(BBG) Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used to speak with U.S. President Barack Obama more than any other foreign leader. Now hecan’t even make it onto Obama’s official schedule when he visits Washington. Can this marriage be saved?
By all accounts, their relationship is difficult. But if the question is broadened to ask whether Turkey belongs in the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization, then the answer is easy: Of course it does.
Not everyone agrees. Turkey’s policies on the Kurds, Syria and Islamic State are out of sync with those of the U.S. and many NATO allies, they point out, while Erdogan’s record on democracy and free speech makes the U.S. and Europe increasingly uncomfortable.
But NATO is a military alliance, in which common values are not as necessary as a common goal. That goal is security. Controlling access from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean remains as strategically important as it was during the Cold War, as does Turkey’s traditional role as a counterweight to Russian influence in the region. And as difficult as it is for Europe to stop the flow of refugees from Syria with Turkey’s cooperation, it would be impossible without it. Meanwhile, Greece and Turkey still have serious territorial claims against each other, which their common NATO membership helps to keep in check.
In terms of democratic values, Turkey’s record has been spotty. There were coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980. A war against Kurdish militants, in which tens of thousands have been killed or executed, went on for decades and was rekindled last year. (In the 1980s, Turkey denied the very existence of a Kurdish ethnicity.) At various times, civil rights have been sharply curtailed. Throughout all this, Turkey retained its NATO membership.
Obama is right not to validate Erdogan’s current policies by officially meeting with him this week, and the U.S. and Europe can and should do more to protect Turkey’s civic and democratic institutions. In fact, membership in organizations such as NATO and the Council of Europe offer the West tools to influence Turkey’s direction.
Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952. Its membership remains as necessary — and awkward — as ever.