Turkey in NATO Series Paper 2: The Twenty-First Century

Reilly Barry

“Embrace the change, guard the values” is one of the main tenets of the NATO 2030 forward-looking vision. Through the core values of collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security, the NATO 2030 working group also identified a need to broaden and reconceptualize security, with “increased preparedness through diversity of communication and thinking.” (1) Diversity of communication and thinking, with regard to changes in the alliance, perhaps is not discussed enough when evaluating core values of an updated and strengthened alliance. We will be using Turkey’s 21st-century experience as a NATO member to exemplify what can be learned from errors in communication and lack of diversified thinking.

Turkey is a unique NATO ally. As discussed in the first Turkey in NATO series paper, we outlined how Turkey applied its NATO member support and commitments to the unfolding war in Ukraine while enacting policy choices calibrated to its geopolitical concerns. For instance, not placing sanctions on Russia, while 9 other NATO allies (including largest economy members US, Germany, UK, France, Italy, and Canada) did. (2) Turkey, however, lies far closer to Russia, across the Black Sea, than any of the members who did enact sanctions. Thus, we analyzed its reticence to place sanctions on Russia vis-à-vis its help to Ukraine in implementing the Montreux Convention (1936) to block Russian warships from the Bosphorus Straits and other policies in the initial months of Russia’s invasion while making decisions to adhere to the realities of Turkey’s regional landscape.  

There is an expectation that Turkey must adhere to every decision which its Western allies, and especially the US, dictate. While NATO members share fundamental defense responsibilities, they do have “varying interests and goals.” (3) For Turkey’s position within NATO, these varying interests and goals were not nearly as varied in the 20th-century compared to the rising flashpoints and crises that cropped up in the early 2000s and onward, which can largely be ascribed to a focus shift from Eurasia to the Middle East both globally and in the alliance, and should not solely be ascribed to changes in Turkey’s domestic political administration. The party of current president Erdoğan, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 amidst the onset of the war on terror and drastically changing role of the Middle East in global politics. This moment coincided with the characterization of US-Turkey bilateral relations (which often reflects broader NATO/EU/Western relations) at its lowest point during the Bush administration. Thus, far from few pundits connect the rise of an Islamist party in Turkey for the first time to a fraying of relations with NATO and the broader West. But correlation is not causation, and it is dangerous and irresponsible to claim so de facto.

So what were some of the main disagreements between Turkey and other NATO allies in the 21st-century, and why did they compile so rapidly after what had been a period of relative in-step thinking within the alliance? Furthermore, what misunderstandings in diversity of membership and communication can be learned from this while moving forward to continue working against Eurasian and Middle Eastern threats despite domestic political situations?

One factor that has been ever present in difficulties with Turkey is its ongoing, decades-long disputes with other NATO members. Greece and the US top the list of these disputes regarding territorial issues and the Kurds, respectively. However there have been shorter-term flare-ups increasingly with other members, including Erdoğan’s verbal assaults at French president Emmanuel Macron and Turkey briefly cutting dipolomatic ties with the Netherlands in 2017 following a dispute with Dutch authorities to hold Turkish campaign rallies abroad. There has also been a laundry list of other issues in US-Turkey bilateral relations unrelated to Kurds, too exhaustive to list. Here we will focus on Turkey’s territorial issues with Greece and Cyprus on the one hand and the Kurdish issue with the US on the other, both of which have most heavily affected perceptions of Turkey’s role in NATO.

The biggest issue that had defined a quandary for NATO in its relationship with Turkey in the 20th-century was Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus in 1974, where “Greek and Turkish forces, and the attention of their military commanders, are still directed toward each other rather than toward the Soviet Union and the purposes of the NATO alliance, according to Greek and Turkish diplomats” as the New York Times reported on August 13, 1974. (4)

Even then, the alliance was heightenedly focused on deterring the Soviet Union where in the twenty-first century far more regional Middle Eastern problems cropped up to shape different challenges for Turkey compared to its NATO cohort. Embrace the change: Guard the values. Despite the fully renewed threat of Russia as seen this year in Ukraine, the Soviet Union is no longer the singular threat defining convergence of threat perception in the alliance. This change should be recognized for what it is, and new conflict solution mechanisms should be adopted to guard the values of both members’ territorial integrity and security concerns. For the US, siding with Greece in the flare-up and imposing an arms embargo on Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus, this was its lowest point in bilateral relations as well in the 20th-century.

