Turkey in NATO Series Paper 3: Reimagining Geography against the threats of those Seeking to Upend the Rules-Based International Order

Reilly Barry


The NATO 2030 factsheet states that “NATO is the only platform that brings Europe and North America together everyday.” But it is time to think beyond delineations of what those boundaries mean—for the threat of ISIS in the Middle East in the last decade is a threat to Europe, and pandemics and climate change are threats without bounds. Thus, going beyond continental definitions of Europe and North America, one should consider a different geography. The fifth proposal of the NATO 2030 Agenda, to uphold the rules-based international order, is arguably the most important proposal as all other promises NATO is able to deliver on are contingent upon the rules-based international being intact. [1] A geography of rules-based versus non-rules based states which play with nation-state lines and are irreverent to Westphalia. Cyber threats posed by Russia and China certainly do not stay within boundaries. So our geographic imagination needs to change, and fast. What multitudes does Europe contain? And are the Middle East, Africa, and Eurasia not also present in North America with the millions strong diaspora communities of citizens who influence and impact change in transnational communities?

In the first two Turkey in NATO Series papers, we discussed plenty of examples from the contemporary moment and throughout the twenty-first century to show how geopolitical change affects the nature of the alliance, but so does historical remembrance, historical reconstruction, and neo-imperialism.

Remembering Cosmopolitan Historic Identity and Thinking

Proposal 5: Uphold the Rules-Based International Order. With an incursion into Ukraine in February of 2022, territorial integrity got dealt a harsh blow. If those states which NATO provides a front against, those dismantling the rules-based order, prefer to rely on imperial and historical lines and imaginings, it is important to keep in mind how historical reimaginings affect on the ground-realities and transatlantic security structures to the present-day and beyond.

 Refugees abound in Istanbul. For the last decade, the face of refugees were Syrian, fleeing a brutal dictatorship and unrelenting civil war that has all but destroyed their home country. In 2022, the faces of these refugees reflect citizens whose home country was either the invader or the invaded: Russia and Ukraine. Russians come to Istanbul in an exodus that resembles one made in the 1920s, which founded present-day cafés in the Pera neighborhood established by down-on-their luck Tsarist and White army troops. [2] Ukrainians and Russians intermingle in the fabled city between East and West because of a unilateral decision made by Russian President Vladimir Putin to tear apart the rules-based order. Turkey ranks number six out of the top ten countries extending a hand to Ukrainians and as time goes by, hundreds of thousands of Russians are flooding into Istanbul Airport as well, fleeing Russian conscription orders. [3]

But then again, “Istanbul is as much of a popular destination for deserters as it is for Russian oligarchs.” [4] The situation at hand is more complex than being “for” or “against” and “us” against “them.” Does Turkey’s loophole of economic sanctions for such Russian oligarchs also hoping to escape their domestic economic downturn stand in direct opposition to the identity of being a NATO ally, in a way that the tsarists taking refuge while Atatürk rallied troops for independence stand in opposition to ideals of expelling Europeans from the land?  

The Turkey in NATO series so far held two objectives: to assess Turkey’s contributions as a NATO member in recent major European conflict (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine) and to analyze the major points of contention in the twenty-first century which have caused observers to question the existential nature of Turkey’s NATO membership. Furthermore, why such tipping points occurred, and what could be gleaned from them moving forward and looking at the NATO 2030 Agenda for reconceptualizing transatlantic security and embracing diversity of thought.  

The array of peoples and creeds in Turkey, specifically Istanbul, dwindled as the empire transitioned into a nation-state. And while the Ottoman Empire housed millets of different faiths, the Republic of Turkey socially-engineered a model Sunni Muslim, ethnic Turk symbol of identity and belonging. [5] The orientation which the father of the nation Atatürk dictated (different to the majority of the nation’s actual viewpoints) was to be unquestionably pointed toward the West. NATO was founded at a time when the Turkish Republic was merely decades into its new nationhood, only an administration and generation separated from Atatürk’s own, even though the government was not so monolithically ideologically comprised as historiography makes it seem. [6] The point is, while the previous two papers argue that geopolitical makeup changed Turkey’s decision-making apparatus as a NATO member, historical contingencies and domestic administrations count for considerations as well— the danger is in making them the only consideration. For in so doing, it would be as valid to say that Turkey acted as a promising part of the Western transatlantic security bloc due to a historical aberration that Atatürk singlehandedly decreed. Turkey, and especially Istanbul, historically consisted of a much more cosmopolitan landscape than it does today, and it continues to function as a geography which refuses to be defined. It is counterproductive to enter into debates on whether Turkey belongs to Europe or the Middle East, or whether it is Western or not—this is precisely the frustration that Vladimir Putin plays upon when he wants to entice Erdoğan to increase his own self-autonomy by making deals with him. [7] In order to continue upholding the rules-based order, NATO needs to continuously remember that Turkey has its unique geopolitical challenges, as previously discussed, to take into account while still meeting full loyalty to the membership’s commitments, ideology, and promises. The Russians and Ukrainians taking refuge in Istanbul and beyond in Turkey see this duality in their daily lives.

