly Deployable Corps Headquarters, the Counter-Terrorism Competence Centre, the Partnership for Peace Training Centre, and the Multinational Maritime Security Centre of Excellence. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Turkey provided assistance to the United States. Ankara embraced the Mediterranean Dialogue, emphasizing the region's security as integral to Europe. Since 1997, Turkey has advocated for NATO expansion and the Alliance's evolution into a global player. Turkey strongly supported NATO missions in Afghanistan and continues to back NATO operations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East.

„Turkey has advocated for NATO expansion and the Alliance's evolution into a global player.“

The guarantee of Turkey's continued reliability and its remaining in NATO is ensured by the fact that the military alliance is of essential importance for Turkey. Leaving the alliance is therefore out of the question for Turkey. Without NATO's nuclear umbrella, the country's security situation would deteriorate massively. A complete withdrawal of Turkey from the military alliance would weaken Turkey not only vis-à-vis Russia, but also Iran and even Greece, and narrow its geopolitical and security policy room for manoeuvre. It is therefore in the interest of both sides to continue the cooperation.

In Turkey itself, there is broad support for NATO membership. Within the political spectrum, critical voices can be heard from both the right and left, but they exert only minor influence. Neither President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan nor other leading decision-makers and politicians have considered Turkey's withdrawal from NATO. Instead, the Turkish government has repeatedly emphasized that Turkey is and wants to remain an integral part of NATO, despite tensions with individual member states. Turkey's NATO membership will be strengthened by the country's anchoring in the transatlantic political order.

The heads of state of Turkey, Great Britain, the United States and the NATO Secretary General welcome the President of Ukraine at the NATO summit
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (l-r), President of Turkey, Rishi Sunak, Prime Minister of Great Britain, Joe Biden, President of the USA and Jens Stoltenberg, Nato Secretary General, greet Volodymyr Zelenskyy, President of Ukraine, at the Nato-Ukraine meeting during the Nato summit in Vilnius in July 2023, photo: Kay Nietfeld via dpa/picture alliance.

Anchored within the European order

Turkey is embedded in Western European institutions. The country is a member of the World Bank, the IMF, the Council of Europe, the OECD, the OSCE and is a candidate for EU membership. Turkey has recently joined the European Sky Shield Initiative. Defence Minister Yaşar Güler has expressed the wish that the Turkish armed forces should join a European army in the event of it. In 2021 President Erdoğan already expressed interest in Turkey participating in the EU defence initiative PESCO.

Turkey is integrated into the European Economic Area through the Customs Union. The EU accounts for one-third of Turkey's trade, serving as the world's most important market for Turkish industry and Turkish imports of services (tourism). The EU Economic Area is also the main supplier of high-tech products and services, as well as capital inflows and transformative foreign direct investment.

Turkey's self-image as part of the Western world remains firmly anchored, although Islamic identity is playing an increasingly important role. Turkey's multiple identity allows it to play an essential bridging function between the West and the "Islamic world" as well as the "Global South". 

„Turkey's multiple identity allows it to play an essential bridging function between the West and the ‘Islamic world’ as well as the ‘Global South’.“

The credibility of the "Global North" in the eyes of the "Global South" has suffered due to the perceived different attitudes of many NATO countries to the war in Ukraine and Israel's actions in the Gaza war. This promotes scepticism towards the "West" and favours Russia and China. Turkey enjoys a reputation as a reliable and credible actor in large parts of the "Global South" and could promote dialogue on this issue.

How can mutual mistrust be reduced?

Turkey is one of NATO's most important allies. It is therefore crucial to base relations with it on a factual and realistic foundation. To achieve this, it is necessary to adopt an approach that negotiates differences on a factual level, balances conflicts of interest, and builds trust. Consequently, it seems sensible to integrate Turkey into the transatlantic-European security architecture. Three instruments are available for this: First, the lifting of German restrictions on the procurement of engines and transmissions for Altay tanks and the purchase of Eurofighters, as well as efforts to return Turkey to the F-35 program. Secondly, allowing Turkey to participate in the defence and armaments projects of the EU defence initiative PESCO. Third, involving Ankara in the discussions on the establishment of a European army.

One thing is clear: Even though there are intensive economic relations between Russia and Turkey, Russian revisionism poses a challenge to Ankara's national interests. To ensure that Russia does not benefit from European-Turkish arms cooperation, binding bilateral or mini lateral agreements in the run-up to armaments projects would be conceivable. Additionally, Turkey is not interested in Russia emerging stronger from the Ukraine war, especially since this could massively shift the balance of power in the Black Sea in favour of Russia and give Moscow more influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia again.

Yasar Aydin

© 2024

Yasar Aydin is a researcher at the German political think tank Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP). His research focuses on relations between Germany and Turkey, EU-Turkey relations, Turkish migration and diaspora in Germany, the Turkish economy and international politics.