NATO: The Decades-Long Dance

By: Kaylee Laakso, THO Non-Resident Fellow

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by 12-member states in 1949 to quell the spread of Soviet expansion and power[i]. Since its founding, NATO has expanded seven times to reach its current size of 29-member states[ii]. Certifying the growth at each phase, all NATO member countries have unanimously approved of each new state’s entry into the Alliance in addition to each being given consent by the US Senate[iii]. NATO is a mutually beneficial security alliance where member countries are expected to adhere to certain goals and principles concerning their militaries, economies, and politics[iv]. Since its inception, NATO has demanded that its members hold shared values in their commitment to democracy[v]. NATO’s long-standing promotion of liberal democratic ideals is where complications most poignantly arise in the evolving relationship of the United States and Turkey within the context of NATO[vi]. It is within this historical context of the relationship that informs an understanding of the complexities of the current state of relations between the US and Turkey. Challenges further present themselves within today’s shifting geo-political environment that has seen rise to competing political, economic, and national interests.

Turkey was admitted to NATO during the Alliance’s first expansion in 1952. A confluence of factors likely drove Turkey’s early inclusion into the alliance. The Cold War was wholly underway with adversaries battling the expansion and containment of Soviet influence on multiple fronts[vii]. Joseph Stalin had been courting the reintroduction of eastern Turkish territories to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) for several years by the time Turkey gained full NATO membership[viii]. The devastating manifestation of the Cold War’s political and military hostilities had already emerged on the Korean Peninsula, splitting the country and its allegiances between two states. NATO, being led by the US, supported South Korea in the Korean War. Though it was not yet a NATO member despite concerted efforts to join since 1950, Turkey contributed nearly 6,000 military personnel to support South Korea in a pitch to demonstrate its commitment to the US and NATO[ix]. Growing Soviet aggression and targeting of Turkey in concert with the appeal by the Turkish government, Turkey’s commitment to NATO and US endeavors as demonstrated in Korea, and the Alliance’s realization for prime basing locations, finally led Turkey to be admitted to NATO. It stood as the only Eurasian country and furthest from the Atlantic Ocean, situated roughly 2000 miles away[x][xi].

From the onset of its hard-fought acceptance into NATO, Turkey’s relationship with the Alliance has had difficulties revolving around policies and politics[xii]. Turkey’s dedication to its Western allies was immediately tested with internal political hardship because of its decision to join and support NATO[xiii]. The Turkish government as a physical entity and symbol lost credibility among its Arab neighbors especially, having become the target of attacks and riots in 1955. Adding insult to injury, when the Turkish economy suffered significant setbacks from agricultural failures and overspending on Western imports during this same period, the USSR offered Turkey bailout loans while no NATO country would. Rather than provide a loan and expression of support, the US hedged its bets that Turkey would remain loyal to NATO and did not lend any financial support[xiv].

In 1974, when Turkey invaded Cyprus, NATO did not provide any form of support. This not only soured relations between Turkey and NATO as well as Turkey and Greece, but it also led to the temporary withdrawal of Greek personnel from NATO’s structure. Though that specific physical dispute in Cyprus lasted only a month, its consequences have been enduring and have complicated collective Turkish, Cypriot, Greek, NATO, and European Union (EU) relations[xv][xvi].

Turkey’s long-sought aspiration for EU membership has served as both a point of contention and amenability. During each of NATO’s expansions eastward toward the Balkans and Baltic countries since the late 1990s, Turkey in unanimous agreement with other member countries offered open acceptance. By all accounts, this significant geographic expansion of NATO member states should have positioned Turkey to play an increasingly predominant role in the continued security of the collective alliance while also demonstrating its value to the EU. However, despite Turkey’s expressions of cooperation and value to both NATO and EU member states, Turkey received no further consideration for EU membership[xvii]. Additionally, though the expansion carried purported opportunities for enhanced regional security through NATO bases in Turkey, the Turkish military did not witness any correlated requests for support from NATO. Moreover, no viable prominence of the Turkish military’s role in NATO has emerged despite the fact that Turkey possesses the second largest military in the alliance after the US[xviii][xix].

Turkey’s unique geographic location bridging East and West and most especially the West with the Arab World has been of growing relevance to NATO following the terror attacks of 9/11. Providing military personnel and commanders in addition to serving as a multi-purposed staging ground for NATO and the US, Turkey has contributed logistically and operationally to missions in Afghanistan, Libya, and the broader Mediterranean and Middle East[xx][xxi]. These military operations have become increasingly complicated as Turkey’s national security interests are facing renewed vulnerabilities from the US and Russian interventions and involvement in the ongoing conflict in Syria in particular[xxii][xxiii].

With each poised to offer Turkey unique advantages and opportunities for its allegiance going forward, the US and Russia are testing the commitment of one of NATO’s longest standing members[xxiv]. Russia by all accounts is offering Turkey expanded economic investment, open acceptance of Erdogan’s growing-authoritarian style of leadership, and military partnerships[xxv][xxvi]. Contrastingly, the US seems to be exercising hardball politics, having imposed economic sanctions, freezing military equipment sales, and arming factions of a population within Syria that the Turkish Government has designated as terrorists[xxvii][xxviii].

When assessing what the present state of affairs means for the future relations of Turkey and the US within the context of NATO and even bilaterally, it seems most plausible that the ball resides primarily in Turkey’s court. The degree to which the US will shift its policies to account for Turkey’s needs or interests both presently and historically has been seemingly minimal. Despite this, and the added fact that the US and NATO both demand actions and agreements from Turkey to maintain the current alliances, Turkey has long enjoyed a range of benefits from these arrangements. Critical analysis is required to determine which course of action is and will be most fruitful for Turkey in the long-term. Will Turkey abandon its long-standing alliance with the West in a shift toward the East? Or will it weather the tumult, as it long has, to remain as a critical ally to the US and NATO?


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