Until the dawn of the 21st-century brought with it not just a new calendar millenia, but also a new global power balance where the the less stable multipower order replaced the unipolar world order, leaving behind an unquestioned American hegemony. (5) During the 1990s Clinton administration, the two allies saw eye-to-eye on the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party): “the U.S. adopted Turkey’s view that the PKK is a ‘terrorist’ group, defended Turkey’s right to pursue the PKK in cross-border land and air operations in northern Iraq, backed Turkey’s demand that PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan can be extradited after he was expelled from Syria last year, and has all but acknowledged that it assisted in Turkey’s capture of Ocalan in Kenya.” (6)

Then, with lowered American influence following the Iraq War and Turkey’s refusal to be a launching pad for the US (7) completely new emerging events and threats like the Arab Spring and the Islamic Caliphate (ISIS) drastically changed this cooperation. America’s official partnership with the YPG (People’s Defense Units), which Turkey believes an offshoot of the PKK, was a red line for Turkey. In 2008 Sinan Ülgen, senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, wrote “Turkey is indeed in a unique position among Alliance members as a country faced with terrorism in the form of guerrilla warfare.” (8) In speaking engagements in Washington during 2017 Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that the number one issue in bilateral relations was America’s working with the YPG which Turkey views as tacit approval of all Kurdish terrorist acts. Embrace the change, guard the values. Turkey views Kurdish militants and the PKK as an existential threat to its sovereignty. This view was once aligned with US policy in the 90s, but the security landscape has irrevocably changed with the American decision to partner with the YPG in the fight against ISIS, an entity which had not been conceived of at the time of NATO’s founding. What was once collective security primarily against Russia needs to adapt to the range and diversity of threats which asymmetrically affect some members more than others.                    

Not only Turkey’s continued struggle with Kurdish insurgents but the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war have changed Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. The purchase of the S-400 missile defense system from Russia as well is a wedge in its perceived NATO suitability, despite other NATO members having purchased Russian weaponry previously. (9)

The accumulation of these thorny issues prolong to the present day. Having come to no resolution to Turkey’s singular threat perception of the Kurdish issue between other allies led to Turkey adamantly blocking Swedish and Finnish accession bids to NATO in 2022 due to concerns of harboring Kurdish terrorists. (10) Never achieving lasting conflict resolution with Greece led to renewed and tense confrontation of warships in the Aegean between 2020-2022 due to differing perceptions on international treaties and natural resource competition. (11) In a Harvard International Review article, Meacham asserts that “many scholars believe the recent flare-ups of Greek-Turkish tensions have paralyzed NATO.” (12) Once again, embrace the change, guard the values. There are both emerging and historically evolving issues which are no longer centered around Soviet deterrence that must be addressed, while ensuring unity of security.

What Greek Foreign Minister George Mavros said in 1974 could not ring more true in Greece and Turkey’s provocations of the other’s Aegean territory in 2020: “I can’t believe NATO can protect us from threats from the outside if it can’t even keep two of its own members from fighting with each other.” (13)  

To NATO, whose members mostly occupy a geography and live in geopolitical realities very differently to Turkey, the Kurds are not a centerpiece or even mid-level consideration in transatlantic security despite the PKK being an internationally-recognized terror entity. Yet the NATO 2030 vision seeks “to reconceptualize transatlantic security,” and perhaps this issue should be part of this reconceptualization. The core values additionally have been outlined with the need to broaden security, which surely this consideration falls into. Again, considerations of diversity reverberate around this issue, with Turkey’s specific geography and security concerns. Part of the 2030 agenda pursues “increased preparedness through diversity of communication and thinking.” This should be actualized through the experience of Turkey in NATO in the 21st-century and tweaked looking to 2030 and decades ahead for broader inclusion and more serious consideration of allies’ unique threat perceptions. If this is done, it will fuel itself into more synchronized cooperative security, regardless of political administration in any individual allied country.  

