Rudolph Atallah, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Michael S. Ansari Africa Center, testified at a House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on “The Growing Crisis in Africa’s Sahel Region.”
On the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s visit to the United States, Energy & Environment Program Associate Director Mihaela Carstei joins CTV to discuss the Keystone Pipeline project that would transport tar sands oil from Canada and the northern United States to refineries in the Gulf coast of Texas.
By W. Robert Pearson
Most people who follow the relationship with Turkey and NATO have focused on a few widely shared perspectives, conventional wisdom, if you will. These are first, that the relationship has been good for both Turkey and the organization; second, that the U.S.-Turkey defense relationship is critical to good relations between Turkey and NATO; third, that NATO is a substitute for Turkey while it awaits the outcome of its negotiations with the EU; and fourth, that the EU would like Turkey’s soldiers in case of trouble and Turkey’s economy in times of peace, but it doesn’t want Turkey’s Turks, to put it bluntly.
There has been truth in all these assertions, but the picture today is more complicated and the consequences of more nuanced relations are less foreseeable than at many other times. Today, these assertions need closer examination, more careful thought and thoughtful initiatives.
Turkey’s relationship with NATO has changed constantly since 1952. Fifty-five years after Turkey’s membership and on the 50th anniversary of the EU, the question is how much energy remains in the relationship. To a certain extent, NATO still binds Turkey and Europe without EU membership. Turkish officers and military personnel participate as equals in all of NATO’s widely distributed commands, structures and training facilities. NATO ensures that Turkey participates in military and security structures in Eurasian space with legitimacy. Article V, NATO’s famously effective defense clause, still protects Turkey should any serious external threat arise, say from Iran. Turkey through NATO also helps provide legitimacy for Europe in its presence in central Asia, and especially Afghanistan. The fact that Turkey assumed the ISAF regional command mission in Kabul twice is an excellent example, as is the fact that Turkey also took over the command of the Multinational Task Force South deployed in the southern region of Kosovo in May 2007. NATO also restrains Turkey’s options. Memories of the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus in 1974 will have to be a factor in any Turkish military consideration today about its options regarding northern Iraq.
As Turkey’s domestic political scene evolves after the dramatic election of July 22, 2007, and the tensions between Turkey’s military commanders and the elected government play out, NATO can be a reminder of Turkey’s status and responsibility and a channel for reminding Americans and Turks together how critical it is in every circumstance to think hard before acting and to appreciate how much more valuable it is to work together. Here the U.S. has clear responsibilities which I will discuss later in the article.
For generations after the Korean War, Americans spoke with great pride and gratitude about Turkish sacrifices and victories. This memory came to personify for many Americans the entire relationship. For Turks, Korea was important, but it never entered the Turkish consciousness the way it did for Americans. In the context of the Cold War, two American misconceptions arose from this experience and played an important part in shaping Turkish NATO and Turkish American relations for decades.
The first was the American over-weighted focus on Turkey as a bulwark against the Soviets to the detriment of other goals. Aiding Turkey’s fledging democracy, strengthening democratic parties in Turkey, seriously attempting to persuade Turkey to stop its runaway inflation all were secondary goals compared to the need for Turkey’s strong political will to face off against the Russians and to act as a forward platform for American weaponry and intelligence during years of grave threat from the Soviets. The second was the assertion every Turkish leader heard again and again from 1952 on – that Turkey was a uniquely important piece of strategic real estate, the lesson, in short, that Turkey was important just by being Turkey and that America did not ask more or need more from Turkey in order to provide support.
From the American perspective, Turkey’s cooperation and steadfastness against the background of the Korean and NATO experience gave rise to the belief that the Americans could ask the Turks for help – and expect it – without having to pay, promise or commit too much. On the positive side, the good will earned by the Turks created a foundation of solid support in the U.S. military, on the Hill, and among the American people that persisted for decades. I am not recalling these events to be critical of either country, but simply to observe how history, once established in a channel, goes forward like a current until another event changes its course. Historic and persistent perceptions and assumptions of national leaderships in Turkey and in the U.S. cut the channel for the relationship.
