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INSIGHT ‘Incek Debates’ After the Brussels Summit: NATO-Russia relations & Turkish foreign and security policy?

21. Yüzyıl Türkiye Enstitüsü tarafından yazıldı.

INSIGHT ‘Incek Debates’

After the Brussels Summit: NATO-Russia relations & Turkish foreign and security policy?

Incek Debates, on 31 May 2017, discussed ‘NATO-Russia relations and Turkish foreign and security policy’. Speakers were Amb Selim Karaosmanoğlu (ret’d), Prof Hasan Ali Karasar (Atılım University) and BG Ufuk Uras (ret’d). The session was chaired by Dr Haldun Solmaztürk.

The NATO Summit was held on 25 May 2017 in Brussels. This was the first summit held in the new NATO ‘castle’.

The Warsaw summit in 2016 took some important decisions for “strengthening NATO’s deterrence and defence, and projecting stability beyond NATO’s borders”, notably: positioning of four multinational battalions in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland in 2017, and development of a tailored forward presence in the SE part of NATO were adopted; Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of NATO’s ballistic missile defence (BMD) was declared; cyberspace was recognised as a new operational domain like land, air and maritime; support to partners (in the Middle East and North Africa), especially in the fields of training and capacity-building was decided.

In Warsaw, Russia was singled out as the country whose actions undermined the rule-based order in Europe and prevented a ‘constructive relationship’. Since then, ‘relations with Russia’ has been one of the critical themes in European election campaigns setting liberal and anti-liberal camps—with respect to the so-called international liberal order—against each other. Brexit and Trump’s coming to power made the trans-Atlantic link even more precarious.

Regarding Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, an unprecedented crisis with some NATO members—the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark, Bulgaria—is escalating. Relations with Greece have rarely been smooth. In UK, frightening slogan of “Turkey is set to join Europe” (invented by Boris Johnson) played a major role in the Brexit vote. And recently, particularly after the 15 July coup attempt in Turkey, senior Turkish officials have often been accusing the Obama adminstration of being behind the failed coup. Just as an improvement in bilateral relations—with the Trump administration—was expected, US decision to supply heavy weapons to YPG (considered a terrorist organization by Turkey) in Syria came as a cold shower.

Even more disquieting—even irritating for some—is the attitude of the Turkish leadership. Turkey—not only to NATO ‘allies’ but also to Russia and others—is hardly a ‘team player’ in the Middle East any more. Oddly, U.S. and Russia came together in a situational alliance against Turkey to ‘protect’ Kurdish YPG near Manbij. Despite its geopolitical advantage and the refugee crisis which offer a kind of political ‘impunity’, Turkey’s relations with many of its NATO allies have arrived at a critical point of rupture where even its continued membership in NATO is openly questioned. On the other hand, the diplomatic crisis caused by President Erdoğan’s personal security detail—again—in Washington D.C. is boiling up. 

Domestic political developments in individual member countries—particularly in U.S., U.K. and Turkey—drastic changes in the international political arena, as well as serious challenges to the liberal international order, made this summit one of the most critical ones in the history of NATO.

During the weeks leading up to the Brussels summit, the disagreement with the United States over the YPG and the crisis with Germany over German deputies’ long-delayed visit to Incirlik air base were simmering. The U.S. administration, days before President Erdoğan’s planned visit to Washington D.C. and much to Turkey’s dismay, decided to supply YPG with heavy weapons and launch the Raqqa offensive with Syrian Democratic Forces dominated by YPG. Mid-May, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that if "the German parliament is to be blackmailed, then the limit of tolerance has been reached".

The summit ended by Secretary General’s late evening press conference: “We agreed an action plan for NATO to step up its efforts in the fight against terrorism, to continue to sustain the ‘training mission’ in Afghanistan, to expand (NATO’s) support to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, to become a full member of the Global Coalition, to continue training for Iraqi forces.”  

Executive Summary

While in 2016 Warsaw Summit, priority risks were from Russia and the ‘South’, in Brussels, ‘burden-sharing’ and terrorism dominated the summit. NATO developed an ‘enhanced forward presence’ in Eastern Europe and adopted a balanced approach to Russia. The intended ‘tailored forward presence’ in SE Europe did not materialize.

Turkey’s relatios with Russia fully recovered, but Turkey-US relations were strained, particularly because of US support to PYD/YPG in Syria.

Major disagreements between President Trump and some of the other NATO leaders resulted in a mini-meeting, rather than a summit, without a common text released. Despite repeated assurances from the NATO Secretary General, President Trump’s clear refusal to pronounce American commitment to Article 5, fueled doubts.

