This article was published in Arab News in June 23, 2019.
Turkey’s history of disputes with NATO allies
The rift between Turkey and the US is growing, as both sides continue to accuse the other. Turkey’s interest in becoming part of the Western alliance, NATO, was the result of the threat that it perceived from the Soviet Union.
On June 7, 1945, then-Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov invited the Turkish ambassador in Moscow to a meeting and conveyed to him three demands of the Moscow government: The Soviet Union wanted to revise the 1921 Moscow Treaty that delineated the Turkish-Soviet border and asked for the transfer of Turkey’s two easternmost provinces, Kars and Ardahan, to the Soviet Union; Soviet participation in the defense of the Turkish Straits by establishing a Soviet naval base in Istanbul; and abrogation of the Montreux Convention of 1936 on the Turkish Straits and replacing it with a bilateral treaty.
Ankara, alarmed by these proposals, turned to the UK and US to help resist Moscow’s demands. Its efforts to join NATO had their origin in this fear.
Turkey was admitted to NATO only after a Turkish brigade saved an American division from annihilation by Chinese forces at Kunu-ri during the Korean War. Turkish soldiers’ performance in this battle, in which 218 of them died, contributed to changing Washington’s attitude in favor of Turkey’s NATO membership.
After Turkey’s admission to NATO in 1952, the Turkish-US friendship went through a honeymoon period for about 10 years.
The first disillusionment came during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. When the Soviet Union was sending missiles to be deployed in Cuba, then-US President John F. Kennedy threatened to sink the ship carrying the missiles before it reached Cuban soil. Then-Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khrushchev and Kennedy agreed to revoke the deployment of the Soviet missiles in Cuba in exchange for withdrawing Jupiter missiles from Turkey. The US agreed to this deal without negotiating with the Turkish authorities. Ankara was utterly disappointed to see that missiles deployed for defending Turkey were removed without it being involved in the negotiations.
The second problem came in 1964, with a letter sent by then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson to the Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inonu. Johnson informed Inonu that, if Turkey invaded Cyprus and the Soviet Union attacked Turkey as a result, NATO member countries might not necessarily abide by their obligations stemming from Article 5 of the NATO Charter. Article 5 provides that, if a NATO country is attacked, the other members of the alliance will consider this as an attack on their own territory and will take all measures they deem necessary to restore security.
Turkey was admitted to NATO only after a Turkish brigade saved an American division from annihilation.
While the US adopted this narrow interpretation in the case of a potential Soviet attack on Turkey, 37 years later it adopted a diametrically opposed interpretation and forced all its NATO allies to join its fight against Al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks of 2001. Turkey believes that Article 5 constitutes the essence of NATO solidarity and that it should not be interpreted one way on one occasion and differently on another.
After Johnson’s letter, Inonu commented that, if this was the NATO perception of solidarity, a new global security order would emerge and that Turkey would find its place in this new order.
The third issue was a US arms embargo imposed on Turkey after Ankara invaded Cyprus in 1974. This embargo helped Turkey grasp the consequences of its overdependence on other countries for its defense equipment. It therefore started, in the 1980s, to resume its rearmament program, which had been shelved since the national liberation war in the 1920s. The present crisis may have a similar effect and push the Turkish government to take additional measures to encourage its national industry to manufacture defense equipment. “Bad neighbors force you to acquire your own tools,” says a Turkish proverb.
In light of this background, it is not easy to tell what will happen when the Russian S-400 air defense system is deployed in Turkey next month. Will it go as far as expelling Turkey from NATO?
There is no provision in the NATO Charter that allows the alliance to expel one of its members. Theoretically, such an option would be contrary to the spirit of an alliance. However, NATO does have the means to exclude a member from the forums where sensitive subjects are discussed. Such a mechanism was used when communists were in power in Portugal in the 1970s.
Turkey’s NATO membership is just one aspect of the equation. Another more important aspect is whether NATO has any advantage to gain from pushing a strategically important ally like Turkey toward Russia.