How Turkey wants to reshape NATO

By Sinan Ülgen

Turkey joined NATO at the beginning of the Cold War for U.S. protection in case of Soviet attack. At that time Turkey was clearly on the frontline, but today all that lies in the past and Turkey is pursuing its own assertive and independent foreign and security policy. Ankara’s new-found confidence naturally has consequences vis-à-vis NATO, for this growing assertiveness is testing the alliance’s cohesion, as is illustrated by a number of lingering issues and high-profile disputes.

NATO-EU cooperation has for some time been stalled because of the dispute over Cyprus, while in sharp contrast to the majority of NATO members, Ankara maintains that Iran and Syria should not be viewed as threats to the alliance. And at the height of the Libyan crisis, while NATO officials were busy preparing operational plans, Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was speaking out against intervention in Libya.

As a result, some have even gone as far as to argue that Turkey is turning its back on the West. In reality it would be more accurate to say that Ankara is broadening its reach. Turkey may indeed cause tensions within NATO, but its position is an astute balance between loyalty to the alliance and its own independence.

Turkey’s perceptions of NATO are heavily influenced by current shifts in its strategic thinking on foreign policy. Turkey’s “new” foreign policy aims to transform the country into a regional power that can act independently from its longstanding partners in the West. There has at the same time been a downgrading of security in Ankara’s foreign policy priorities. Geopolitical changes like the end of the Cold War and lately the push for democracy in the Middle East, along with internal factors like the goal of achieving “zero problems” with its neighbours, have created new aims for Turkish foreign affairs strategists. Ankara is reducing the importance of hardcore security issues in favour of other concerns such as enhancing the country’s soft power while also grasping economic opportunities. A significant consequence of this “de-securitisation” of Turkish foreign policy has been the altered balance of power between the military and the civilian establishments. A no less important consequence is the changed relationship with the West.

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In years past, the partnership based on defence constituted a fundamental pillar of Turkey’s relations with the West. But it was an asymmetrical relationship, in which Ankara, as a consumer of security, was largely dependent on the West. Ankara’s foreign policy choices were constrained by the very real need to stay aligned with those of its security provider. Now, declining threat perceptions have fundamentally altered this power structure, and by extension Ankara’s need to act in unison with the West. Turkey’s shrinking pre-occupation with its territorial integrity has significantly reduced the West’s leverage over Ankara’s policy choices. The unshackling of the security relationship means a greater foreign policy freedom of action which Ankara is intent on making capital of.

Turkish public opinion mirrors this paradigm shift. Surveys show that support for NATO in Turkey is decreasing so much that last year only 30% of Turkish respondents said NATO was essential, in contrast to 53% in 2004. There is growing scepticism about the alliance with 43% of Turks thinking that NATO is not essential, a 17% increase from 2004. Just over a third of people polled think Turkey should act alone, with only 13% thinking that Turkey should always cooperate with EU countries, and only 6% with the U.S.

For all this, it would, though, be wrong to argue that Turkey is pulling away from NATO. Turkey is still an active and influential member, and hopes to benefit as much as possible from membership of the alliance. Turkey is committed to NATO and its military budget more or less fulfills NATO’s defence spending criterion of 2% of GDP. It also commits troops to NATO operations, notably to the ISAF operation in Afghanistan. In short, Turkey’s role within the Alliance is significantly more active than the vast majority of its other member states.

NATO is for Ankara the primary politico-military organisation bridging the Atlantic. Turkey has therefore been intent on scaling-up the ambitions of NATO as a security provider in today’s world of complicated new asymmetric threats. Turkey claims it was instrumental in NATO’s creation of its new Emerging Security Challenges division, and Ankara also pushed for NATO to acquire its own civilian crisis management capacity reportedly in the face of strong resistance from France which wanted the European Union to stay in the lead on this. The concession at NATO’s Lisbon summit last autumn to develop a “modest” civilian capability was seen as significantly bolstering Turkish policy goals.

If Ankara is indeed pushing the alliance to adapt to new security challenges, Turkey nevertheless remains steadfast in its attitude to NATO’s nuclear-sharing policies. Turkey is one of the six countries, including Belgium, Germany and Norway that have played host to U.S. tactical nuclear weapons for more than 40 years. It is estimated that Turkey holds custody of 90 B61 gravity bombs, 50 of which are reportedly assigned for delivery by U.S. pilots, the rest by the Turkish Air Force, despite the fact that it has no NATO-certified nuclear fighter aircraft. The readiness of the nuclear weapons based in Turkey – a matter of weeks or months rather than hours – provides little strategic value and very little in the way of security guarantees. Yet Turkey has always argued that a credible NATO nuclear deterrent is vital to the alliance’s collective defence.

Turkey considers nuclear sharing as a core of the alliance. Yet Ankara’s position is now at odds with those of the three Western European countries currently calling for a withdrawal of American nuclear weapons. Ankara insists that such decisions cannot be taken unilaterally, and that a NATO-wide consensus is necessary to change this critical element of the alliance’s nuclear deterrence. The future of nuclear disarmament, particularly the next stage of the US-Russia talks that should include each sides’ European based tactical nuclear weapons, is also set to influence the internal NATO debate on the fate of these warheads.

With the Lisbon summit widely seen as a turning point for NATO’s nuclear policy, Turkish officials say they would not oppose any programme that would strengthen NATO’s security but they fear the deployment of a missile defence system specifically targeting Turkey’s own neighbours. They have therefore set out three conditions for acquiescing with this. First, the missile defence system should take into consideration current security risks based on the existing missile capabilities of non-NATO countries. Second, it would need to cover the whole of Turkey’s territory, and third, because Turkey has no desire to be the frontline state with the Middle East as in the Cold War, Ankara strenuously objects to Iran and Syria being identified as direct threats.

Turkey has been very active in NATO’s Afghanistan mission, having even doubled its ISAF contingent in 2009. But the caveat it imposed was that Turkish troops should not take part in any offensive combat operations. Turkey at present has 1,825 troops in Afghanistan, mostly based in Kabul. Turkey is also in charge of two civilian-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams, in Wardak and Jawzjan provinces. Although many NATO members are to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, Turkey has shunned this timetable and maintains its high-profile ISAF involvement. Ankara has stated that it will remain committed to the security of Afghanistan for as long as needed, and Turkish President Abdullah Gül stressed in Lisbon that Turkey’s Afghanistan commitment is open ended.

NATO’s Strategic Concept underlines three core tasks for the alliance’s future; collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security. Collective defence means maintaining sufficient capabilities to safeguard NATO’s territory in terms of manpower and military equipment. The latter is of great importance to Turkey, which views itself as the NATO member geographically most exposed to many potential security challenges.

In recent years the development of crisis management capabilities has been a key element of the alliance’s transformation for coping with the problems of the 21st century. Among the more contentious aspects of this has been the development of civilian capabilities. France has always been reluctant to see these within NATO, whereas Turkey will undoubtedly keep on pushing for greater crisis management capacities within the alliance. Right now it is hard to predict how far EU allies will allow this trend to go.

The alliance is keen to reinforce cooperative security with existing partners and by seeking out partnerships with other countries or organisations. NATO also wants to broaden the spectrum of cooperation thematically to include maritime security, energy infrastructure security and cybersecurity. Turkey is a strong supporter of such partnerships, with its main concern being the respect of the agreed rules on NATO-EU cooperation.

Turkey sees its NATO membership as just one aspect of the wider picture of security policy. Ankara is seeking a strong role for itself in world affairs, and consequently its policies have not always aligned with those of a majority of NATO member states. Ultimately, though, Turkey has no intention of undermining the cohesiveness and effectiveness of NATO for, on the contrary, Ankara’s aim is to assert its position in NATO and shape the transatlantic alliance so that it becomes an organisation that more closely mirrors its own objectives.
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