There are signs of a positive trend in relations with Russia, improving transparency and reducing risks. But uncertainties remain. Besides, NATO members are deeply divided in policy choices toward Russia. Russian psyche is currently dominated by a sense of victimization and the occupation—and annexation—of Crimea, is viewed as taking revenge on the West.

NATO Treaty and the Strategic Concept refer to a “unique community of values, committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. Objectively, Turkey is no longer part of this ‘unique community’. Turkey now, is a ‘Partly Free’ country, with its press ‘Not free’.

There is a sense of Turkey, in NATO circles, as a drifting partner, and concerns about Turkey’s ability to contribute to NATO. As domestic political agenda or relations with the West/USA/EU/Europe change, in the absence of a ‘big strategy’ Turkish political rhetoric fluctuates. The subject of ‘values’ will not go away, as a critical factor, from the common agenda and will continue to poison Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies.

NATO has still not been able to fully adapt into the fluidity—and realities—of the new global environment. Art 4 of the Washington Treaty is mostly neglected and only ‘Art 5 debate’ dominates ‘consultation’ in NATO forums.

NATO is faced with a crisis of leadership and a crisis of trust. The Alliance is seriously handicapped by the breakdown of communication between its members. This crisis is likely to escalate and deepen. 

The Alliance has to initiate a meaningful, constructive and sustained dialogue, and formulate a common policy—and a new strategy. In this context, ‘values’ will continue to play an even stronger role in shaping the nature and substance of international relations.

There are major disagreements between President Trump and some of the other NATO leaders—France and Germany prominently—on both burden-sharing, relations with Russia, and taking a bigger role in the fight against ISIL and other threats in the Middle East. Since an agreement on a communique or any other common text was not expected, the gathering—widely announced and publicized as a ‘summit’—was cut back to an unprecedented mini-meeting without a common text.

SecGen Stoltenberg, during the press conference, went to great lengths to assure the media to the contrary: “The U.S. is now increasing its military presence in Europe with a new armored brigade, with more exercises, with more infrastructure, with more prepositioned equipment and supplies. So we see it (U.S.) really on the ground in Europe..”. He was unequivocal to confirm that “He (President Trump) has strongly committed and strongly stated his commitment and the commitment of the United States to NATO, to our collective security” in what he described “meetings with me”. Of course, ‘U.S. support for Article 5’ was needed to be heard from the US President, not from the SecGen, on his behalf.

What does the future hold for Russia & NATO

After suspending implementation of the CFE Treaty in 2007 and the 2008 conflict with Georgia, Russia strengthened its military presence in the near abroad, increased military spending, modernized Russian army (sometimes with direct or indirect assistance—as trade partners—from certain NATO members). Now, President Putin may see an opportunity in President Trump and other leaders throughout Europe who boast to “bury the old order” and “build tomorrow’s world”. The mini-summit in Brussels may well have given Vladimir Putin more hope and confidence.

Turkey & NATO: values vs interests

With regard to values, objectively, Turkey is no longer part of this ‘unique community’. According to Freedom House, freedom is declining in the world as populism and nationalism surge and Turkey (with Gambia) represents the second largest 10-year score decline which is -28. Turkey now, is a ‘Partly Free’ country, with its press ‘Not free’. The drastic divergence between the values espoused by the NATO ‘community’ and those practiced by the Turkish government creates a tension in relations. This escalating tension cannot be hidden or ignored any longer. There is a sense of Turkey, in NATO circles, as a drifting partner. The widely held hope that after the 16 April referendum Turkish leadership would adopt a more moderate political course, as evidenced by the ongoing crises with the Netherlands, Germany, Greece, EU, NATO and now with the U.S., did not exactly materialize.

The subject of ‘values’ will not go away, as a critical factor, from the common agenda and will continue to poison Turkey’s relations with its NATO allies. Turkish government needs to get back to a democratic political system, strengthen and consolidate it, respect universal freedoms and fundamental rights, not for NATO but primarily for the welfare and wellbeing of its own citizens.

Bottom line

Unchallenged American leadership has been largely successful in resolving conflicts in the Balkans and stabilizing the situation in Europe by rapidly integrating new members into NATO; but it has failed NATO in Eastern Europe, in Afghanistan and in Libya. NATO has been faced with a crisis of leadership for over fifteen years now and too much water has gone under the bridge to revert back to the old type—and style—of leadership.

If the Alliance, as feared by many, is losing its most basic common denominator—commitment to common defence—then, as a matter of priority, it has to initiate a meaningful, constructive and sustained dialogue, and formulate a common policy—and a new strategy, if need be—based on commonly agreed upon aims and purposes. All other needs and requirements are secondary to this essential and urgent necessity.


The full report is available to 21st Century Turkey Institute members.


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