One could almost hear the glee in Ankara when the country’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan upended NATO consensus by declaring he would not support the Swedish and Finnish bids for membership of the alliance. For Turkish political elites, this wasn’t a fractious president being difficult – it was a Turkish leader refusing to be a yes man for Europe.
“Are they coming to Turkey to try and persuade us?” Erdogan asked after both countries sent negotiators to Ankara to mollify the president. “Then they shouldn’t bother,” he declared.
After weeks of talks, both Sweden and Finland appeared to offer enough guarantees on the two issues Ankara was concerned about – support for Kurdish militants and restrictions on arms sales – for the country to relent. On Tuesday morning, both countries signed the accession protocols and formally began the ratification process.
For Erdogan’s supporters, this was a win all around. To them, it didn’t matter that Turkey had shown an unwillingness to back the alliance at a moment of deep peril, nor that some were openly asking if it were time to remove Turkey from the alliance. “For NATO, Turkey is a disruptive ally”, declared the New York Times. Turkey’s combative president certainly doesn’t mind being the odd man out; he often appears to relish it. Rarely, however, is the question asked why Turkey is so disruptive to the alliance, and whether that disruption actually works in Erdogan’s favor.
There’s a past and a present reason for Turkey’s disruptiveness.
The past reason is that, up until the moment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO was in the midst of an existential crisis and didn’t know what it stood for. The ostensible reason for its founding, the Soviet threat, had long passed, and the alliance was stumbling, declared by the French president Emmanuel Macron to be “brain dead”, and openly criticized by the previous American president.
Earlier this year, Donald Trump boasted he had threatened not to defend NATO allies from a Russian attack in 2018 – in essence undermining the Article 5 collective-defense clause that underpins the alliance. NATO had friends like that, but no clear enemy.
Against that backdrop, Turkey could pursue its own agenda, which appeared to be mainly picking fights with other NATO members – with Greece over islands in the Aegean Sea and with America over its purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense systems.
With no clear enemy, there was no clear strategy for the alliance, and so Turkey was able to use it as simply one more political forum through which to achieve its aims. Turkey couldn’t be accused of undermining the security of the alliance, because there was no one enemy – there were several threats, but these threats were not always viewed in the same way by NATO members, contributing to a sense of fracture and drift.
That was before. After the Russia invasion, NATO has once again found its footing. Indeed, these few months have been as crucial to the alliance’s sense of self as the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union or the years of its birth. There is a renewed sense of purpose. Of threat. Of mission.
And yet, Turkey is now different. The Turkey which joined the alliance in 1952 was a vital bulwark on the alliance’s southern flank and, with the largest army in Europe, would have been first in line against a hypothetical Soviet threat.
But Turkey has changed. It is no longer a lower middle-income country willing to send its conscripts into someone else’s war. Turkey is proud of its defense capabilities and its drone technology now has the proven ability to turn the tides of war. Turkey wants to be respected as a member of the alliance, at the moment when the alliance is grappling with a new future. Hence, the disruption, born of a desire to be considered an equal, no longer a yes man.
Does such disruption give Turkey the status it desires? That’s a tricky calculation. In times of peace, or at least strategic stability, being a team player is the best option. But in a time of flux, disruption can lead to strategic gains.
That certainly appears to be Erdogan’s calculation. The Ukraine war has led to an astonishing and seismic shift on the European continent, all the more astonishing for being barely remarked upon. For the first time in decades, Germany is rearming, setting up a special €100 billion fund to modernize its military. “We need aircraft, we need ships, we need soldiers,” the German chancellor told his parliament, to cheers and clapping. The sight of Europe’s largest economy rearming might once have sparked fear on the continent – but the world has changed since 1945, or even 1952.
For Erdogan, this is a moment to act and not merely quietly say yes. It’s a gamble that has paid off for now, and one which suits his decisive, if not always measured, personality. He has learned, after all, from the reshaping of the conflict in northern Syria – that whoever acts fastest and most decisively shapes the terrain.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern