Fatih Ceylan - 

Ankara Policy Center (R) Ambassador

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg delivers his opening remarks at the defense ministers summit in October, 2020. (Photo: NATO)

There has of late been a recourse to a soft discourse by the high-level Turkish officials toward the West and the Western institutions in comparison to the past rhetoric. It would be useful to cast light on the background of this softer tone. Undergirding that soft language, the most important one is the fragility of the current economic situation.  Additionally, the general atmospherics prevalent during the NATO and the EU meetings held in December 2020 at the senior levels had brought about an unfavorable outcome. The fact that the Biden administration will soon take the helm in the U.S. is also an important development. Finally, the visible demonstration of flexing the muscles rather than giving priority to diplomacy in settling the current disputes, thereby narrowing the arc of loneliness around Turkey, should be factored in while addressing the backdrop of that new discourse.

The first multilateral event that Turkey will have in its relations with the West is the NATO Defense Ministerial Meeting to be held in February 2021. In parallel to that event, it seems that there will be a series of high-level contacts with the EU leadership pretty soon.

The  upcoming NATO meeting, while not at the highest level,  is important for several reasons.

Will consensus principle disappear, will Greek Cyprus become a NATO member?

First, one can surmise with confidence that NATO Defense Ministers will focus on collective defence and deterrence  aspects of the Report addressed by the Foreign Ministers in December 2020 entitled   “NATO 2030: United for a New Era”. They would also consider the future role of NATO in Afghanistan. It would be no surprise if they start exchanging views on preparations of the NATO Summit Meeting to be held in Brussels in 2021, the date of which is still to be decided.

The NATO 2030 Report prepared to chart NATO’s course for the next decade had neither  sufficiently attracted the attention of the  Turkish media nor the  public opinion. The majority of  analyses and comments on that Report were either incomplete or biased, thus devoid of any solid basis, and introduced as such to  the Turkish public.

Those who still treat NATO with their Cold War logic, and believe that the Alliance is in a “deep rift” or prefer to see NATO under these terms, had submitted their perceptions to the public in such a  way as they would aspire to see.

They  refrained from analysing on a factual basis areas that Turkey could utilise for her benefit . For instance , they argued that the consensus principle in NATO would be eroded.  They claimed the recommendations in that Report would enable the participation of Greek Cypriot Administration in  future NATO-EU Summit Meetings.

Being ignorant  of the dynamics and intricacies relevant within the Alliance, both claims are unfounded.  Such claims demonstrate  the recommendations in the Report were either not properly  understood  or  they were deliberately distorted  or unintentionally misrepresented.

Another observation concerning that Report is that it is not introduced in detail in Turkey. It was incumbent upon the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to duly present it to the Turkish public through interagency coordination, which places priority to the need to strengthen the political dimension of NATO. In reality, that responsibility was not properly fulfilled and the Report was not sufficiently publicized to the extent it deserves.

New strategic concept and Turkey

 One of the important aspects of the report is the proposal in it to develop a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance.  It is envisaged that the decision to prepare a new Strategic Concept (SC)  would be taken at the 2021 NATO Brussels Summit to be adopted at the 2022 NATO Summit. Turkey had pursued a conservative course favoring the status quo and refrained from playing an active role while discussions on an SC took place.

That said, the gin is now out of the bottle and Turkey does not have the luxury of being left behind. 

Another feature of the upcoming NATO Defense Ministers Meeting is that the former U.S. Central  Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Lloyd Austin, who is expected to take on the duty as the new Defense Minister of the Biden administration, will attend this meeting.

New US secretary of defense sails from CENTCOM

 The fact that the Biden administration will soon succeed the Trump administration, which had inflicted heavy damage to transatlantic relations, has brought to the fore  a visible sigh of  relief  among the leading members of the leading European powers within the Alliance.

The expectation that the Biden administration would adopt a policy toward prioritizing and strengthening the Alliance will be tested for the first time at the NATO Defense Ministerial Meeting.  It is commonly  believed that the new U.S. administration will pass this test successfully.

 In Turkey’s case, however,  several challenges inherited from the past are on her plate.  The first challenge is that an officer with a CENTCOM background will take the helm at the U.S. Department of Defence.  Turkey’s track record of relations with CENTCOM is not particularly bright, especially on addressing challenges in the Middle East.  The practice will demonstrate to what extent, if any, the retired General, Lloyd Austin,  could be influenced by that problematic track record. It will be possible to better see, on the one hand, the potential impact of the ‘stained acquis’ of past relations between Turkey and CENTCOM and to observe possible traces of where the Biden Administration stands vis-à-vis Turkey, on the other hand,  at the forthcoming Ministerial Meeting.

S-400 and F-35 conundrum

 The S-400-F-35 and related U.S. sanctions challenge will continue to be the standing item on the agenda of Turkey-U.S. as well as Turkey-NATO relations.  It may not be realistic to expect that challenge to be surmounted by the time of the Defense Ministerial. Nevertheless, it is still a moot point to precisely forecast the outcome of  ‘consultations traffic’, as it were, between Turkey and the U.S. that seemingly took place before and is expected to continue after January 20, 2021, when U.S. President-elect Biden assumes his Presidential duties.  After all, there exists almost a month from January 20 until the Defense Ministers Meeting in February; and during that interval, the direction of consultations between the two countries is a  subject for mere speculation.

