On July 31, the Trump administration announced that it was enacting sanctions against two high-level Turkish ministers due to their government’s continued human rights violations. Such an aggressive diplomatic maneuver is unprecedented — not because of the sanctions themselves, but because the American government is sanctioning a defense treaty ally for its human rights violations against an American citizen, Pastor Andrew Brunson, who has been detained in Turkey for nearly two years.
If foreign policy leaders in Washington are paying attention, this should have a ripple effect beyond the U.S.-Turkey relationship.
Turkey has been a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and beholden to (and protected by) its collective defense agreement since 1952. Their accession into the alliance at that time was a hedge for Western leaders against Soviet influence into Europe and the Middle East. The United States positioned nuclear-tipped Jupiter missiles in Turkey, which were removed in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963. As American foreign policy started to focus more intently on the Middle East toward the end of the 20th century, Turkey was to be important foothold into the Arab world for diplomatic, economic and military influence.
But the days of the Cold War are long over, and the purpose of Turkey’s membership in NATO is not as clear. Even worse are the policies and actions of the Turkish government over the past decade and its negative impact on the Western allies and the defense alliance itself.
Since the tenure of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan atop the national government of Turkey began in 2003, the country has pursued a policy of strengthening its position in its region while attempting to defuse any problems with neighbors hostile to Western influence. This has created strain with other NATO allies when interests do not align — such as the friction between the United States and Turkey in 2003 surrounding the war in Iraq.
More recently in 2017, a diplomatic crisis was ignited between Turkey and fellow NATO ally the Netherlands over political campaigning by Turkish officials to expats living in Holland.
In 2015 Turkey came dangerously close to triggering NATO’s Article 5 collective defense agreement against Russia after at Turkish fighter jet downed a Russian jet on the Turkey-Syria border. But since then, the Erdogan government has pursued deeper relations with Moscow as a hedge against growing dissatisfaction with Western countries.
Then there is the ongoing disagreement between Turkish and American leaders over strategy and outcomes of the civil war in Syria. Turkey strongly opposes a Western alliance with Syrian Kurds, as long-standing and often violent instability in Turkey exists between the government and Turkish Kurds. But U.S. leaders view the Kurds as the only allies in this dangerous region that can provide reliable partnerships in places like Syria and Iraq against radical terrorist groups.
Some observers in the West are surprised and greatly frustrated by Turkish actions and their reflection upon the NATO alliance.
But viewed through a lens of realism and pragmatism, Turkey is living up to the old maxim that “there are no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests.”
From Ankara’s perspective, it’s in their country’s interests of regional power and domestic stability to oppose empowerment of the Kurds, have more amicable relations with countries like Russia in their near proximity, and saber-rattle at Israel and Western Europe from time to time. If that chafes the other members of a seven decades-old alliance started to defend against the now-defunct Soviet Union, so be it.
As for its reflection on NATO, if the much-maligned inability of European members to meet their defense budget promises is Exhibit 1 in the argument for major alliance reform, then the Turkish problem and the sanctioning of their justice and interior ministers over the detainment of Pastor Andrew Brunson is Exhibit 1-B. Turkey is holding an American citizen on the flimsiest of charges, and demanding extradition from the United States of a 77-year-old exile who allegedly masterminded a nearly successful coup from his hideout in the Poconos. Meanwhile, Congress is already moving to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey because of their increasing ties to Moscow.
These are two countries that share a collective defense agreement, one that at least in our country is still taken seriously. But trying to change Turkey’s policies for the sake of an alliance is an exercise in futility.
Americans in particular should also never forget that Turkey or any other member country being included in NATO puts the United States on the hook for their defense. How many in the United States would be willing to send troops to wage war — or even risk nuclear war — over Turkey? These questions are rarely asked, but should be asked, and asked first.
U.S. leaders need to put pride and ideals aside and take a serious review of the NATO alliance in the 21st century, before it ends up significantly damaging our own interests.
• Robert Moore, a public policy adviser at Defense Priorities, was the lead staffer for Sen. Mike Lee on the Senate Armed Services Committee.