From the sixties through the end of the Cold War, there were a number of formative and even dramatic events. There were military coups in Turkey in 1960, 1971, and 1980. In each case the fabric of democracy in Turkey was weakened, but the moves ultimately earned the support of the Turkish people by restoring order to the country. Moreover, the Turkish Army, unlike so many other examples around the globe, each time returned power to the civilian leadership. In each case, its membership in NATO allowed Turkey to maintain dialogue with Europe and the U.S. and to preserve a form of legitimacy.
The invasion of Cyprus in 1974 plunged NATO/Turkey relations to perhaps an all-time low. Turkey felt betrayed by allies who would not prevent the disaster threatening the Turkish population on the island, and the allies knew after the worst was over that the crisis would damage relations with Turkey for years. The recovery of Turkey during the years of Turgut Ozal (1983-1993) also meant the restoration of good relations with most of the NATO allies, including the U.S. During his 10 years of power, first as Prime Minister and then as President, Ozal re-ignited the Turkish economy and brought U.S. Turkish relations to a new level.
In 1996, Turkey and Israel signed a major military agreement. This opening has been severely strained at times but despite improving ties with Syria, Hamas, and Iran, Turkey has never closed the door with Tel Aviv and values its role as one possible mediator in the Arab-Israel conflict. These events shaped, strained and modified the essential course of the relationship; they did not fundamentally shift it. There can be no doubt that the existence of NATO, even when not engaged directly, made it immeasurably easier to handle the difficulties that arose and opened new opportunities to move ahead.
No one was really prepared for the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. Neither was the Turkey U.S. NATO relationship prepared for the end of the Cold War. It was as if Turkey and NATO had been waltzing through history without constraints of time and space when suddenly the band stopped playing, the musicians packed up, and the lights were turned off. Up to then, Turkey had been a favored dance partner, but suddenly there were a lot of other dancers from eastern and central Europe. Turkey must have wondered in 1991 why it found itself standing on the dance floor alone without even an escort to the new Europe. From that moment, Turkey and the U.S. began moving on different tracks, even if no one in the two countries saw it clearly at the time.
From 1991 on, the traditional U.S. support groups continued to think about Turkey in the old ways. In fact, the first Gulf War, which effectively coincided with the final collapse of the Soviet Union, seemed to strengthen the view that Turkey was still the loyal ally, the staunch friend, and an attractive market for defense companies. However, the underlying structure was shifting. Turkey’s traditional military and defense industry allies were still there, but the external political and strategic geography had changed.
Importantly, in Washington there was a failure to grasp the danger flowing from the deep sense of disappointment in Turkey that emerged when the Gulf War did not deliver on the promises made by the Turkish and American leadership that Turkey would greatly benefit economically from war. Turks too hoped for an economic resurgence after the Cold War, a peace dividend, just as did the populations of every other NATO member. After all, the Turks had shouldered one of the most important responsibilities for NATO during the Cold War, facing off against Moscow west, north, and east. But the Gulf War intervened. Instead of the envisioned riches to flow from a new Iraq to Turkey, Ankara saw lost opportunities and a failure by the U.S. to make good on promised aid. The U.S. pledged billions in aid to Turkey during the first Gulf War, and none of this, or little of it, ever appeared. Rather than benefiting from that first war, the Turks suffered the loss of key markets in the lower Middle East and their traditional business investment in the north of Iraq. In conversations in the late 1990’s, the Turks would describe their losses variously from $35 billion to $150 billion. In short, the Turks thought the U.S. reneged on its pledges in Gulf One. The seeds sowed by this disappointment lay dormant for a decade and then erupted into full bloom during the negotiations in 2002 and 2003 over Turkey’s possible involvement in operations against Iraq. In 2002, few Americans recalled that the Turkish General Staff had resigned in the face of Ozal’s pledge to join the Americans in 1990, and no American official acknowledged to the Turks the failure to compensate them as promised in 1990. But no Turk ever forgot his belief that the first Gulf War was overall injurious to Turkey and to its economy.