At any rate, the current picture suggests that those in power in Turkey tend to navigate towards building a web of better relations with the Western institutions, to which Turkey belongs, premised on common sense, diplomatic practice, constructive dialogue, and respect for mutual interests. This is a step taken in the right direction.  However, we must wait and see what will happen in practice.

A face-saving formula needed

The Turkish leadership will have to seek a face-saving formula taking full account of Turkey’s economic and military interests and needs to overcome those challenges causing a series of controversies also within NATO. The way forward should not be driven according to the unfolding events, but be managed with a proactive approach with a view to preparing the conducive grounds for a compromise certainly without prejudice to Turkey’s fundamental interests.  That said, one would hope that by the time of the Defence Ministerial Meeting steps could be taken to overcome the conundrum presented by the S-400/F 35 and related U.S. sanctions.

Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, introduced a nuance to his previous discourse in his remarks to the press on December 15, 2020 on that subject in the wake of Trump’s decision to implement sanctions against Turkey. He called on all Allies, Turkey and the U.S. being on top of the list, to explore ways to solve that impasse. It should be noted that Stoltenberg made a clarion call this time not only to Turkey and the U.S., but to all Allies in a visibly anxious manner.

Another development that unfolded of late has been the remarks of the U.S. Ambassador to Ankara on 8 January 2021 regarding the U.S. sanctions affiliated with S-400 on the occasion of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council Meeting. According to press reports, Ambassador Satterfield made it clear that there would not be any room for flexibility in the implementation of the U.S. sanctions unless a solution is found to the S-400 problem.

Turkey as the lead nation of VJTF

Unless a solution respecting mutual interests can be found, it should not come as a surprise to see a fuller implementation of the U.S. sanctions and even their expansion as events further evolve. In this regard, the NATO Defense Ministerial Meeting in February 2021 represents a critical threshold.

Under such circumstances, will a course be preferred to reverse the bleak picture involving also  disputes with the Alliance members or will a direction be set that would further alienate Turkey within the Alliance?

Although it may seem ironic in nature, the February Meeting of Defence Minister coincides with a period whereby Turkey assumed the lead nation responsibility of Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) from Poland on 1 January 2021.

At a time when the disputes between Turkey and her Allies continue, and Turkey is subjected to sanctions by the U.S., including exclusion from the F 35 project as a result of the purchase of S 400 batteries, it is indeed a twist of fate that Turkey has assumed the leadership of NATO’s ‘Spearhead Force’. Be that as it may, the assumption of a leadership role in VJTF could be a catalyst for surmounting the serious challenges faced by Turkey, albeit in modest terms.

NATO-EU-Russia interwoven

Another striking feature of the upcoming Ministerial Meeting is that it will take place in the run-up to the EU Summit in March 2021. It could turn out to be the case that if a mild atmosphere is to take the scene at the NATO meeting with a view to overcoming the current challenges, this, in turn, could have a positive impact on the EU Summit, although it cannot be taken as granted. In this respect, the path to be followed by Turkey before the February Meeting and how Turkey’s stance will manifest itself at that Meeting is worthy of curiosity

What makes the February Meeting attractive is also the fact that, unless the two signatories do not come to common terms,  the New START Treaty signed between the U.S. and Russia in Prague in April 2010 will expire on February 5, 2021.   Negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on extension of the Treaty  are not over yet.  In this context, a serious challenge is  awaiting the Biden administration as far as disarmament/arms control process is concerned.  The disarmament/arms control process was already dealt a serious blow following the withdrawal of the U.S. and Russia from the INF Treaty. If the New START Treaty expires, a new period beset by perils will globally set in, certainly with repercussions for the NATO members. Therefore, the fate of the New START Treaty would have consequences in consultations to take place at the Defence Ministerial in February.

Biden’s “summit of democracies”

It is not yet clear when the “Summit of Democracies” initiative launched by President-elect Biden will come to fruition with a view to mitigating the democracy deficit, which is also critical for the U.S.  Recent developments in the U.S. may trigger to advance the date of that summit. At any rate, it would be more realistic to expect the ” Summit of Democracies” to be scheduled after the EU Summit.  It is also unclear whether it will take place before or after the NATO Summit to be held during the course of this year.  It is certain that what will transpire from that Summit to be hosted by the new U.S. President will have consequences for the future work of NATO with a reinforced political dimension.

NATO and democratic values

In the period ahead, the Alliance will give more weight to ensure its members fully stick to the fundamental principles of democracy, individual liberty, and rule of law representative of common values as enshrined in the founding Washington Treaty.

This objective cannot be achieved without strengthening the political dimension of NATO, thus duly balancing its military aspect. It is in this vein that, although still of relevance, a rhetoric deriving its strength solely from contributions of military assets and capabilities to the Alliance would not hold the ground any more. All Allies will be subjected to the stress test of upholding and implementing in earnest those common values in the coming days.  It would  not be surprising to see that the already weakened status and the role of those members deviating  away from ​​or ignoring those common values  for various reasons will be more controversial in the period ahead.

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