Ryan Shuman, Summer Intern, contributed to this article.
The NATO Alliance is currently in the midst of an unprecedented flare-up in the bilateral relationship between two of its longest standing members—the United States and Turkey—to the degree that observers are expressing heightened concern for the alliance’s cohesion, health, and effectiveness.
While the past few years have seen growing political and policy tensions between NATO and Turkish leaders, a series of escalating rhetorical threats and counter-threats, financial sanctions, tariffs, and asset freezing by U.S. President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in recent weeks—have put NATO observers and investors on edge and has precipitated a currency crisis in Turkey.
The standoff between the two presidents has caused alarm bells to sound on both sides of the Atlantic and raised serious concerns about the ability of the two countries’ leaders to manage and deflate this crisis in ways that can champion the alliance’s values and interests and unite, rather than divide it. At the same time, concurrent questions are being publicly reexamined and debated regarding the overall state of democracy in Turkey, its growing strategic, military, and energy ties to Russia and Iran, and, as a consequence—its very status as a member of NATO.
Among the key factors underlying the current tensions include a failed 2016 coup attempt in Turkey—and subsequent purge of opponents—for which Erdoğan has held “foreign powers” responsible (including Fethullah Gülen, an exiled cleric living in the U.S.) and the civil war in Syria, in which the U.S. has provided training and arms for Kurdish groups fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria—groups which Turkey recognizes as terrorist organizations and actively, and often violently opposes. For its part, the U.S. is fighting the arrest by Turkey of a U.S. citizen and pastor, Andrew Brunson, indicted on charges of espionage (which the U.S. believes are politically-motivated) and attempting to overthrow the Turkish state.
Critics argue that because NATO’s decisions are consensual, any continued unaddressed tensions with Turkey are particularly dangerous, insofar as they allow one alienated member to undermine the alliance’s overall cohesion and collective defense posture. Fears of Turkey slipping under the influence of Russia have further exacerbated NATO’s concerns over the commitment of one of its longest standing members.
The increasingly uneven trajectory of Turkish-Western relations has been the subject of scrutiny for some time now and includes the failed aspirations of Turkey to join the European Union. Underlying all of this is what NATO experts see as Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian political pivot under Erdoğan’s leadership and its Janus-faced foreign policy tightrope balancing act between East and West. This trend is also seen as having been further enabled and emboldened by broader geopolitical rebalancings and reconfigurations, including among fellow NATO member states.
As its name attests, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”)—founded in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II—was conceived as a Transatlantic security coalition to unite the democratic and free market economy nations on both sides of a vast ocean. Together with other international institutions , NATO helped stand up a stable post-war environment, knitting together the economies and security of countries on the basis of shared values.
Then in 1952, and at the onset of the Cold War, the addition of new members Turkey and Greece underscored NATO’s growing geopolitical imperative of securing its outer flanks to encompass fellow democracies at the frontiers of South Eastern Europe and Eurasia. Thereafter, Turkey served as a critical NATO bulwark against Soviet expansionism and over the next six decades remained a strategic alliance member and ally of the United States. Today, it is home to both the alliance’s second-largest armed forces and the Incirlik air base, a critical strategic staging ground for the international coalition to defeat ISIS.
Whether the current tensions and volatile rhetoric will lead to a further deterioration of U.S.-Turkey relations—and, by extension, NATO-Turkey relations—may be difficult to predict, especially when taking into consideration the two presidents’ personalities and the shifting nature of allegiances and periodic crises endemic to the region in Turkey’s orbit. This August, President Trump signed Congressional defense spending legislation delaying the delivery of the F-35 stealth fighter jet to Turkey , seemingly in the face of U.S. concerns that Ankara’s plans to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defense system would enable Russia “to learn important information about the F-35’s vulnerabilities if Turkey possessed both the fighter jet and the S-400.”
Still, Turkey’s geopolitical importance to the NATO Alliance—and position between Europe and the Middle East and between the Middle East and Russia—shows that any internal tensions between individual member states has the potential to significantly roil the Transatlantic alliance.
Stay tuned as we continue to track these developments.