Through the 1990’s there was still a momentum of support in the Congress for Turkey the democracy, but it seemed more abstract now. The Cold War rationale which made the support second nature was no longer there. Before the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s democracy had been the farthest east of all the NATO states, and it stood alone. This sense of singularity about Turkey began to come to an end. There were many new states east of old NATO now seeking membership. The states of the old Warsaw Pact and of the old Soviet Union which surged to the barricades now demanding democratic governments and membership tracks for admission to NATO and the EU became the new darlings of political attention.
At the same time, the Turkish initiative to reach out to embrace the states of central Asia did not achieve its objectives. Upon achieving independence, the Turkic speaking states first wanted to identify with the U.S. and Europe and their institutions in order to obtain Western political backing and investment and development funds. Just rebuilding its own economy during the 1980’s, Turkey was not able to provide either the influence with the West or the funds that the central Asian states desired. There was also a cultural resistance. Turks assumed they would be welcomed as kinsmen, but the governments of central Asia were not looking for a big brother. While the initiative succeeded up to 1994 and blunted some Iranian influence it did not become the new political or economic grouping that Ankara had in mind originally.
The new post Cold War security arrangements in the region did not come through NATO. Victorious in the Cold War, the U.S. took up the great power game, now free to use ad-hoc coalitions, backed by the UN and NATO where possible, but no longer relying on external international legitimacy as much as it did during the Cold War. Turkey still preferred the security and certainty of international institutions and international legitimacy. As a diplomatically and militarily cautious state in 1990, Turkey protected itself militarily within secure borders in a dangerous neighborhood and diplomatically on the international stage through association with the consensus decisions of its allies. American discussion in the early and mid-1990’s about the roles and responsibilities of a new empire would have raised questions in the Turkish mind about ultimate U.S. intentions concerning the region.
So when the no-fly zones were set up in northern and southern Iraq in 1991, the Turks and the Americans had different objectives. This was not a NATO arrangement, but a more loosely organized UN structure, and the participating coalition was smaller. Many in the U.S. saw these arrangements as a permanent vice around Saddam Hussein’s throat, and even a measure that might precipitate his overthrow. For their part, the Turks were happy for stability, i.e., an end to the refugee flow, and were largely content with Saddam Hussein’s rule and its accompanying certainty that Iraq would not collapse or splinter into ethnic slices that could threaten its own stability.
The desire to stay within clear international authority resurfaced after 9/11. Turkey was guided by the UN decision immediately following the attacks on the U.S. in 2001 and actually tried without success to use that resolution to generate interest in a global definition of terrorism. Concerning Afghanistan, the NATO decision invoking Article V in favor of the U.S. gave Turkey unimpeachable authority to say yes to the request for assistance on Afghanistan. In fact, in 2001 the Turkish government gave its formal consent within an hour of the American request for access to air space and bases for operations against Afghanistan. Turkey’s secular leadership in 2001 harbored great antipathy towards the Taliban and saw Kabul as a center for a radical Islam that could ultimately threaten the social and political fabric of Turkey.
With continuing international legitimacy through the UN and NATO, Turkey acted very positively in Afghanistan, supplying forces, and then a commander for the coalition forces there on two occasions. Finally a distinguished former Turkish foreign minister, Mr. Hikmet Cetin, served as NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan during the important early years. By extension, Turkey answered a call from the UN following last summer’s resolution and dispatched a number of troops to Lebanon. Turkey thus has demonstrated at regular intervals that it is clearly prepared to play a responsible role in crises within its region, including with the participation of military forces. In that way, Ankara has acted both to promote the role of key international peacekeeping institutions in the area and to take a leadership role when Turkey’s interests justify such action.
