In an embarrassing moment for an alliance formed to confront threats from authoritarian regimes, NATO members had to beg authoritarian Turkey to allow it to admit two democracies.
Finland and Sweden had faced the bizarre prospect of being banned from the military alliance at the whim of Turkey, which is the world’s largest jailer of journalists, and a country that crushes dissent and regularly commits human rights abuses in Syria and Iraq. However, as a NATO member, it has been given control over which countries can join the alliance because of the nature of NATO rules and bureaucracy.
As such, Ankara now uses every opportunity to blackmail NATO, refusing requests or threatening other members, to get what it wants.
Its latest stunt involved the desire by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Turkey works closely with Russia and purchases its S-400 mobile, surface-to-air missile system.
Ankara indicated it wouldn’t agree to let the two Norwegian democracies join NATO unless they agreed to crack down on “terrorists.”
Turkey's war on terror
The Turkish regime often views opposition media or dissenting voices as “terrorists.” Its demand was that these northern European countries prevent the media from critiquing Turkey’s ruling AKP Party by getting the countries to sign a document claiming the democracies would stop “disinformation.” In addition, Ankara demanded that the countries help it fight “terrorism.”
Its “war on terrorism” has included ethnic cleansing of Kurds and Yazidis from Afrin and bombing Yazidi minorities in Sinjar, as well as unleashing extremist groups to attack Christians in Syria’s Tel Tamr. In addition, Turkey appears to enable extremists to operate openly in parts of Syria that it illegally occupies. Ankara also hosts Hamas terrorists.
So the demand for Sweden and Finland to crack down on “terrorists” appears to mean having them crush the human rights of minorities, such as Kurds, and confront imaginary “terrorism” threats that Turkey invents.
For Sweden and Finland, there wasn’t much of a choice. If they want to join NATO, they now have to cater to far-right extremist authoritarian regimes, like Turkey’s. It would be as odd as if Iran or Russia were members of NATO and countries had to agree to detain Iranian and Russian dissidents to join an alliance that otherwise is for democracies.
But NATO has no real option either, because it can’t get rid of Turkey and its rules give the authoritarian regime veto power.
This Achilles’ heel of NATO now forced Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto and Sweden’s Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson, as well as NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, to meet with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto were forced into preparing to sign a document during a NATO summit in Madrid on June 28.
America worked to smooth over this humiliating situation for NATO. The long-term goal of the US is to strengthen the alliance. Getting around Ankara’s objections was about “getting to yes.”
The Biden administration wants to win friends and influence people, while Ankara’s regime is more about alienating friends and harming ties. Sweden and Finland were stuck in the middle. But it appears that the Biden administration helped push them across the 100-yard line
Now the question for NATO is whether it can emerge stronger from this short-term appeasement of Turkey or whether the regime will continue its threats.
In the past, the Ankara model has been to threaten to try to get what it wants. In general, this has harmed relationships with the US, France, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, India, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and many other countries.
MOST COUNTRIES that once viewed Ankara as a reliable and stable partner now view it with suspicion. The fact the leaders of ISIS have been found in Syria within shouting distance of Turkey’s border; that the US regularly has to carry out airstrikes against al-Qaeda and other extremists near where Turkish forces are located in Syria; and that Ankara has destabilized Syria, threatened NATO-member Greece, hosted Hamas, bombed Iraq, and caused chaos in Libya and other places, doesn’t make any country in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East or Europe look upon Turkey with any positive vibes.
Ankara thinks this “coercive” diplomacy and “tough talk” is how it gets what it wants. From its perspective, it is no longer being taken for granted portraying each meeting and each appeasement tweet by NATO members – in which they pretend to “value” Turkey – as evidence that the current regime has somehow “won” again.
This behavior has eroded trust in the trouble-making NATO ally, but it still thinks it is winning. This is because it is now working on “reconciliation” with the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But the only reason it needs to “reconcile” is because it alienated all these states. Ironically, Turkey’s threats have driven Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, Greece and Cyprus to find closer friendships with each other.
Ankara thinks that because it now hosts foreign leaders, after having threatened them, this is evidence that they need it and now “respect” it more than in the past.
But a contrast to that diplomatic style might be the one that Israel, the UAE, Greece and other nations pursue: not to threaten anyone and to all genuinely get along.
After the agreement that Finland and Sweden signed, there will be questions about whether they have surrendered their sovereignty to Ankara’s meddling.
Will their citizens and residents, refugees and minorities be safe from Turkey’s attempts to crack down on dissent abroad? In Turkey, many people are jailed for “insulting” the leader of the regime. Will people be safe in those two NATO hopefuls to critique Turkey after today?
There are other questions as well. Will Helsinki and Stockholm really help Ankara’s “war on terrorism,” an endless war which is more about ethnic cleansing and targeting minorities in Syria and Iraq than about fighting mythical “terrorists”?
Will these countries crack down on these “terrorists,” often groups that have never committed any violent acts or done anything more than protest? Or will Finland and Sweden pay lip service to this “joint” work with Turkey, and move on and work with countries that share their values of democracy and human rights?
Those are key questions. NATO countries have chosen to appease in the short term to try to get long-term stability and build an alliance that has to rapidly expand its forces.
Appeasing Turkey for now may appear to be the smart choice, while ignoring it on the broader issues. The broader question is whether Washington will eventually confront Ankara on its continued work with Moscow, including the way it might be enabling Russia to escape sanctions.
Turkey will want to use its recent coercive tactics to enable a new invasion of Syria and also get more weapons from the US and the West. The question those democracies have to ask themselves is whether it’s worth going against their values to allow the authoritarian fellow NATO member to do that.