Since joining the Alliance in 1952, NATO has occupied a prestigious place in Turkey’s foreign and security policy. Its approach to the Alliance has long been shaped by the confluence of two key factors: security interests and identity. NATO membership not only protected the country against potential existential threats but also enhanced Turkey’s western/European credentials.
By the end of the Cold War, questions began to arise in the West as to the merits of viewing Turkey as a ‘European’ country. With the EU replacing NATO as the organization which determines Turkey’s European credentials and the growing salience of non-European security issues in Turkey’s foreign and security policy calculations, Turkey was increasingly considered as a country which was non-European, but which could contribute to realizing Europe’s security interests through its involvement in the Middle East. In Ankara however Turkish decision makers gradually adopted the position that Turkey should have a multi-directional foreign and security policy strategy in an increasingly multipolar international system with the ascendancy of non-western powers. Turkey’s foreign and security policy interests were also becoming tied to developments taking place in non-European locales. Furthermore, as Turkey strengthened its internal economic and governmental structures, its decision makers stressed the wisdom of not placing all of its eggs in the one European basket.
As Turkey’s relations with its Middle Eastern neighbours and Russia radically improved over the past decade, Turkish leaders made certain that deteriorating relations between western powers and Russia on the one hand, and the erosion of western actors’ soft and hard power presence in the Middle East on the other, do not impair Turkey’s relations with its neighbours. Turkey wanted to preserve its strategic autonomy and avoid the nightmare scenario of finding itself in the crossfire between its western allies and neighbours to the north and south.
Some Turkish leaders, observing with concern that the EU was moving from one crisis to another, as well the opposition from some EU members to Turkey’s membership, raised the possibility of Turkey joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation as well as establishing links with the Eurasian Economic Union. Increased energy cooperation with Russia and the pronouncement to buy Chinese-made air defence systems had also led many Turkey-watchers in the West to ask whether Turkey is shifting its strategic orientation away from the West to the East. As the prospects of Turkey’s accession to the EU have steadily decreased however, NATO has grown more important in sustaining Turkey’s links to the West.
In recent years, NATO’s significance in Turkey’s foreign and security policy has increased. During the early stages of the Arab Spring and before, Turkish leaders boasted that Turkey could become a role-model for the new regimes in the Middle East in their efforts to move from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, where liberal democracy can peacefully co-exist with Islam. They also claimed that Turkey’s time had finally come in terms of leadership in the region. However, the aftermath of the Arab Spring presented Turkey with an extremely challenging security environment and tested its leadership capacity in the neighbourhood to the limit. Turkey asked its NATO partners to deploy air defence systems in south-eastern Anatolia and also agreed to the deployment of radar facilities of NATO’s ballistic missile defence system in Kurecik, Malatya. The failure of Syrian opposition groups (particularly those supported by Turkey) to present a credible challenge to the Assad regime; the intensification of the ISIS danger on Turkey’s southern borders; and the rise of Middle Eastern Kurds as a new security actor, all showed that unless Turkey anchored itself in the rules-based security environment in Europe, the danger of being embroiled in the anarchy in the Middle East would skyrocket. Recent public opinion polls also reveal that the numbers of Turks who want to see the country join the EU and cooperate more closely with NATO allies, rather than pursue an independent foreign policy course or develop closer ties to Russia and Iran, has also increased.
The worsening security environment in the Middle East, particularly following the capture of a great swathes of Iraqi and Syrian territories by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) propelled Turkish decision makers and its populous to re-discover the value of the relationship with the West in general and NATO in particular. With the option of ignoring the Alliance and seeking non-NATO security alternatives appearing less attractive than before, Turkey has instead increased its efforts to shape NATO’s transformation from within, taking an active role in formulating and implementing the Alliance’s policies and military operations. It is clear that calculations based on security interests have become even more important than those based on identity in terms of shaping Turkey’s approach towards NATO.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.