What Erdogan Gets by Being a Spoiler in NATO

Being disruptive in the alliance is a good political strategy for Turkey’s leader.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
A close up of Erdogan's face is shown with the NATO logo behind it.
A close up of Erdogan's face is shown with the NATO logo behind it.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gives a press conference after the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. YVES HERMAN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Every time there is some controversy within NATO involving Turkey, a small but noisy group of elected officials, advocates, and analysts demand that Ankara be thrown out of the alliance. It happened most recently this spring as Turkey ramped up its incursions and overflights of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, refused to sanction Russia, and threw up obstacles to the expansion of NATO.

It seems so odd that this issue comes up again and again since there is no mechanism by which the other members of NATO can remove Turkey from the alliance. The only way Turkey leaves the alliance is if the Turks and their leaders decide to leave.

Yet it is precisely because Ankara is a burr in the other NATO members’ backsides that throwing Turkey out has become a refrain for so many of Ankara’s opponents and critics. As the NATO summit approaches, it is worth asking: What possible benefit does the Turkish government derive from being a disruptive force within NATO? Well, several.

Every time there is some controversy within NATO involving Turkey, a small but noisy group of elected officials, advocates, and analysts demand that Ankara be thrown out of the alliance. It happened most recently this spring as Turkey ramped up its incursions and overflights of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, refused to sanction Russia, and threw up obstacles to the expansion of NATO.

It seems so odd that this issue comes up again and again since there is no mechanism by which the other members of NATO can remove Turkey from the alliance. The only way Turkey leaves the alliance is if the Turks and their leaders decide to leave.

Yet it is precisely because Ankara is a burr in the other NATO members’ backsides that throwing Turkey out has become a refrain for so many of Ankara’s opponents and critics. As the NATO summit approaches, it is worth asking: What possible benefit does the Turkish government derive from being a disruptive force within NATO? Well, several.

Before an outraged Turkish official lodges a complaint with Foreign Policy and/or the Council on Foreign Relations—it has happened before—let me dutifully point out that although Turkey does not spend more than 2 percent of its GDP on defense (the NATO spending target), it has the second-largest military in NATO. Turkey provided valuable support to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, fully and actively participates in the alliance’s exercises and missions, and has been supportive in NATO’s effort to help Ukraine repel the Russian invasion. The Turks have also opposed the Russians where NATO has not been directly involved—notably in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.

That Turkey is an important NATO ally is self-evident, but it is also true that it is not much of a partner, at times evincing indifference to other members’ concerns and, at other moments, outright hostility.

It has been more than a decade since it happened, so few likely remember that then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held up the deployment of NATO radar that was set to be deployed on Turkish territory. The system, which also had components in Romania and Poland, was designed to provide early warning of an Iranian missile launch, but Erdogan initially balked because the data from the radar would be shared with Israel. The Obama administration mollified the Turks by promising that information from the system would only be shared with the Israelis, according to the Washington Post, “indirectly.”

Then, in 2019, the Turkish government took delivery of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which is believed to be a formidable challenge to NATO aircraft. U.S. officials also expressed concern that if Turkey possessed both the S-400 and the 100 F-35 joint strike fighters it had on ordered, the Russians might be able to glean intelligence on the plane’s capabilities. The Turks shrugged off NATO and U.S. objections, however. Turkey was subsequently suspended from the F-35 program, and the United States sanctioned Turkey under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act over the S-400.

The following summer, the Turkish Navy menaced Greek naval vessels in the Eastern Mediterranean as they monitored Turkish gas prospecting in the waters between Cyprus and Crete and threatened a French warship enforcing the weapons embargo on Libya.

More recently, there has been an increase in Turkish violations of Greek airspace in the tight confines of the Aegean Sea while commentators in Ankara make spurious allegations that Greece seeks war. And, of course, Turkey has blocked the NATO membership bids of Sweden and Finland, which after years of neutrality were sufficiently spooked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to seek quick entry into the alliance.

Ankara’s concerns about Stockholm and Helsinki are mostly spurious. Yes, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is a terrorist organization, and yes, there are PKK activists and sympathizers in Sweden and Finland. But there is no national security threat to Turkey from these countries joining NATO.

In general, making oneself the least liked member of a club does not seem to be a good strategy, as it makes it hard for friends and partners to see matters your way. What is the saying? “You catch more bees with honey?” That rule applies only when there are consequences for one’s off-putting actions, which brings us back to the call throwing Turkey out of NATO. Because NATO’s founding fathers did not see a need to include a procedure for revoking membership, Turkey derives benefits from being the alliance’s squeaky wheel.

With no way to wrest Turkey from its ranks, NATO officials are left to placate Ankara, which is why NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has said Turkey’s security concerns regarding Sweden and Finland are “legitimate.” By validating Turkey’s concerns in this way, Stoltenberg is signaling that the only way out of the current impasse is for the Swedes and Finns to comply with Ankara’s demands. That would be a win for Turkey both in Europe and at home, simultaneously dealing a blow to the PKK and forcing NATO’s would-be newest members to submit to Turkish power.

Yet the kind of concession that Stoltenberg envisions—where the Swedes and Finns give up members of the PKK and drop weapons embargoes on Turkey for its past military incursions in Syria—is not likely to seal the deal for Sweden and Finland because by now, it seems clear that Erdogan is negotiating not so much with NATO but with U.S. President Joe Biden through the Swedes and Finns. The Turkish leader is calculating that the Russian invasion is such an emergency that by holding up NATO expansion at this critical moment, he can compel the White House to ignore congressional objections to a proposed sale of new F-16s and F-16 upgrade kits to the Turkish Air Force.

Much of the controversy over Sweden and Finland as well as Ankara’s needlessly aggressive posture toward Greece and effort to wring new military equipment out of the United States is connected to Erdogan’s domestic politics. That is not the only factor, of course, but Erdogan’s soft poll numbers loom large in his approach to NATO. The Turkish public mostly blames NATO for the current conflict in Ukraine, and in that, it evinces a mistrust of the alliance. Anecdotally, I do not know a single Turk who believes that NATO members will defend Turkey in the event it is attacked, citing European ambivalence toward the PKK and Washington’s relationship with its Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units.

As a result, being disruptive within NATO is a good political strategy for Erdogan. It is particularly important now because he gets to demonstrate that Turkey is still a player and can throw its weight around in Brussels after Ankara bullied much of the Middle East but proved unable to impose its will on the region. Having reached the limits of its power and in desperate need of financing, investment, and goodwill, Ankara has sought rapprochements with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

If Erdogan is ultimately able to wring concessions from Sweden, Finland, and the United States, it would be a big win for him politically. I can just imagine the giddy headlines in the Turkish president’s devoted press exulting how he slayed the Kurds, the United States, and the West to preserve Turkish power and dignity (or some such statement). If he fails, Erdogan can always play to the vast reservoir of anti-Americanism and distrust of NATO in Turkey to turn failure into a nationalist cause. Rallying Turks around the flag in the face of what are often perceived as Western slights is always a good political strategy for Turkish leaders. It is good to be Erdogan: When he wins, he wins, and sometimes when he loses, he still wins.

Whenever the spurious debate about throwing Turkey out of NATO occurs, some official always declares that it is better to have Turkey in the tent than outside of it. The problem is that every effort to keep the Turks inside the tent only invites more disruption. Thanks to NATO’s framers, their descendants are stuck with a fractious ally in Turkey. And no matter how hard some people wish, there is no way to get rid of it.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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