Washington is up in arms over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system due to concerns it could transmit data on Turkish F-35s back to Moscow. In retaliation, Washington has followed through on its threat to cut Turkey out of being able to buy the brand-new F-35 fighter jet.
Hawkish D.C. politicians are talking sanctions on Turkey over the issue, although President Trump has so far opted against this approach. Yet it appears as if the law requires him to impose at least some sanctions.
The problem is that Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally. And as a NATO ally, Washington has committed America to come to Turkey’s defense if Turkey is attacked. This has not only failed to moderate Turkey’s behavior, it has allowed Turkey’s government to aggressively pursue its own interests at the expense of American interests, comfortable in the security U.S. protection provides.
Fifty years ago, it made sense for Turkey to be in NATO, because it was a Cold War ally on the front lines against the Soviet Union and is strategically located as the bridge between the Islamic world and Europe. But after the Cold War, Turkey has fallen away from the West.
Modern Turkey’s first leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was a dictator, but he also instituted political and religious reforms that made Turkey into a secular and democratic state after his death. The legacy of Atatürk has been rolled away, however, under the Islamist Justice and Development Party of current Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power since the early 2000s. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has been slipping away from democracy.
Erdoğan Has Pulled Turkey Back Into Autocracy
Erdoğan showed signs of thuggery from the start, using state power to harass and even jail his political enemies. Things got worse after July 2016, when a failed coup attempt allowed Erdoğan to double down on his strongman tactics (this coup is one reason for Erdoğan to buy the Russian system, which is better at shooting down his planes).
He jailed thousands of alleged followers of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen—a man now living in a compound in Pennsylvania who used to be an ally of Erdoğan’s government, but with whom Erdoğan had a falling out—who just happened to be political critics. This included many journalists, judges, and secular members of Turkey’s military, whom the Turkish president accused of being “Gülenists.”
Erdoğan’s government also jailed American pastor Andrew Brunson, accusing him of being a “Gülenist,” only to eventually release the pastor after the Trump administration sanctioned two Turkish ministers and increased and threatened tariffs on Turkish goods.
Meanwhile, because of Erdoğan’s economic mismanagement, Turkey’s economy is in shambles. The lira has lost well more than half of its value versus the dollar since the start of 2015. As a result, the inflation rate officially runs at about 20 percent annually, but some estimates put it as high as 50 percent. Turkey is now in recession, meaning economic growth is contracting, which could last throughout 2019.
This year, the Justice and Development Party lost a mayoral election in Istanbul. Erdoğan alleged cheating by the opposition and held the vote again, only to lose again. There were also allegations of widespread cheating by Erdoğan’s side in the last national Turkish election.
Turkey is no better in foreign affairs, where NATO (and by extension America’s) security guarantees have allowed it to act provocatively. The country funded the worst elements of the Sunni Islamists (terrorists) fighting in Syria’s civil war.
Before its recent rapprochement with Russia, Turkey shot down a Russian jet near its airspace, triggering a political crisis that could have dragged NATO as a whole into conflict with Russia. The latest dustup is Turkey’s drilling in Cypriot waters, leading the European Union to begin imposing sanctions on Turkey. Now, after Turkey bought Russia’s missile system, there are calls to kick Turkey out of NATO.
Turkey Indicts Reigning NATO Policy
Turkey isn’t a great ally. Today, there are even fears that if America did sanction Turkey, Turkey could target U.S. troops in Syria. Should a country like that still be in NATO?
But this isn’t just about Turkey. Many policymakers view NATO as a magic, democracy-spreading pony—if potential members have problems, NATO membership will help them sort those problems out.
Thus, highly corrupt Montenegro, which has nothing to add to the United States strategically, was added to NATO in 2017. One senator even called another senator a traitor in league with Russia for questioning Montenegro’s accession. And in 2019, North Macedonia is getting closer to joining.
Turkey shows that NATO can’t fix other countries, and NATO expansion won’t fix the problems in Macedonia and Montenegro. But it will cause NATO to lose focus and weaken, bringing a larger set of interests into an organization that requires consensus, and increase the likelihood of a confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
Turkey is also a perfect example as to why NATO is not a substitute for diplomacy. Alliances must be self-interested and should change with shifts in geopolitical reality. But after the Soviet Union fell—the single most significant strategic shift after World War II—NATO continued as-is, and even doubled down on its mission of countering a much-diminished Russia.
Entrenched alliances, including those that exist only because of bygone Cold War realities, are not in America’s interests. And U.S. interests should always come first. America should be allowed to work with Turkey where our interests coincide, and ignore Turkey where they don’t.
But as things stand today, you are signed up to send your son or daughter to fight and die to defend Erdoğan’s autocratic and corrupt Turkey. Is that reasonable, or something you even remotely agree with? We can have good relations with Turkey, but we shouldn’t be in some eternal defense pact with them. Let them buy what they want, and defend themselves.