By contrast, by sharp contrast if you prefer, with respect to the Iraq war, there was neither a UN nor a NATO decision that provided Turkey with the equivalent authority under international law to agree to the American request. Ironically, the NATO decision on Afghanistan in October 2001 may even have been seen by some Turkish decision makers thereafter as the only correct (and safe) way for the country to proceed when deciding whether to send troops outside its borders or help another country invade a neighboring state.
Nor did the personal relationships forged at NATO prove to be especially useful. Retired senior Turkish diplomats, newly minted as fledging politicians in Turkey’s opposition party following the elections of November 2002, were in the forefront in opposition to the U.S. request. Their motivations seemed to have been two-fold. First, whatever the short term cost to U.S. Turkey relations, they wanted to damage the newly elected AKP. Second, these men reported that because of their long diplomatic experience, they were the truly expert negotiators with the U.S. and would have secured a “better deal” for Turkey. In addition and unfortunately, the actual negotiations for possible cooperation between Turkey and the U.S. between military officers of Turkey and the U.S. and misunderstandings that occurred during the Iraq operation itself also left bruised feelings in both militaries.
Today, for Turkey, NATO’s significance continues to evolve. NATO itself has shifted from being an all-embracing alliance against a known threat to a forum for multilateral decision making on security questions affecting the Eurasian land mass – and perhaps one day, even the Middle East. NATO, along with the UN, is a legal authority for the deployment of forces outside Turkey’s borders, and only an overriding national interest is likely to change that approach. There are limits to Turkish commitment to international decision making, but the record reveals that those exceptions are rare. Turkey continues to dialogue with its European partners within NATO, for example, to expand its opportunities to participate in EU military activities. The bulwark of NATO, both in its political dimension and in its multi-layered and complicated military activities, still provides to Turkey and to the other allies a forum for patient, professional dialogue on sensitive issues.
However, NATO is no longer a status substitute for the EU. The EU option can only be pursued in Brussels. Turkey’s NATO membership is no longer an argument in Brussels for Turkey’s EU aspirations. Especially after the elections of July 22, 2007, Turkey is likely to be judged on its pace of further democratic progress. The Turks certainly do not see NATO as a substitute for the EU benefits. Turkey long ago realized that its future requires genuine economic growth, and only the EU can provide both guidance and discipline for these goals. Concerning political reform, NATO as an institution historically did not generate momentum in Turkey for these issues.
Where do these trends lead Turkey, the U.S. and NATO? First, Turkey will now pursue increasingly separate approaches with NATO and the EU. As for NATO, Turkey’s public support may wane. Turkey will remain a vital member of the Alliance, but public support for NATO in Turkey may never regain the levels of the Cold War as a result of the Iraq War. In addition, there has been for many years an ultra-nationalist (and minority) line of thinking in Turkey that has argued against treaty obligations with the U.S. or any other power on the grounds that such ties weaken Turkey’s sovereignty. These views surface periodically in calls, for example, for Ankara to develop a balance of power approach and create stronger ties with Iran, or with Russia, or with central Asia, or with selected Middle East states. These proposals may surface again over disappointment that NATO has done little to help Turkey in its fight against terrorism. In addition, given the great unpopularity of the United States in Turkey today, there is a risk that these calls will be amplified in public debate.
Second, following the Cold War, Turkey’s importance within NATO shifted but today that shift provides a new opportunity, one that had been obscured before, for more Turkish activism. From 1991 onward, Turkey’s value to the Alliance became more and more a function of the political decisions it took with respect to the region and the military decisions it took supporting NATO’s out-of-area priority. This occurred first in Turkey’s decision to join actively in NATO efforts in the former Yugoslavia, and, nearly a decade later, in its decisions to join the NATO effort in Afghanistan. If Turkey continues this approach, the mutual importance of NATO and Ankara for each other could grow.For example, there is scope for Turkish leadership regionally that would be very beneficial. The re-elected AKP government could even expand its opportunities for dealing with a doubting Turkish military by politically associating itself more openly with NATO and helping to shape further NATO’s doctrine concerning out-of-area operations. The future of the Black Sea region, with its mix of new NATO members (Romania, Bulgaria), key NATO partnership states (Ukraine, Georgia), a resurgent Russia, and nearby neighbors in conflict (Armenia, Azerbaijan) will present major policy challenges for Turkey in the years ahead. With a more active diplomacy and coordination within NATO, Turkey might provide a pivotal influence on both political and military issues.
