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Turkey: Difficult to live with, nearly impossible to live without

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Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”

One day last month, there stood President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey, holding hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahimi Raisi — two of the West’s impeccable foes.

Then, just a few days later, there he was again, this time seated next to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres at the signing of a deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports to transit the Black Sea.

Erdoğan as both villain and hero — just the way the mercurial Turkish President likes it. But it makes for a very complicated ally.

Turkey’s strategic importance to NATO is clear. Geographically, the country is located along the south of the Black Sea, representing a bridge between Europe and Asia — with the Middle East to the south, Central Asia to the east, and the Caucuses to the north. And for countries bordering the Black Sea, the Turkish straits offer the only waterway to the Aegean, the Mediterranean and the oceans beyond.

Politically, Turkey is the largest Muslim country in NATO and can be a useful interlocutor with the Arab and Persian world. And while its diplomacy can be disruptive, Ankara’s tight connections with so many key players provide it with political heft — as the conclusion of the Ukraine grain deal recently underscored.

Finally, militarily, Turkey deploys the second largest army in NATO, with combat experience against internal foes and external threats, and it’s home to United States forces and other military capabilities of critical importance to the defense of both NATO and the U.S.

And, yet, over the years, Ankara has hardly been a reliable ally. Its list of offenses is long, some going back decades — such as its illegal invasion of Cyprus in 1974 and repeated confrontations with Greece in the Aegean.

But Erdoğan’s presidency has taken Turkey’s offenses to an entirely new level. At home, he has tried to smother the opposition, jailed his opponents, and his government has imprisoned more journalists than any other in the world. It’s also the only NATO nation ranked as “not free” by Freedom House.

Worrying as this recent decline in freedom is, however, domestic turmoil and autocratic rule is nothing new for a country that has witnessed four military coups since the end of World War II. Rather, it’s Turkey’s increasingly erratic behavior abroad that has called its status as a reliable ally into question. 

Erdoğan is hardly the only NATO leader to have established warm relations with Putin. Just think of Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi a few years ago, or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán today. 

He is, however, the only NATO leader to have bought advanced air defense missiles from Russia, instead of purchasing Western equipment that could be integrated into NATO’s air defense network. 

Turkey’s REcep Erdogan with UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the signing of a deal allowing Ukraine’s grain exports to transit the Black Sea | Ozan Koze/AFP via Getty Images

He’s also the only NATO leader — though not the first Turkish one — to threaten an ally with force, as he did a few weeks ago in a series of tweets in Greek.

Within NATO Erdoğan has been disruptive too, often using the Alliance’s reliance on consensus to try and get his way — or block agreement. Unlike nearly all other allies, Turkey is happy to wield its veto and stand alone to try and get what it wants. 

For example, upset by Israeli military actions against a Turkish supply ship trying to break the blockade of Gaza, Ankara blocked NATO collaboration with Israel for years. Insisting that NATO consider the threat of Kurdish terrorism as a threat to NATO, Erdoğan also blocked approval of Alliance contingency plans to defend Poland and the Baltic states. 

And just a few weeks ago, Turkey once again used its veto, this time to block an invitation to Sweden and Finland to join NATO. Although the issue was resolved in time for a formal invitation to be issued at the Madrid Summit in June, given that final accession requires all NATO countries to ratify the step, Ankara still holds the final card on whether and when the two Nordic countries will join the Alliance.  

But now, after Erdoğan’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia for its outrageous invasion of Ukraine, his embrace of unsavory leaders and Islamic extremists, as well as his tactics within NATO some have begun to argue that the time has come to suspend or push Turkey out of the Alliance.

There are a couple of problems with this proposal, though — one practical, the other strategic.  

By its very nature, the very consensus principle that Turkey has successfully exploited to its own ends makes its suspension or ejection from NATO impossible without Ankara’s agreement. While Turkey can withdraw from NATO at any time — as France did from its the military structure in 1966 — the Alliance would need a consensus to eject a member. Thus, NATO’s Catch-22: its consensus rule can only be changed by consensus. 

There’s also a strategic reason to keep Turkey in NATO and try to use diplomacy, persuasion and pressure to get Ankara to play ball: In or out, Turkey occupies a strategically vital place for the Alliance, with close links to the Middle East and Caucuses that no other ally possesses or can replicate. It does, at times, play a useful role in bringing otherwise recalcitrant parties together as well — as its relations with both Kyiv and Moscow have already highlighted. And it can, and has, contributed significantly to the common defense of the Atlantic Alliance.

In other words, Turkey’s an ally that’s increasingly difficult to live with and nearly impossible to live without. Or, as former U.S. President Lyndon Johnson said of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

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