There is a strong need to move beyond intra-member issues that affect the credibility of the alliance. Rather than opining on Turkey’s unsuitability to remain in NATO, work should be focused on finding solutions to Aegean disputes and seeing more eye-to-eye with US on Kurds, however progressively. Surely the November 16, 2022 explosion on a central street in Istanbul, concluded by the Turkish government as orchestrated by an individual with ties to Kurdish militants illustrates the issue is pertinent, real, and persists. Even this event exposed the fraught relations when interior minister Süleyman Soylu accused the US of being implicit in the occurrence of the bomb by its association with Kurdish groups over recent years. (14)

Overall, the examples that Turkey’s identity as a NATO member provies in the 21st-century can illustrate a need to hone adaptibility in NATO’s strategic vision as outlined in the 2030 agenda. Being a unique NATO ally, the only in the Middle East, the only predominantly Muslim nation, and the closest to Russia does require effort to embrace the change of what transatlantic security entails, and a deeper, nuanced understanding of different geopolitical realities for the membership to continue to guard its values of collective security. The experienced and yet unresolved issues can hopefully prioritize finding measures to limit the effect that internal disagreements have on the full scope of NATO’s credibility as a whole and heighten an aptitude for recognizing and incorporating varied security needs.


  1. “THO Factsheet NATO 2030,” Turkish Heritage Organization,  https://www.turkheritage.org/Uploads/nato2030.pdf.
  2. Minami Funakoshi, Hugh Lawson and Kannaki Deka, “Tracking sanctions against Russia,” Reuters, March 9, 2022 https://graphics.reuters.com/UKRAINE-CRISIS/SANCTIONS/byvrjenzmve/ 
  3. “THO Factsheet NATO 2030,” Turkish Heritage Organization, https://www.turkheritage.org/Uploads/nato2030.pdf 
  4. “NATO Is Viewed as Weakened by the War on Cyprus,” New York Times, August 13, 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/08/13/archives/nato-is-viewed-as-weakened-by-the-war-on-cyprus.html 
  5. Verda Ozer, “Understanding the ‘S-400 crisis’,” Al Jazeera, August 5, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2019/8/5/understanding-the-s-400-crisis 
  6. Alan Makovsky, “With Bilateral Ties Flourishing, Clinton Visits Turkey,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 12, 1999, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/bilateral-ties-flourishing-clinton-visits-turkey
  7. Phillip P. Pan, “Turkey Rejects U.S. Use of Base,” March 2, 2003, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/2003/03/02/turkey-rejects-us-use-of-bases/01e53587-6d0b-4b3a-bb48-f86f87a15d02/ 
  8. Sinan Ülgen, “The Evolving EU, NATO, and Turkey Relationship” in Frances G. Burwell ed., The Evolution of U.S.-Turkish Relations in a Transatlantic Context, Strategic Studies Institute Colloquium Report, April 2008, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015073912647&view=1up&seq=121&q1=sinan%20ülgen 
  9. “Greece in talks with Russia to buy missiles for S-300 systems: RIA,” Reuters, April 15, 2015, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-nuclear-greece-missiles/greece-in-talks-with-russia-to-buy-missiles-for-s-300-systems-ria-idUSKBN0N62A720150415 
  10. Patrick Wintour, “Turkey threatens year’s delay to Swedish and Finnish entry to NATO,” The Guardian, June 14, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jun/14/turkey-threatens-years-delay-to-swedish-and-finnish-entry-to-nato 
  11. Dorian Jones, “Turkey-Greece Relations Tense Over Cyprus, Aegean Islands,” Voice of America, September 30, 2022, https://www.voanews.com/a/6770231.html 
  12. Sam Meacham, “Allies in Name Alone: The Hagia Sophia and NATO’s Greece-Turkey Problem,” Harvard International Review, December 15, 2021, https://hir.harvard.edu/allies-in-name-alone-the-hagia-sophia-and-natos-greece-turkey-problem/ 
  13. “NATO Is Viewed as Weakened by the War on Cyprus,” New York Times, August 13, 1974, https://www.nytimes.com/1974/08/13/archives/nato-is-viewed-as-weakened-by-the-war-on-cyprus.html 
  14. Ben Hubbard and Safak Timur, “Turkey Accuses U.S. of Complicity in Istanbul Attack That Killed 6,” New York Times, November 14, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/11/14/world/middleeast/turkey-us-istanbul-attack.html