Issue Briefs

Turkey is an indispensable NATO Ally

Hasan Karaburk

August 26, 2016

“What happens on the Bosphorus affects us all”

–Carl Bildt, 2016

Turkey joined NATO in 1952, just three years after it was first established.  Since then Turkey has always been a faithful ally, always a strong supporter of NATO’s founding mission. Turkey participated in all Alliance-led security activities. And Turkey’s contribution is quite significant. After the United States, Turkey has the second largest NATO standing army.

Looking West

The Turkish Republic emerged from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Since its inception, Turkey turned West, considering the West as its role model. Starting with Ataturk, the founding father of Turkey, all Turkish leaders, including the current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, engaged in a conscious effort to reform and modernize Turkey’s public and private institutions. Accordingly, Turkey’s political, judicial, military, social, economical and educational institutions were all modernized by integrating best practices from Europe.

NATO is a win-win proposition

Just as in the case of other European NATO members, there is a win-win proposition at the center of Turkey’s engagement with NATO. NATO guarantees and enhances the security of Turkey, while also supporting Turkey’s accession to the Europe Union.

In return, Turkey has taken up the role of defending the alliance South Eastern flank.  Turkey is strategically and geographically located between Asia and Europe. Its participation in NATO contributes to bringing peace, stability and security to South Eastern Europe.

The most recent developments in the region, such as the civil war in Syria and Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, the refugee crises, and political turmoil in the Middle East underscore the importance of Turkey as a resilient gatekeeper for NATO and for Europe.

Unique role

Turkey’s geopolitical location as a natural bridge between Asia and Europe offers NATO an indispensable advantage. Turkey historically demonstrated its strength that made it into an indispensable NATO ally. Indeed, Turkey is:

  1. A relatively young country built on the heritage of the Ottoman Empire, once the protector of the Balkans and Mediterranean region.
  2. A leading Muslim country capable of establishing a model partnership with the Christian Western World.
  3. A Muslim country in one of the most troubled regions of the world ruled by democratic institutions.
  4. A melting pot where Eastern civilization meet Western values. The positive results of this East-West connection are very visible in the social fabric of modern Turkish society. Turkey is a country acting as a geo-political bridge between the East and the West, enabling routes for commercial, military, political and educational interchanges, cohesion and meaningful interaction.

Turkey good for NATO

James Stavridis, a retired NATO Supreme Allied Commander, argues in his recent interview with Foreign Policy magazine that Turkey is not a burden, but rather an asset for NATO, because “Turkey has been present in virtually every NATO operation with significant impact”.  According to Stavridis, Turkey has been participating not only in regional but also in international operation such as in training Afghan Security Forces, leading coalition efforts in Central Asia, sending ships and aircrafts to Libya, participating in various counter-piracy operations,  and maintaining a steady presence as a security and peacekeeping force in the Balkans.

Turkey benefited too

According to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, while Turkey has been an indispensable and resilient NATO ally, NATO has also proven to be an invaluable asset that ensured the security and stability of Turkey.

“Indivisibility of Alliance security, solidarity among Allies and a fair risk and burden sharing as well as the consensus rule, are NATO’s guiding principles and should remain as such. Adherence to these principles as well as NATO’s ability to adapt to the changing security environment, have made NATO the most successful military alliance in history.”

NATO’s enduring relevance

Analysts and left-wing political leaders in Europe argue that the importance of NATO has been diminished over the years. It continuing existence should be questioned after the collapse of Warsaw Pact in 1991 after the demise of the old Soviet Union.

