Monday, 11 June 2012

Turkey's Leadership Aspirations in NATO Weakened by Petty Politics

Published in Articles

By Richard Weitz (vol. 5, no. 12 of the Turkey Analyst) 

NATO’s May 20-21 heads-of-state summit in Chicago reminded everyone how Turkey is making important contributions to NATO in many key areas—the war in Afghanistan, addressing new missions such as projecting security into North Africa, and developing new defense capabilities.. Turkey aspires to a leadership role in the alliance, with the hope that President Abdullah Gül, who attended the summit, will become the next NATO Secretary-General. But Turkey’s contributions risks being overshadowed by its petty efforts to limit NATO’s ties with Israel and the European Union. While these bilateral Turkish disputes are important, they should not be allowed to contaminate NATO’s vital multinational security missions. 

BACKGROUND: The War in Afghanistan was a focus of the Chicago summit. At Chicago, the Allies reaffirmed that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) will retain sufficient assets in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 to resume direct combat. The NATO members and their nonmember partners in ISAF also pledged in principle to continue some kind of NATO military role in Afghanistan beyond 2014, though with a different name and mission than ISAF and focused on training, advising, and providing other support. They also reaffirmed their support for an Afghan-led peace efforts with the Taliban provided the rights of all Afghans, including women, were protected.

Turkey has and will play an important role in Afghanistan. About 1,500 Turkish troops continue to serve as part of ISAF and Ankara agreed to extend its leadership of the Kabul regional command for at least another year. Turkey’s training of the Afghan army, along with its regional diplomatic initiatives aimed at reconciling Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as its economic assistance, are essential to promoting political stability and Afghanistan’s post-conflict reconstruction. The Turkish government is well-situated to mediate any peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgents. Last week’s decision of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to make Turkey an official dialogue partner could prove useful as NATO works with the SCO to promote stability in Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The Chicago summit addressed several issues related to defense spending and capabilities: the adequacy of European defense spending and the U.S. military commitment to Europe, the inefficient nature of NATO countries’ defense spending; and the tardiness in NATO’s development of the new capabilities needed to address modern threats. The Allies sought to demonstrate at Chicago that they were enhancing NATO’s military capabilities through sustaining their defense spending and alliance commitments, using their resources more wisely, and announcing some high-profile capabilities initiatives as an indicator of what they hope to achieve in the future.

Turkey brings important assets in this regard. It has one of NATO’s most dynamic economies, whose rapid growth is allowing the country to rapidly enhance its military forces through both foreign purchases and in improving domestic defense industry. Thanks to its large population and the geographically broad perspective of its national security community, Turkey has one of the largest and most readily deployable armies in Europe. Turkish troops and commanders have assumed important roles in Afghanistan, the western Balkans, and other NATO-backed peace missions. Turkey also is one of the few NATO countries that sustains NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement by hosting what is thought to be the largest number of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe.

Turkey’s position within NATO is unique as it is bordering three security hotspots of concern for the alliance: the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East. For years, Turkish warships have been helping patrol the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean against terrorists and other threats to these vital lifelines. Turkey’s influence in the Balkans remains strong, especially since it has improved relations with Serbia. Turkey has now adopted the policy of supporting the spread of democracy and security in the Middle East. Under NATO's new Military Command Structure, the air command in Izmir will be replaced with a new land command base, resulting in Turkey having one of the few major NATO headquarters on its soil. Although neither Turkey nor NATO is eager for the alliance to become involved in Syria’s civil war, if NATO were to intervene militarily in Syria, it would probably do so from Turkish territory.

Ankara has been one of the most prominent backers of expanding NATO’s roster of members and partners since the alliance’s enlargement promotes stability in neighboring regions. Current Turkish efforts focus on assisting Georgia, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to join NATO at some point. In terms of NATO’s “new missions,” Turkey is playing a vital role in promoting NATO’s energy security by serving as a vital conduit for oil and gas reaching Europe from Eurasia, especially the Caspian basin and Russia. Turkey’s energy partnership and overall good relations with Russia, despite differences over the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) and Syria, have helped buffer Russia-NATO tensions on many issues. In the future, Turkish diplomats could help resolve the protracted conflicts in the former Soviet Union involving Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia.

