Turkey, a key NATO member, is in the news. Its tensions with its western partners have been substantial. The coming May elections may be crucial as it is not a secret than many in Washington and Brussels would like to see President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, its strong and independent-minded, ousted. The West largely considers that Turkey under him is not democratic enough, too friendly with Russia and does not share enough key common values with the West. Does this sound familiar with some criticism that India has had to suffer from the West? Turkey instead should look to the Indian model for more independence and to ditch NATO which would lend to more regional stability of benefit to New Delhi, as well.
There is one grating issue that has been well covered in the western media for which Ankara has been especially criticized. It has been threatening for many months to veto both Finland and Sweden’s membership into the western military alliance, though it finally relented and accepted Finland into the fold which is recent news. More broadly important, this is a country not only positioned on the edge of earthquake tectonic forces which have sadly caused many homes to be shattered to the ground.
It is also a country bordering the geopolitical tectonic forces between East and West, North and South, and between the Islamic and non-Islamic civilizations. Possibly more specifically of danger, it is close to both Ukraine and Russia, though it has been making energetic efforts to mediate in the war between the two. So, what happens on major political issues or elections in that country should be considered important to India and even wider.
A real major concern for the West, especially, is that Turkey might exit the western alliance, one that is in an aggressive proxy war with Russia though Ukraine. Yet, Turkey’s Erdogan is trying to act as a middle party to end this horrible conflict while still being in an alliance that officially does not want Kiev to stop fighting. This makes Ankara’s position be very uncomfortable in trying to be a broker for peace in a war that could get out of hand and spread collateral damage to all Indians. But might Turkey borrow from India, be more independent and be out of NATO, yet keep manageable relations with the West and improve them with Moscow, as well?
Evidence for this option is mounting. “Turkey may leave NATO in 5 to 6 months over US, alliance’s provocation: minister.” This was stated by no less than the country’s deputy leader as reported in a prominent news channel. Articles, as well from the main western publications such as the Atlantic magazine, titled “Why is Turkey in NATO, anyway?”, still represents a lot of Washington sentiment, if not full agreement with the question’s implied tone. The European Union has also been practically hostile about Ankara’s human rights records. Does all this indicate a day of parting from Brussels is inevitably coming for Turkey–sooner than later?
Interestingly, Metropoll in its polling of the public there, when asked, “In its foreign policy, should Turkey give priority to Russia and China or to the US and the EU?”, 39.4% prioritized Russia and China options, while 37.5% saw the EU and the US as more important (monitor.com). More worrisome to Washington, Turkish interior minister Suleyman Soylu, even stated for the US ambassador’s ears, “Take your dirty hands off Turkey” in the run-up months before the national vote. Thus, will Washington (further) interfere with the coming elections in Turkey in May? All of which could further destabilize the Middle East which borders India. After all, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has even accused Washington of harbouring a Turkish exile behind the coup plot that almost got the Turkish leader assassinated.
There are other hard realities for those in the West that wish Turkey expulsed from the western alliance and isolate it. The country borders Russia through the Black Sea. Also, Turkey has the second largest army within NATO. Furthermore, Turkey’s military and NATO bases and ports become highly important if the war with Russia gets fully out of hand. Remember, Turkey’s Bosporus Strait provides a choke point to the entry and exit from the Black Sea. A sea that contains one of Russia’s key fleets and bases.
Add to these, Turkey has been a link between the European and Islamic worlds and on refugee matters and stopping the spread of terrorism. In a sense, Turkey is a protective gateway. That includes preventing the spilling over into the NATO Europe to its West of the millions of refugees it hosts from destabilizing wars in Afghanistan to Syria that have had NATO handprints. And Turkey being a holding area for such refugees is effectively diverting their substantial flows away from India. So, Turkey has powerful cards that will ensure the West maintains enough cooperation for its interests within or outside NATO.
Outside of NATO, though, it would not be forced under Article 5 to get into wars of zero use to it. But one minor incident, misunderstanding or false flag could risk Turkey being enmeshed in a horrible regional or global war. Due to its NATO obligations, President Erdogan, through thick and thin, has maintained good relations with the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin. They even showed over a very serious security incident with a Russian fighter being shot down to be able to work out crises between the two countries without NATO involvement.
But then some may argue that Turkey would still be best served by being in some military relationship with the West to maintain leverage with it. Also, all sorts of new threats not imagined might happen necessitating outside help. But for that, the Quad to which India belongs represents a suitable security model properly modified that Turkey might replace NATO with. Not to forget, the Quad helps give India a certain sense of security with such an arrangement without being in a hard alliance with the US that could compromise its independence. So, Ankara, having its own Quad-style security agreements with the United States and even NATO, might be a more imaginative and flexible approach.
Ankara would then be under less pressure to conform with European and NATO political values that cause disruptions increasingly within the alliance. As well, with Turkey outside of NATO, Sweden’s membership could not be vetoed by it. Let us face it. The Atlanticists and Brussels just find Turkey too hard a nut to crack. Though a change in government might improve that relationship in the coming elections in May, this year.
But I doubt it as there are too many structural issues between Turkey and NATO and the EU. If Erdogan loses, it might not guarantee more stability, especially if the US is seen as electorally interfering. However, Ankara borrowing on the “Indian model” could help it become a more secure, stable prosperous and independent country in the evolving multilateral order with less possible collateral damage to India.
Peter Dash is a writer and educator based in Southeast Asia. He was a former Associate at Harvard University’s Center for International Affairs.