After World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed by 10 European nations, the United States and Canada to act as a bulwark against the communist-ruled Soviet Union. It was the backbone of the new world order, which was to last until the end of the century and in this century.
In the years after World War II, Turkey found itself in a unique geopolitical position, at the crossroads of numerous civilizations, many of which contradicted each other: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus. And sandwiched between the Black Sea in the north and the Mediterranean Sea in the south.
Turkey felt empowered by this position—and vulnerable.
He craved protection and status. In 1950, Turkey sent its troops to support US and United Nations forces repulsing North Korea’s attempted invasion of the southern part of the peninsula, an action that won enduring praise in the West.
And so, in 1952, Turkey joined NATO, hoping to strengthen its desire for a Western identity and ensure its security, especially against the rising Soviet Union. This was the first expansion of NATO since its founding in 1949.
This makes the problems NATO has with Turkey today all the more curious. Once wary of the Soviet Union, Turkey is now out of step with NATO in its friendliness to Moscow, buying Russian weapons and refusing to join US-imposed sanctions against the Russian government.
Most of these shifts can be attributed to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected prime minister in 2003 and has remained in power ever since.
Erdogan’s most recent obstacle to NATO was his refusal to sign Sweden and Finland’s efforts to join the alliance. The two Scandinavian countries see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a warning sign – Finland shares an 800-mile border with Russia – and have decided to abandon decades of strategic neutrality and become NATO’s 31st and 32nd member states.
The approval of the new membership must be unanimous, giving Ankara the right to block the deal. Erdogan has argued that his opposition is rooted in what he calls Swedish and Finnish tolerance for Kurdish activists who have fought his government politically or militarily.
But on Tuesday, as the NATO summit was convening in Madrid, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Turkey has withdrawn its opposition and Finland and Sweden will be able to seek membership. However, Erdogan did not confirm the news publicly, and it was not clear what concessions, if any, he could make in coming to this position.
According to some analysts, the real goal was concessions – from NATO and especially the United States. The Biden administration has Erdogan at arm’s length over his human rights record, the arrests of thousands of dissidents and journalists, and his intervention in Syria that led to the massacre of US-backed Kurds and supported Russia and, ultimately, the government of Bashar al-Assad.
A Biden administration official said Tuesday that no concessions had been made.
“What Erdogan is trying to do is bring in Biden,” said Bulent Aliriza, founding director of the Turkish Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington.
Erdogan had a close relationship with former President Trump, who declared himself a “big fan” of the Turkish president when he welcomed him to the White House in 2019. By contrast, President Biden has had a couple of phone calls with the Turkish leader, including one on Tuesday – and with him only on the sidelines of international conferences, as will happen at this week’s NATO meeting in Madrid.
Turkey also sought to use the Russian war in Ukraine to its advantage, showing NATO how valuable it can be, despite its friendliness to Moscow. Erdogan family members build and sell drones to the Ukrainian military. Erdogan has orchestrated peace talks between the governments of Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Zelensky that have so far been fruitless, and is reportedly trying to open Russian-blocked Black Sea ports to free up Ukrainian grain exports.
“The invasion was a window of opportunity” for Erdogan, said Gonul Tol, who heads the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “This allowed him to try to restore the image of Turkey as a key NATO ally… a valuable partner, in contrast to Turkey being portrayed as a Trojan horse in NATO a year ago.”
But, she warned, Erdogan could easily overplay.
“Maximum demands can undermine goodwill,” Tol said.
Turkey was also the first and until recently the only Muslim country in NATO. (Albania joined in 2009.) Before Erdoğan came to power, however, Turkey was consistently secular; women were effectively banned from wearing headscarves in many places. This has also changed in the nearly two decades of Erdogan’s rule. He is a devout Muslim and introduced religion into public life in violation of the principles of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
While the religious government also opposes NATO membership, it is Turkey’s military ties with Russia that most worry the US government and lawmakers in Washington, who have demanded sanctions against Ankara.
Despite repeated warnings from Washington and NATO, Erdogan purchased a large number of Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems in 2019. They are incompatible with NATO weaponry, and Western officials feared that these purchases would give Russia access to NATO intelligence and equipment specifications.
Turkey still looks to NATO membership as “prestige, authority and panache,” said Sinan Siddi, a Turkey specialist at the Defense for Democracy Foundation and a professor at the US Marine Corps University. And NATO values Turkey as a buffer and “the main geostrategic real estate.”
Turkey, which has one of the largest military forces in all of Europe, has also sent troops to Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo to support US and UN peacekeeping forces.
But, according to Siddi, Erdogan “can outplay the US and NATO.”
Earlier this month, Erdogan welcomed disgraced Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Ankara, less than four years after journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, which US intelligence said was ordered by Mohammed.
The assassination sparked outrage in NATO, the US and even Turkey at the time. But now Erdogan, facing dire economic conditions at home and a potentially difficult election next year, must seek friends where he can, analysts say.
Erdogan’s relationship with Russia is complicated, said Henri Barki, a Turkish-born former State Department official who is now a Lehigh University professor and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. For example: a show of support for Ukraine, but also a need for Moscow to fight the Kurds in Syria.
But in the end, “like Putin, Erdogan is his own worst enemy,” Barki said, noting that his actions “undermine his credibility and he is not trusted.”