For the U.S., dealing with Turkey within NATO, the Alliance framework also presents opportunities. SACEUR has always maintained a positive relationship with the Turkish military and will continue certainly to seek out more occasions to keep Turkey engaged. NATO can serve as a vehicle for a healing process between the two militaries and for broader dialogue on regional issues within a shared framework of legitimacy as discussed just above. From the U.S. political perspective at NATO, more active listening is always a good thing.
While the U.S. rhetoric praising Turkey has increased, concrete action by the U.S. against the PKK seems exceptionally dependent on the views of the Kurdish leadership in northern Iraq. The current situation harms both the U.S. and Turkey by allowing tensions to fester between Ankara and Baghdad over northern Iraq and by giving the PKK hope of driving a wedge between Ankara and Washington. Moreover, a Kurdish leadership so in need of continued American help for the future of its region should recognize its own interests in helping Washington solve the PKK issue. It is certainly in the long term interest of the Kurds that the U.S. has good relations with Ankara. A policy that relies on Turkish forbearance leaves both timing and choice concerning northern Iraq in Ankara’s frustrated hands. Washington cannot restore close ties with Turkey until the PKK issue is solved. In this circumstance, one has to wonder why the U.S. permits this injurious scenario to continue. Only the U.S. can compel effective measures in Iraq. The puzzlement is that even with anti-American sentiment at an historic high in Turkey, Washington still procrastinates.
If the U.S. were at last to take visible steps to respond to Turkey there would be a triple benefit. U.S. Turkey relations would improve, Turkey’s government would be able to begin to improve NATO’s image (which has suffered in Turkish eyes for a failure to be responsive to Turkey’s terrorism threat), and Turkey would have greater maneuvering room to take necessary political, economic and social measures to improve the quality of life for its largely Kurdish population in the country’s southeast. While NATO may not play a high-profile role, it can provide a setting for discussion of these issues away from both Washington and Ankara and by doing so play an indispensable part in achieving a necessary reconciliation.
In conclusion, Turkey is in a new relationship with NATO, and there are important opportunities for Ankara and for the U.S. in the current environment. There is an opportunity for Turkey and the U.S. to better use NATO’s framework and avenues of communication to improve relations between their militaries and to help secure the political commitments necessary to put U.S. Turkey relations on a better footing. U.S. Turkey relations today are weaker than at any time since the Cyprus Crisis of 1974. NATO can play a part in restoring those ties; the question is whether the parties will recognize and take advantage of the opportunities while there is time.
W. Robert Pearson is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey.
Most Popular Publications
On May 22, the Atlantic Council's Cyber Statecraft Initiative will hold a discussion on the history of cyber critical infrastructure protection in recognition of the 15th anniversary of Presidential Decision Directive 63 (PDD-63).
On May 23, the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Peace and Security Initiative at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security is hosting a panel discussion on new developments in security cooperation among the United States, its European allies, and the Gulf states, and how they are likely to evolve in the coming years.
On May 30, the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center will release a new issue brief, The Kaleidoscope Turns Again in a Crisis-Challenged Iran, a discussion of Iran’s upcoming presidential elections.
From June 13-14, the 2013 Wrocław Global Forum will bring together over 350 top policy-makers and business leaders to explore the region’s impact as an actor in Europe, as well as its crucial role in the transatlantic partnership and on the global stage.