As news circulated about President Donald Trump’s first face-to-face meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, conversation in the newsroom essentially summed up “Turkey the NATO ally” like this: it’s the equivalent of the uncle at holidays that manages to offend the family, but still gets invited back to the party.
Few would argue that the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. individually, NATO collectively, particularly as it relates to defense strategies, is strained. Consider under Obama, the terse response from Turkey about delays and seeming reluctance by the Pentagon to approve certain defense systems, such as armed drones, to support efforts to counter the Islamic State. Or under Trump, the very recent calls from Turkey for a reversal of the decision to arm Kurdish militias in Syria — part of our own renewed push to drive out ISIS. This all comes as the U.S. and NATO allies remain uneasy about warming relations between Turkey and Russia and Erdogan’s methods — which many argue mirror a dictatorship more than a democracy.
But the tensions reflect the challenges that come with reluctant allies — an accurate depiction of the Turkey and NATO relationship. They also reflect the reality that an alliance among democracies predominantly in the western world is growing increasingly difficult to support for nations that border conflict zones. NATO offers Turkey both economic and political power that it desperately needs, particularly if it intends to remain a democracy. But it also places Turkey in a precarious position among neighbors.
That push-and-pull has long served as a lightning rod of contention for Israel and the U.S. as well — as decisions made by Israel to ensure national security sometimes conflict with what the U.S. would endorse politically. And yet for the U.S. as much as for Turkey and Israel, the alliance is critical. It leaves all parties in a bit of a quandary.
Early last year I asked Turkey’s undersecretary of defense industries, Ismail Demir, whether Turkey would ultimately need to choose sides, Russia or NATO. “Turkey’s situation cannot be compared to any NATO country that does not have a border of Russia or [is not] in a conflict zone. Therefore we must be within a different parameter, and our relations must always be on good terms with the people and countries in the region.”
Such good terms, he argued, would be good for NATO. Perhaps. Others might say such an argument conflicts with the underpinning of the alliance, depending how far concessions go. The final consensus could have far reaching implications on joint defense initiatives at the more granular level. More broadly speaking, those implications extend to regional security and the balance of power in Europe.
Trump and Erdogan’s meeting will surely bring careful criticism and political niceties, infused with some distrust and skepticism. Maybe there will be a handshake, maybe not. But the relationship between Turkey and the U.S. stands at a crossroads — influenced not only by the two nations or even the NATO members collectively, but geopolitics of the day.