Should Turkey be kicked out of NATO?

The case of Turkey’s possible departure from NATO necessitates the examination of three burning questions.

Slovak Army soldier stands guard near a NATO's symbol during a ceremony in Slovakia's capital Bratislava to mark the country's entrance to NATO, April 2, 2004. (photo credit: REUTERS/PETR JOSEK)
Slovak Army soldier stands guard near a NATO's symbol during a ceremony in Slovakia's capital Bratislava to mark the country's entrance to NATO, April 2, 2004.
(photo credit: REUTERS/PETR JOSEK)
The question of whether Turkey should be kicked out of NATO has been asked many times due to Ankara’s recent acquisition of a major Russian weaponry. “How dare a member of the world’s largest defense organization (NATO) buy one of the most advanced missile defense systems from the very country which the organization was established against?” (Although, Greece, a NATO member, acquired Russian S300s – the predecessor of S400s – and Russian TOR-M1s in 2007). 
However, it is the United States, not NATO that has made the S400s a big deal. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly called for a dialogue, reiterating that “Turkey is much more than S400,” whereas Washington has constantly hurled threats at Ankara, which has proven counterproductive. No other NATO member other than the US has threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey due to the S400s.
The case of Turkey’s possible departure from NATO necessitates the examination of three questions: Can Turkey be kicked out of the alliance? Why would Turkey want to remain part of the alliance? Why would NATO want to keep Turkey within the alliance?
The answer to the first question is rather simple. Turkey can’t be kicked out of NATO because there is not a mechanism embedded in the treaty’s constitution that would allow the member states to show a “rogue member” the door. NATO is like the European Union. When Greece became dead weight for the EU in the aftermath of 2008-9 debt crisis, many wondered why Brussels simply didn’t boot Athens out and be done with the problem. It didn’t happen despite the grave danger of Greece pulling all of Europe down in its collapse. Instead, Brussels, however unpopular it was, particularly among the northern European nations, poured money into keeping Athens afloat.
An EU member can only leave the union voluntarily, which is now the case with Great Britain. Therefore, Turkey will technically remain in NATO unless its government proceeds with a divorce plan, which even if proposed, would take up to a decade for the negotiations to be completed, considering how extensive Turkey is interwoven with NATO.
Why would Turkey want to remain a NATO member?
• First, NATO is a political union as much as it is a military alliance, and a prestigious one at that. Being part of it is akin to being part of the developed world, which Turkey has aspired to since its inception in 1923.
• Second, by staying in the alliance, Turkey is able to greatly influence the policies made in Brussels. In principle, all NATO decisions require consensus. Therefore, Ankara could effectively block any decision that it deems against its interests. For instance, in 2017, Turkey blocked NATO’s attempts to develop a partnership with Austria, in retaliation for Vienna’s repeated vetoes of Turkey’s EU membership bid. This veto power is particularly important for Turkey given the seriousness of the conflict brewing in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece (a NATO member), the Greek Cypriots and Israel have formed a coalition against Turkey with regard to the partition of massive hydrocarbon reserves.
As the possibility of a military confrontation in the Eastern Mediterranean becomes increasingly likely, and the idea of Israel becoming a NATO member is entertained more and more, Turkey, using its veto power, would want to keep the Greek Cypriots and Israel out of NATO. Also, the prospect of an all-out military confrontation between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean Sea is greatly reduced as both nations are ‘NATO allies.’
• Finally, why does NATO want to keep Turkey in the alliance? Foremost, the Turkish military and its combat readiness in the alliance, is only surpassed by that of the US. Without Turkey, the European wing of NATO would be rendered quite weak. Furthermore, Turkey’s geopolitical importance is crucial for both Europe and the US. It is the only NATO member that has borders with the Middle East (Syria, Iraq and Iran) and Europe simultaneously.
Turkey has acted as a bulwark for Europe with the Syrian crisis, holding off and absorbing more than four million refugees. This is almost half of Greece’s population! Moreover, Turkey controls the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, two of the world’s most critical choke points that have historically prevented Russian imperialism from reaching to the Mediterranean Sea.
It is important to note that regardless of the level of cooperation between Turkey and Russia, the policy-makers in Ankara are aware that given the last 300 years of history between the countries, this partnership has only developed due to the present circumstances in the Middle East and will not likely turn into a full-blown alliance.
Additionally, the Incirlik Air Base and the Kurecik Radar Station (a ballistic missile deterrent some 300 miles to the Iran border) provide NATO with vital capability to shield Europe from threats emanating from the Middle East. The Incirlik Base has proven rather effective in the wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Syria. While Cyprus, Kuwait, and Crete have been cited as alternatives to Turkey, such a move hasn’t been adopted by Washington because Incirlik’s strategic location and infrastructure have proven indispensable.
It is now a known fact that the Kurecik Radar Station was established in 2012 to deter Iranian ballistic missile threats against Israel. In fact Kurecik, in tandem with its twin the US X-band station on Mount Keren in the Negev Desert, provide an unprecedented early warning capability for Israel, considering that mere minutes matter in an Iranian ballistic missile attack. Therefore Washington wouldn’t want to risk Israel’s security by provoking Turkey any further. The US hesitation to slap sanctions on Turkey after the S400 hardware began to touch down in Ankara last week coincides with the Turkish foreign minister’s threat that such a move would result in closing both Incirlik and Kurecik.
Being the only Muslim-majority member-state, Turkey provides a unique role within NATO. It has been the case particularly in Afghanistan, with which Turkey has historic and religious ties. For instance, then Kabul provincial governor Dr. Zabibullah Mojadid (2009-2011) said, “Contrary to some other international forces here, the Turks don’t march through our streets with their guns and their caravans, ready to fire. When you see other forces with their hands on their triggers, people are very intimidated. Afghans don’t look at the Turkish forces as foreign forces here, they somehow view them as their own.” 
Turkey has drifted toward Russia because NATO (the US in particular) hasn’t appeased Turkey’s concerns emanating from Syria. The Turks now believe it is the US that is undermining Turkey’s security by cooperating with Turkey’s enemy – the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. The US actions toward Turkey are adversely affecting the transatlantic alliance.
The current state of Turkish-American relations is like a couple living separately but compelled to stay married for insurance and tax benefits. It takes all sides working together to save the marriage. In spite of the current challenges in the relationship with the US/NATO, Turkey is likely to continue to be a part of NATO. A divorce would prove too detrimental for both sides.
The writer was a Fulbright scholar and earned a PhD in international relations from the University of South Carolina in 2015. He was an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston, SC (2011-2018). His articles have appeared in The National Interest.