Why Turkey Took Its Time on Sweden – Reuben Silverman / FOREIGN POLICY

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NATO is one of the few venues where Ankara can exert pressure on Western peers.

January 28, 2024. By Reuben Silverman, a researcher at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies, Foreign Policy

This week, Turkey’s parliament finally approved Sweden’s bid for NATO membership, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan swiftly ratified the measure.

Sweden’s NATO accession has dragged on for more than a year. While every other NATO member aside from Hungary supported Stockholm’s accession, Turkish leaders accusedthe Scandinavian country of harboring Kurdish terrorists. They demanded that Sweden tighten its anti-terrorism laws, extradite people accused of terrorist activities in Turkey, and resume arms sales to Turkey. The United States seems to have linked approval of Sweden’s NATO membership to future U.S. sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

As Sweden’s membership process stalled, analysts warned of the alliance’s decline and offered a range of proposed carrots and sticks to rein in Ankara. Some went so far as to suggest that Turkey be expelled from NATO, despite such an action being nearly impossible under its charter.

These concerns and threats come at a time when it has become common for U.S. experts to describe Turkish foreign policy as “transactional”—meaning that Turkish national interests override NATO’s common values. Once a reliable, Western-oriented U.S. ally, they argue, Turkey is now pursuing its own interests, which often run counter to those of the United States and European countries.

It is worth looking to history to understand Turkey’s posture. The country waited nearly four years before it was finally allowed join NATO in 1952. The experience convinced Turkish policymakers that relations with the United States, NATO, and Western countries always involve a degree of bargaining. Turkish-NATO relations in the seven decades that followed have often reinforced this view, sometimes in Turkey’s favor and sometimes to its detriment.

Turkey’s efforts to join NATO and other U.S.-dominated postwar institutions occurred under conditions of extreme insecurity for the country. Turkish leaders kept their country neutral during World War II, accepting aid from Britain and France without committing themselves as belligerents and selling war materials to Germany. At the conflict’s end, Turkey found itself with few friends among the Allied victors. And it was surrounded on several sides by communist-controlled regimes: Bulgaria in the west, and the Georgian, Armenian, and Azerbaijani Soviet republics in the northeast.

In neighboring Iran, the Soviet Union and Britain occupied the north and south of the country, respectively. The Soviets supported the autonomy of the region’s Azeri and Kurdish ethnic groups; Turkish leaders have long opposed the latter separatist movement. Soviet officials also pressured Turkish leaders to renegotiate treaties regulating transit through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits and cede control of several northeastern border provinces. To Ankara, the Soviet threat seemed existential.

Rather than comply with Soviet demands, Turkey turned to Britain and the United States. With London unable to maintain its expansive role in the eastern Mediterranean, Washington increased its commitments to Turkey and Greece, directing aid to both countries via the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan.

But U.S. and Western European leaders stopped short of including Turkey in NATO. Ankara first inquired about membership in 1948, when the alliance was taking shape, but it was rebuffed. Turkey tried again in 1950 but was offered only “associate status.” Western leaders’ objections to full Turkish membership were not based on the ideals of “democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law” enshrined in the NATO charter; the military alliance included Portugal’s dictatorship. Rather, their reasoning was strategic—not wanting to extend NATO’s political and military commitments so far east.

Turkey did not gain firm U.S. support for its NATO membership until after 1950 and 1951, when Ankara sent thousands of Turkish soldiers to fight alongside the United States in some of the most brutal months of the Korean War. Washington proposed Turkey’s accession in May 1951, and support from and the whole NATO Council followed. Turkey was admitted in 1952, along with Greece.

From the beginning, Turkey’s relationship with NATO was transactional. By demonstrating their willingness to place Turkish citizens in harm’s way to contain communist expansion in Korea, Turkish leaders convinced their Western peers that Ankara had strategic value. Turkey’s geographic position between Europe and Asia—and on major waterways—seemed beneficial to the Western alliance in the event of war with the Soviet Union. So did Ankara’s large army.

Though Turkey was often able to extract benefits from NATO, the country was not always on equal footing with its Western counterparts. Turkish leaders felt their national interests were subordinated to those of the United States and other allies. Washington’s willingness to bargain with the Soviet Union over U.S. nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey during the Cuban missile crisis was one example of this of this dynamic. But the main source of frustration was Cyprus.

Cyprus won independence from Britain in 1960 with a power-sharing agreement between its Greek majority and Turkish minority. When the deal broke down in 1963, Turkey began preparations to invade the island to protect its Turkish population.

But then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson informed the Turkish government that it could not count on NATO support should an invasion lead to Soviet intervention in Cyprus. Johnson’s letter to Ankara stoked anti-U.S. sentiment in Turkey, putting Turkish leaders who supported the alliance—and its various financial and security benefits—in a tough spot.

A decade later, when Turkey did intervene in Cyprus, NATO membership worked to its advantage. In 1974, Greece’s military regime—which had come to power in 1967—supported a coup in Cyprus. Turkey responded by taking control of a third of the island, which remains divided to this day.

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger saw Turkey as “more important” than Greece and worried that pushing Ankara could result in a left-wing regime taking power. Unconvinced, Democrats in the U.S. Congress voted to halt weapons sales to Turkey. The Ford administration responded to the embargo, which would not fully end until 1978, by convincing West Germany and other NATO allies to increase weapons exports to Ankara.

The government in Ankara responded to the embargo by allowing several additional Soviet aircraft carriers to pass from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and ending unilateral U.S. access to bases in Turkey. On the eve of NATO’s annual summit in May 1978, Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit refused to sign on to a joint declaration and told reporters that he saw “no threat” to Turkey from the USSR. He added that a continued U.S. embargo was likely to reduce Turkey’s contribution to NATO.

Two months later, the U.S. Senate voted to lift Turkey’s arms embargo. By bargaining with NATO, Turkey’s leaders satisfied short-term public anger with the United States without wholly undermining their country’s long-term strategic relationships. Transactional diplomacy had paid off.

After Turkey’s 1980 coup, NATO membership again became useful for the country. Military leaders emphasized their determination to honor NATO commitments. They also made conciliatory moves, offering potential territorial concessions in Cyprus (although they never followed through) and supporting the reintegration of rival Greece into NATO’s command structure following its withdrawal during the 1974 crisis.

These gestures came as the Iranian Revolution, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War again placed Turkey at the “center stage” of U.S. strategy—and gave Turkey’s military rulers more room to maneuver. The United States increased its aid to Ankara even amid reports of torture, investigated by Amnesty International, which prompted countries such as Denmark and Norway to freeze their financial support. By 1991, only Israel and Egypt received more U.S. military aid than Turkey.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the USSR between 1989 and 1991 threatened to make NATO irrelevant—and diminish Turkey’s importance to its Western allies. In part to reassert Turkey’s centrality to Western interests, then-Turkish President Turgut Ozal gave his support to the U.S.-led campaign against Iraq following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. He also liberalized Turkey’s economy to encourage foreign investment. In return, Ozal hoped to secure concessions from the United States and other allies in Europe, such as increased access for Turkish textiles in the U.S. market.

NATO began to expand its ambitions in ways that suited Turkish interests. The alliance provided Turkey with additional aircraft during the Gulf War to deter Iraqi attacks. It chose to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo, where Turkey was concerned about Serbian attacks against Muslims. There was even talk of an “enhanced partnership” between Ankara and Washington. The United States and other NATO allies played crucial roles in the 1999 capture of a key Kurdish separatist leader. That same year, the European Union formally acknowledged Turkey’s candidacy for membership.

Despite these developments, Turkey in the 1990s was rocked by economic crises, violence, and political instability. The chaos of these years helped discredit established parties and bring Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2003.

Initially, the AKP intensified Turkey’s efforts to engage with Western allies. But there were multiple setbacks. Turkey’s European Union membership talks stalled following Cyprus’s admission to the bloc and the elections of European leaders such as Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, both of whom opposed Ankara’s EU membership.

As the AKP lost the support of Western-oriented groups in its coalition—including liberals and the Gulen religious movement—Erdogan became reliant on political factions that advocated for a “Eurasianist” foreign policy that was less Western and more engaged with Russia and Central Asia.

Of all the conflicts between Turkey and its NATO allies in the post-Cold War era, the most central has been over relations with Kurdish nationalist groups. Washington has repeatedly looked to Kurdish groups to act as local partners in military operations—first against Saddam Hussein in Iraq and later against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Meanwhile, anti-Kurdish measures taken by governments in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran have helped create a sizable, politically active Kurdish diaspora in Europe. Sweden is one of the most notable examples. There, a closely divided parliament in 2021 allowed a legislator who had fought with Iranian-Kurdish guerrillas in her youth to cast the deciding vote securing additional support for Kurdish groups in Syria.

But the actions of a single legislator were not at the root of Turkey’s unwillingness to grant Sweden a quick NATO accession. In fact, Sweden itself is not the issue. Sweden was the first country after Turkey to designate the PKK—the Kurdistan Worker’s Party—as a terrorist organization in 1984, and other NATO member countries, such as Germany, also have influential Kurdish diasporas.

Rather, Turkey’s leaders decided to pick a fight within NATO because the alliance remains one of the few venues where they can exert pressure on Western peers. Through NATO, Ankara can draw attention to its security concerns—and gain important concessions along the way.

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