However, Turkey believes that complete security for Europe also depends on the stability of the Eastern former Soviet republics, as well as on the stability of the Balkans and the security in the Mediterranean region. Although the Warsaw Pact is no more, Turkey believes that a constructive relationship based on mutual understanding, transparency and cooperation between NATO and Russia is important for Euro-Atlantic peace and stability. The NATO-Russia Council provides the necessary forum for such a relationship, according to the Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Peace with all neighbors

As an inheritor of the Ottoman’s peaceful co-existence legacy, Turkey believes that the security and stability of the Mediterranean is positively associated with the security of Europe. Therefore, Turkey puts great emphasis on expanding the Mediterranean Dialogue in areas where NATO can bring value. Besides, as indicated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Turkish Republic, Turkey seeks to further enhance relations with the Gulf countries through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

As a NATO ally, Turkey hosts major NATO installations on its soil.  Second only to Brussels, the largest Allied Land Command center is strategically located in Izmir, the largest city in the Aegean Sea region. The largest regional Air Base of NATO is located in Incirlik, Adana, in the southern part of Turkey. Although the U.S neither denied nor confirmed this, the Incirlik Air Base may have nuclear warhead ready to be deployed by on U.S. bombers.

U.S. Turkey relations

Because of NATO, the U.S and Turkey over time built a very significant strategic partnership. As the founder and leading member of NATO, the U.S supports Turkey’s ability to perform various missions across the region. The U.S. has also consistently supported Turkey’s democratic institutions.

Supporting Turkey

Going forward, here is the role that this mutually beneficial bilateral relation can play in the future:

The United States and NATO members should unconditionally stand firm behind the democratically elected civilian government of Turkey. In the wake of the July 15 failed coup attempt, the U.S should provide all necessary support aimed at identifying, capturing all those responsible for the armed attack against the state.

As President Erdogan pointed out, and as various ranking military officers who were questioned after the coup attempt indicated, it is clear that Fethullah Gulen was the mastermind of the coup. Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in a self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, is the sole leader of the movement called Gulen Movement. According to evidence gathered so far, it appears that he orchestrated the coup by mobilizing his disciples in the Turkish military. The United States should show its support for Turkish democracy and the government of Erdogan by expediting the extradition process for Mr. Gulen, as requested by the President Erdogan.

Show active solidarity

While Turkey has been dealing with various internal, (FETO/PDY, PKK), and external challenges (ISIS, a massive refugee inflow, the Syrian civil war, and more) NATO members, with the United States in the lead, should mobilize resources to support and assure Turkey’s security and stability in the region.  Visible demonstrations of support such as the August1, 2016 visit to Turkey by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford which included meetings with General Hulusi Akar, his Turkish counterpart, are very useful. However, it would be a wise move by the U.S to send to Turkey high ranking political leaders, such as Vice President Joe Biden, or Secretary of State John Kerry, so that they can meet their Turkish counterparts and assure them of the U.S firm commitment to the Turkish democratically elected government.

Better relations with Israel and Russia

Turkey’s role as a regional power is very important for both NATO and the U.S. Turkey has been spending a good amount of time and resources to normalize its relationships with both Israel and Russia. It would be good for NATO and the United States to support Turkey in her effort to establish and maintain peace and stability with all its neighbors. Turkey’s renewed relationships with Russia should not be viewed as a move to weaken NATO. A powerful ally maintaining a peaceful relationship with all its neighbors will in fact contribute to NATO’s mission.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party have led Turkey very successfully over the past 13 years. In his first and second term as Prime Minister, and in his new role as President, Erdogan enacted impressive democratic, economic and social reforms.  Economic prosperity and inclusive social reforms propelled Turkey’s aspiration to join the European Union.

Turkey and Europe

As a result of Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey moved closer to join the EU. Therefore, an effort to support Turkey in her effort to gain EU membership should be sincerely undertaken. It should be viewed in the interest of the United States and of the NATO alliance to support Turkey in its negotiations with its EU partners, most of which are also NATO partners.


Hasan Karaburk is an expert on international relations, education policy, education reforms, and public diplomacy. He published numerous articles, presented papers at various conferences, and co-authored books. He has more than 20 years of experience in academic compliance and regulatory affairs as a field inspector for various accrediting agencies, including a number of federal agencies such as USCIS.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of GPI.