NATO’s 70th birthday occurred at the beginning of this month amid declarations, dialogues, statements, colloquia and communiqués galore. As might have been expected. After all, whatever one’s personal opinion of the Alliance, it has been a major contributor to the relative degree of stability the world has enjoyed during that period: and seems set to continue to be so. The world would be a poorer and more uncertain place without NATO, even if its several flaws go unaddressed. And NATO would be a poorer alliance without Turkey, which has been a stalwart supporter and enthusiastic member for 67 of those 70 years. Where, then, does the relationship stand? And where might it be going?
Despite the ‘North Atlantic’ aspect of its original framework and Turkey’s geographical separation from that ocean, Istanbul continues to see NATO as having, “a central role in Turkey’s security,” according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which also highlights the fact that the nation, “has successfully assumed its responsibilities in defending the common values of the Alliance.” Turkey also strongly supports NATO transformation, is making substantial contributions to the NATO Response Force (NRF) and established the Partnership for Peace Training Centre in 1998 to contribute to training and interoperability efforts by member states, providing training at both tactical and strategic levels to allied forces.
The nation’s strong support for NATO-EU cooperation is a natural result of its NATO membership and EU accession aspirations, even though the latter have seen a series of setbacks, delays and frustrations.
Turkey’s longstanding enthusiasm for NATO extends to the alliance’s wider partnerships, too: specifically, the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, since Turkey believes strongly in open dialogues and constructive engagement in the Balkans, in the Gulf region and with Russia. But it is in the latter arena that the current stumbling blocks are to be found.
The Turkish decision to procure the S-400 TRIUMF air and missile defence system from Russia-and the indications the deal might in future be extended to the S-500 PROMETHEUS, have caused a rift between NATO and Ankara, based primarily on the inescapable fact that the Russian systems are incompatible with the NATO air and missile defence system and will not be able to take advantage of (nor feed information into) the alliance’s long-awaited integrated Air Command and Control Systems (ACCS). The argument has been well covered in the international media, but what few observers seem to have taken into account is that Turkey chose the system for a reason, that reason being it fits the requirements of the Turkish armed forces.
For a variety of technical, operational and internal integration reasons, the S-400 offers Turkey – at least in the minds of those responsible for making such decisions – the right mix of capabilities to make its selection the right thing to do. At this moment. And – having made that decision – it has become necessary to defend it.
Necessary because, like almost anything to do with national or collaborative defence, international and economic relations and industrial development, the decision has political implications. In this case it has been a principal cause and a huge accelerator of a spat between Ankara and Washington. The Trump administration has threatened a reversal of the decision to sell the fifth-generation F-35 LIGHTNING II to Turkey – which Ankara has committed to procuring 120 of – unless the S-400 procurement is cancelled. In riposte, Ankara has not only rejected the idea of cancelling the S-400 deal but has indicated significant interest in evaluating the S-500 for future procurement.
Politics dominates the defence and security field – an inevitability that national governments have learned to live with, though public opinion is not always quite so understanding. Where this current disagreement will end is beyond any sensible observer’s power to predict, since there are so many variables of policy formulation, of threat evaluation and of political personalities to take into account. But end it will and, one hopes, with Turkey still a member of NATO and a net contributor to the alliance.
All families argue, particularly as members’ circumstances and world views change. NATO is a family that has lasted 70 years, outlasting disagreements and failed initiatives but continuing to try to ensure and assure a sustainable, credible and affordable defence for its members and their populations, territories and assets. Turkey’s ambitions are pretty much identical with NATO’s overarching aspirations – and it has proven itself to be a faithful member of the family for decades.
AT 1.64% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Turkey’s defence expenditure falls short of the agreed level of 2% that the Wales Summit in 2014 committed to, according to NATO figures. Nonetheless, the country sits well up the upper half of the ‘league table’ of NATO members listed by total defence spending. A NATO without Turkey would be a weaker and less credible alliance: Turkey without NATO would arguably be weakened, but would survive.
As NATO enters its eighth decade, it needs to pay closer attention to the pressures and influences at work in one of its staunchest supports – one that has been willingly involved in every significant NATO operation, from training Afghan security forces to providing planes and ships to Libya, from peacekeeping operations in the Balkans to counterpiracy operations: one that remains committed to peaceful resolutions for international differences, whether in the Aegean or the Black Sea; and one that has been at the forefront of the effort to heighten awareness of the threats posed by global terrorism.
Does Ankara’s view always coincide with and echo the values of its partners in NATO and the other international organisations to which it belongs? Of course not – we do not yet live in such an ideal world. But a constructive, empathic dialogue might – just might – go along way to resolving the current differences and ensuring that celebrations of NATO’s 80th anniversary will take place in Ankara and Istanbul just as enthusiastically as in other European and North American venues.