Turkey, NATO’s Elephant in the Room

By Tom Freebairn

If the Republic of Turkey were to apply for NATO membership today, they would be rejected. While NATO provides no exact standards for its memberships, the US State Department’s minimum requirements for NATO membership, released in 1997, include upholding democracy, tolerating diversity, respecting the sovereignty of their neighbors, and working towards compatibility with NATO forces. It becomes more obvious with each passing day that Erdoğan’s Turkey is in clear violation of each of these principles.

Turkey, the once-secular US ally and NATO member, has opted to court polemic religious extremism, defy international laws, and pursue the total repression of democratic life and institutions. Put simply, Turkey is no longer a democracy.

Erdoğan has ruled Turkey with effective control since 2003, putting his country on a path fundamentally divergent from the interests of the US and its close allies. The NATO alliance has a vested interest in maintaining its image as a stable coalition of democratic nations. The presence of Turkey complicates that image. Turkey has imprisoned almost 100,000 of its own citizens, including 300 journalists and a well-known Kurdish presidential candidate over dubious charges and associations. Their remaining a major NATO member calls into question the entire principles of the alliance in the 21st century. NATO’s legitimacy comes from its perceived commitment to freedom and security. A dictatorship which persecutes minorities and represses political freedom is a stain on the entire organization.

The international campaign against the Islamic State has further shown the stark differences in the agendas of Turkey and the western world. While the US-led coalition has committed to fighting the extremists in Eastern Syria, Turkey has been more concerned with attacking the Kurdish YPG fighters who are leading the charge against the Islamic State. By aiding in the brutal occupation of Afrin and defying the US by threatening to invade the autonomous administration in Northeastern Syria, Turkey has shown its commitment to challenging US interests and disrespecting international sovereignty. This assertion was supported by the 2014 statements made by former US ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone, who accused Turkey of supporting al-Qaida affiliates in Syria along with other extremist rebel groups. Not only has the Turkish government impeded US and humanitarian interests in Syria, it has actively worked against them. The actions of the Turkish Republic have not been the actions of a US ally.

Moving into the future, the US and NATO must critically reassess their existing security relationships with Turkey, in light of increasingly disturbing developments. While no formal mechanisms exist for the removal of a NATO member, establishing the right to a vote of “no confidence” or a democratic-humanitarian criteria of behavior for member states would be a strong step in reinforcing the organization’s commitment to its own essential principles.

The Turkey that Erdoğan has built is incompatible with the values of the West and has proven itself unwilling to accommodate the core tenets of NATO. It has become obvious that the would-be sultan in his tinfoil crown has no place in the NATO alliance.