Why does NATO need Turkey?

NATO finds itself in the middle of certain matter that threatens its cohesion. If President Donald Trump happens to be reelected for a second term, he may put on the table the possibility for the US to withdraw from the organization – which could signify the end of the alliance, and a radical shift in the world’s defense architecture. Besides, the tensions that have been ongoing these last months between two of the NATO’s members, France and Turkey, also questioned the capacity of the alliance to survive its hypothetical loss of a member as important and as strategic as Turkey. Today, the tension that prevails between Greece and Turkey over their overlapping claims in the Eastern Mediterranean sheds light again on NATO, and its apparently limited capacities to get its members to favor consensus and negotiation. It is also true that the decades-long animosity that has been prevailing between Ankara and Athens does not facilitate the definition of solutions.

Why NATO is limited in its actions

When issues arose between two or more of its members, there are several factors that made it difficult for NATO to take a stance and to target the blame. NATO endorses decisions by consensus, something difficult to achieve having a problem that is as polarizing – and as polarized – as the Turkey-Greece issue. Also, even if the majority of NATO members had the possibility to put the blame on one of the actors, they would then be taking the risk of exposing signs of non-cohesion, breaking the consensus that NATO requires to function. This is why NATO’s secretary-general is trying to mediate between the two countries: the alliance – and most of its members – know that they need to calm the situation down if they want to preserve NATO’s image of cohesion. They also know that Turkey represents an important military, geographic and strategic partner who is key to help protecting NATO members from the ambitions of its two fiercest rivals, Russia and China: this requires handling the situation with a lot of care and diplomacy, to avoid having to face a fierce and aggressive reaction from Turkey.

Recent French-Turkish tensions stand as a precedent on this matter. The reason why the situation ended up being contained is probably the fact that Paris and Ankara were willing to avoid escalation. A similar situation prevails with Greece and Turkey today: it is difficult to broker between the two without choosing side, their claims being diametrically opposed. An “external” mediation may be needed, but there is no much NATO as an organization can force, especially since it looks forward to keep in its ranks a country – Turkey – who is essential for both its military and geographic projection.

The American Factor

Since he became President, Donald Trump gave the feeling that he would reconsider a reorientation of the US approach to NATO and its role. At the same time, when it comes to deeds, there is few evidence that Donald Trump’s attitude towards NATO changed substantially; what did mark a difference, contrary to Barack Obama’s era, is rather the tone that the Republican President used to describe the alliance and its role. Indeed, Donald Trump kept critical of NATO at a rhetorical level, but he did not impede the organization from functioning. The case of NATO goes beyond any American president’s point of view: it is a matter of US strategic interest that survived presidential alterations up to now.

For sure, the impression is that the alliance is still struggling for its existence. However, if its members, including Turkey, didn’t consider it an important structure, then its future would clearly be in jeopardy. Therefore, the lack of involvement of the US in the Greece-Turkey tensions, leaving it to Germany to have a more prevalent role there, does not mean that Washington would not stake anymore in NATO and its role; their voluntary low profile can also be interpreted as a way for them to avoid disrupting other ongoing tracks of interest, such as: cooperation and/or deals related to  some ongoing conflicts (Libya, Syria), the role of foreign actors in the MENA region (Iran) and/or their will to avoid taking the risk of having Turkey moving one step closer to Russia. In change, there is no doubt that Turkish president Recep Teyyip Erdogan will take this as an opportunity to exert pressure on NATO and try to maximize Turkey’s own interest.

The System of International Relations

But all these evolutions also deserve being analysed from a more theoretical point of view. In other words, what do the challenges that NATO seems to be having a hard time dealing with tell us about the nature of International Relations? One possibility is that we could be transiting from a world marked still by unipolarity and unilaterality to a yet-to-come multilateral order. While many observers seem to take for granted the fact that we would be living in a multilateral world, the fact is that so far, the US remains number one by far. Its GDP, its military spending, its political influence, its military and technological advancements, rank all very high compared to any other actor, save the European Union… which does not stand so far as a state actor, nor has a strong foreign policy or military doctrine of its own.

Is there a possibility of change? Undoubtedly, and probably faster than we could imagine. The realm of International Relations is less and less bounded by long-term dynamics, state actions have to adapt to a very fast-changing world, while events point out clearly to a Chinese quest of power and influence, and a Russian will to be back and put its pawns here and there.

At the same time, be it for Moscow, Beijing, Brussels, Manila, Pretoria or Ankara, so far, everybody looks in Washington’s direction before they take their strategic decisions. The US still marks the difference, and the caprices of Mr. Trump remain what they are, mainly caprices. Donald Trump may have done more harm than good to the US and to its image in the world, but not all what he said and threatened about ended up being translated into deeds. Otherwise, we would probably be submerged in another World War.

Turkey, NATO – and the EU…

It is rather evident that Turkey is seeking its own interest, and that is being used to push and try to accomplish the maximum profit before it slows down and considers negotiating when it is in a position of force. It did so in Libya recently; it tried to do so in Syria, maybe with less success; it is also pushing in the same direction on the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Of course, Ankara – or, maybe better said, president Erdogan – could always end up stepping over some red lines and creating further risky situations; at the same time, the Turkish President has a political sense, and he knows where to put limits when it comes to actions. This prevails too in his attitude towards NATO, an alliance that he needs, but whose weaknesses he tries to exploit for Turkey’s benefit.


NATO has no choice but to try and find a formula of rapprochement between Greece and Turkey, something its Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is trying to achieve already through a “deconflicting” mechanism. Deconfliction is not a solution of course, and it is uncertain when actors fighting over the Eastern Mediterranean will find a solution to their core claims. But softening stances would already be an achievement, and the fact is that we could be moving towards that direction, first and foremost because its protagonists are willing to do so. This may not save NATO from the troubles it may be facing when it comes to guaranteeing its cohesion and its survival on the long term. But by extension, and despite its obvious limitations, NATO still made a better performance on the Turkish-Greek issue than the EU. Something that is also very much part of the problem.


Barah Mikaïl is an Associate Professor of International Security at Saint Louis University and Director of the Observatory on Contemporary Crises.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: B. Mikaïl (2020), “Why does the NATO need Turkey?”. https://crisesobservatory.es/why-does-the-nato-need-turkey/


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