Two—Eliminating Geographic Extremes

While Turkey as a NATO member in the mid-twentieth century was the picture of a staunch, anti-Russian Atatürk-ist state committed to the idea of the transatlantic camp and none other, that visage is a temporaneous moment which blocked out any fluidity of identity it has historically nurtured. The point is, cosmopolitanism is diversity, and the fact that both Russians and Ukrainians alike are settling in Istanbul show a historical continuation and resiliency for Turkey as a nation in its historic and geopolitical positioning to act not as an “either/or” state. The bottom line is, states won’t soon give up their malleable ideas of autonomy, especially as volatile as political administration switch-ups come and go. For instance, in an analysis on Turkish opposition ahead of the June 2023 election by Carnegie, five out of six opposition parties if Erdoğan were to see defeat would be committed to reasserting Turkey’s NATO identity. [8] Additionally, six out of six opposition parties agreed that purchasing the S-400 air defense system from Russia did not advance overall national interests. There was also broad agreement from opposition on the need to solve the S-400 air defense system problem, to both further the goal of full EU membership and increase foreign policy cooperation with the EU. At the same time, IYI Parti would advocate for declaring an exclusive economic zone in the Eastern Mediterranean. Most significantly, one of the opposition party platforms seek deeper economic cooperation with Russia, while all six desire to maintain a nonconfrontational relationship with Russia and China and a blanaced approach to Russia. [9]

It becomes clear when taking a glance at this breakdown that the opposition parties are taking varied and measured approaches in their potential future policy formulations. The most salient point is that the opposition across the board wishes to renew and strengthen Turkey’s NATO identity while being nonconfrontational toward Russia and China.

For NATO’s “problematic” member, the Turkish opposition parties’ views speak volumes. Whether or not the opposition defeats Erdoğan in 2023 and ends his 21st-century domination over Turkish foreign policy, turning over a new leaf, Erdoğan is not timeless, and one day his leadership will cease. Whenever that is, whether that be in 2023 or farther along in the future, we must look back to the NATO 2030 Agenda, penned for the next generations and new outlooks. And the oppositions’ policies are exactly that, the next generation. Thus, Turkey’s days of adherence to everything the US or broader NATO bloc dictates are not to return, but neither is a full surrender to Russia going to happen. It is precisely this thinking, which is not only relevant to Turkey but to many nations as populist waves rise within NATO member countries as it did in the US under the administration of Donald Trump, that the NATO 2030 vision needs to adopt, and they need to do so now. A more flexible framework which allows for members to understand better their own geography, without questioning the existential nature of their membership, which is productive for no one and only spews opinions on the intractability of the alliance in dealing with internal strife. [10] Only by allowing this perception of trusting members and seeing past single administrations to what states’ citizens advocate for and believe in will strengthen the resolve to continue as a unified front against those upending the rules-based order.

Why Turkey is Important as a NATO member beyond is military and geopolitical importance

        Looking at Turkey’s history of its considerations as its own nation while fulfilling NATO commitments allows us to think differently, more inclusively, and more broadly exactly when we need to as a global and NATO community. In the 20th-century, the nation-state organizational concept was still young and nationalism had won in world history. But the test of time shows the limitations of this organizational principle, especially for countries which were created in Western-made treaties for non-Western people (Sykes-Picot Agreement 1916), why would they necessarily reflect realities better than imperial geography? Turkey under Erdoğan’s foreign policy directives have sought to regain if not land, major power in influence over former lands in the Levant, Balkans, North Africa, and essentially every strip of land that was once under an Ottoman flag, and is joined so by Russia and countless other nations in reclaiming a lost golden age. One can see this battleground poignantly in former Soviet states, such as Georgia, and elsewhere in the Caucasus. [11] If one of the nations which is seeking to upend the rules-based international order does not think along the lines of the nation-state, NATO must learn to be flexible in its creative thinking approach to these threats which do not solely affect North America and Europe.

        This style of thinking can better help ensure national sovereignty by learning how to think beyond it, and underscores the secondary importance of intra-member conflict.  A thinking which takes into account imperial geographies, Gaullist challengings, and diasporic communities. This increases resilience and flexibility into interpreting the boundaries of the rules-based international order.


[1] “NATO 2030 Factsheet,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, June 2021, https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2021/6/pdf/2106-factsheet-nato2030-en.pdf.

[2] Timour Ozturk, “How Istanbul Became The Top Destination For Russians Fleeing Conscription,” Worldcrunch, September 30, 2022, https://worldcrunch.com/focus/russians-refuge-turkey.

[3] Omer Karasapan, “Ukrainian refugees: Challenges in a welcoming Europe,” Brookings, October 14, 2022, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2022/10/14/ukrainian-refugees-challenges-in-a-welcoming-europe/ and Fatma Tanis, “Russian men flee the country. Many are showing up in Istanbul,” NPR, September 26, 2022, https://www.npr.org/2022/09/26/1125062711/russian-men-flee-ukraine-draft-to-istanbul-turkey.

[4] Timour Ozturk, “How Istanbul Became The Top Destination For Russians Fleeing Conscription,” Worldcrunch, September 30, 2022, https://worldcrunch.com/focus/russians-refuge-turkey.

[5] Lisel Hintz, Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey, Oxford University Press, 2018.

[6] Nicholas Danforth, The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity Since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2021.

[7] Ibrahim Hamidi, “Are Putin and Erdogan doing territorial swaps in Syria again?” Atlantic Council, October 15, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/are-putin-and-erdogan-doing-territorial-swaps-in-syria-again/.

[8] Alper Coşkun and Sinan Ülgen, “Political Change and Turkish Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment, November 14, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/11/14/political-change-and-turkey-s-foreign-policy-pub-88387.

[9] Alper Coşkun and Sinan Ülgen, “Political Change and Turkish Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment, November 14, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2022/11/14/political-change-and-turkey-s-foreign-policy-pub-88387.

[10] Rachel Ellehuus, “NATO Futures: Three Trajectories,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 21, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/nato-futures-three-trajectories.

[11] Peter Dickinson, “The 2008 Russo-Georgian War: Putin’s green light,” Atlantic Council, August 7, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-2008-russo-georgian-war-putins-green-light/.