There is plenty to say about Turkey these days, although not on Twitter or YouTube. Both are frequently blacked out in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Erdogan says he wants to “wipe out Twitter.” As a result, critically important voices regarding Turkey’s strategic importance and democratic evolution are harder to hear.
My voice, too, is often discounted. My Greek name usually prevents me from writing about Turkey because it is dismissed as biased.
Though I was born and reared in California, my ethnic origin labels me hostile to Turkey. The reason? Greece and Turkey have ongoing disputes regarding territorial waters, airspace, islands, the future exploitation of continental shelf hydrocarbons and the matter of Turkish troop-occupied Cyprus.
But here’s the reality: I know and love Turkey. I have traveled the country multiple times, learned a bit of the language and even got married there.
Looking at the geopolitics of that nation-state, all I see is a Western-aligned country unjustly denied European Union association years ago, back when Erdogan was still interested in Europe. What is never stated in the official EU affiliation postponements and negotiations, however, is what is heard in the German and French streets – Turkey will never be a European Union nation because Turkey is not a European nation; because it is Muslim.
Everything else the EU says regarding Turkey’s potential European Union accession is done with a wink and a nudge. It is no wonder that Erdogan has been able to use the EU’s exclusionary tactics to his advantage when appealing to Turkish masses.
Turkey, of course, is Muslim. But it is also European. This is as true geographically as it is culturally. Most importantly, it remains a NATO member. And NATO means everything right now.
At a moment when other transnational structures are flailing to come up with appropriate responses to Russia’s Crimean transgressions, NATO’s mission is further clarified and emboldened. Moscow’s aggressive military behavior triggers preparations for NATO’s key collective defense function. Vladimir Putin has kicked NATO into gear, forcing it to tighten its tripwire function on member state borders.
Cross the NATO tripwire – made of troops and materiel – and expect a decisive and overwhelming response. Russia has enough muscle memory to know this.
Of course, this is the last thing anyone wants and what Secretary of State John Kerry is negotiating to prevent. A war of any scale between Russia and NATO can only bring about memories of mutually assured destruction and the Cold War. Which is why NATO exists: as a deterrent to aggressive military behavior against the West.
So where does Turkey fit into this scenario? It has a long and difficult shared border on the Black Sea with Russia. It controls the maritime chokepoint for Russian ships based in Crimea. Looking back, the Cuban missile crisis was catalyzed by American Jupiter missiles based in Turkey.
Today, Turkey is a linchpin in the military struggles and relations with border states Iraq, Iran and Syria, and an increasingly important force in Egypt. Turkey’s strategic importance cannot be underestimated. But neither Turkey nor Erdogan can be given a pass for behavior that is unbecoming of a NATO member and EU aspirant.
From domestic repression to international folly, the Turkish leadership embodied in one incredibly charismatic populist has increasingly failed in its obligations and responsibilities – both to its people and its NATO allies. But Erdogan has earned incomparable political capital at home for his nationalist message over the years and cemented his rule with last weekend’s local elections and quasi-referendum.
Erdogan now seems politically untouchable, blaming an Istanbul elite for anarchic unrest and promising further retribution to institutions and individuals who challenge him. A savvy politician, he knows his power is not dependent on Istanbul elites, but rather lies in the hinterland of his 77 million people.
Non-urban Turks are loyal and admiring of Erdogan’s get-tough attitude and actions. They respond to his menacing approach to dissent. And they are happy with continually degrading relations with Israel.
Erdogan is an unreliable and dangerous leader who has purged his intelligentsia, military, judiciary and political opposition, and he will pursue his national interests in any way he sees fit for a regional superpower that remains a shadow of its Ottoman self. What Americans should hope is not only that he lightens up with his own population but also that he pursues a steady and reliable course for NATO. And, despite my ethnicity, I know the West’s future depends on it.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.