Even Turkey’s willingness to host a U.S. AN/TPY-2 missile defense early warning radar at Malatya, located southeast of Ankara, has not antagonized Moscow. At Chicago, NATO formally assumed control of the radar and declared that its missile defense system had achieved initial capacity. The decision to host the radar has reassured many in NATO of Turkey’s commitment to allied security despite its overtures to Iran and hostility to Israel, which enjoys close security ties with many NATO countries. Unfortunately, much of the Western media coverage of Turkey’s pre-summit activities focused on how the Turkish government sought to deny Israel access to any information from the radar and prevent Israel from having any presence at the Chicago summit.

IMPLICATIONS: In addition to its disputes with Israel, Turkey’s other major complication within NATO is its love-hate relationship with the European Union. Since the end of the Cold War, and especially during the past decade, NATO and the EU have sought to cooperate more effectively to address European security challenges. This collaboration could include sharing high-value but scarce assets, developing mutual profitable divisions of labor, and conducting joint operations, as they have done in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and against Somali pirates. A priority is to avoid the creation of gaps, needless redundancies, institutional rivalries, or tensions between countries belonging to one but not the other—such as Turkey and the United States.

Even setting aside its frustrated membership ambitions, Turkey’s security relationship with the EU remains so problematic as to threaten its ties with NATO. The most immediate problem is the paralyzing effects of the Turkey-Cyprus dispute on institutional cooperation between NATO and the EU. Turkey is a member of NATO but not the EU, whereas Cyprus belongs to the EU but not NATO. The two countries have used the consensus rules of each organization to prevent its cooperating with the other on important security issues. These mutual antagonisms have constrained NATO-EU cooperation in general, and disrupted the joint NATO-EU security missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and in the Gulf of Aden in particular.

Turkish objections to sharing sensitive NATO military information with the government of Cyprus, which joined the EU in May 2004 despite its failure to adopt a UN-backed political settlement with the island’s Turkish minority, has limited formal NATO-EU intelligence sharing since then.  The Cyprus government, sometimes assisted by Greece and other EU members, has retaliated by blocking Turkey’s participation in certain EU defense activities, such as the work of the European Defense Agency. A recurring justification is that Turkey has not complied with its obligations under its accession negotiations to open its ports and airports to Cypriot-registered ships and aircraft. 

The dispute has escalated to the point today where it impedes a broad range of possible EU-NATO cooperative efforts. The various EU-NATO institutional arrangements and meetings in Europe have been constrained by an inability to hold formal sessions with an agreed agenda or the authority to reach substantive decisions.  These mutual antagonisms have also disrupted the joint NATO-EU security missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and in the Gulf of Aden off Somalia. Thanks to its full membership in NATO, Turkey has the ability in principle to deny the use of any NATO collective assets for any future EU-led mission. The dispute with the EU, along with those with France and the United States in recent years, helps explain why opinion polls show that popular support for NATO is lower in Turkey than in any other member country.

Turkish diplomats initially refused to allow EU leaders to attend the summit on the grounds that the EU was making no more contribution to NATO than the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference, currently led by Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, a Turkish national, and other international organizations. In the end, the EU leaders were allowed to attend some NATO sessions but not others.

CONCLUSIONS: Relations between NATO and the EU could easily worsen in coming months. Cyprus’ imminent assumption of the rotating EU presidency this July is sure to heighten Turkish opposition to cooperation between the two organizations. Without Turkey’s full support, neither the EU nor NATO will be able to realize important security goals in the Arab world.  The solution for many EU-NATO problems involving Turkey is to address their root causes rather than merely their symptoms. Expanding Turkey’s role in EU security and defense decision making would ease many of the anxieties in Ankara about the Union’s growing security roles. 

Yet, Turkey must do its part to truly become an alliance leader. Turkish politicians too often denounce NATO members and alliance actions with excessively censorious rhetoric. Turkey should try to contain its bilateral disputes with the EU and Israel rather than import them into the alliance. Turkey should also avoid strategic surprises such as agreeing to host military exercises with China without consulting with allies.

Although Turkey’s membership in NATO is not in question, answers are still needed regarded whether Turkey will become a future spoiler (perhaps like Gaullist France), or instead emerge as an even more important partner. Turkey has great potential in either case given its influence on ballistic missile defense, NATO partnerships, and NATO-EU collaboration, which is currently blocked by the mutual vetoes exercised by Turkey and Cyprus.

Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director, Center for Political-Military Analysis Hudson Institute

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2012. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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