As Turkish democracy declines, what’s the role for fellow NATO members?

By Kemal Kirişci, Ilke Toygür

A notable image from this month’s NATO summit was President Trump and Turkey’s freshly re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fist bumping and huddling together away from the other leaders. These displays of comradery come at a time of growing concerns about Turkish democracy. The country’s June election—shortly before the NATO summit—solidified a very powerful presidential system that removes many traditional democratic checks and balances. Even though for many this simply legalized the existing status quo, the new system is highly problematic in that it is designed to consolidate one-man rule. Hence, it is perhaps not surprising that Erdoğan chose to seek the company of Trump, whose commitment to liberal democratic values at home are increasingly questioned and whose defense of them internationally has not been a priority. At a time when the United States isn’t playing the role it once did in protecting and promoting core values of democracy, could there be a role for NATO states to prevent democratic backsliding in Turkey?

Democratic backsliding among NATO members is not unique to Turkey, and all cases pose a difficult challenge for the organization. As we discuss below, it is important that NATO members develop a strategy to revive the commitment to its shared values in general and find specific ways to incentivize Turkey to respond favorably.

Turkey’s troubles and NATO

Turkey became a NATO member in 1952, soon after the establishment of the alliance in 1949. It was considered an important strategic ally because of its large army, its geographic location as the Cold War gathered strength, and its elite’s longstanding commitment to a Western vocation. It was a difficult relationship with lots of policy disagreements and repeated democratic setbacks in the country. Today, Turkey’s relationship with its Western allies is even more complex, difficult, and fragile for a number of reasons.

First, Turkish democracy is in deep trouble. Its political system has lost its already weak checks and balances in favor of a heavily centralized presidential system, and the country is deeply polarized between those who support Erdoğan versus those who oppose it. Yet, a number of rising populist leaders in Europe—such as Hungary’s Victor Orban, who attended Erdoğan’s inauguration in Ankara—have openly cited him as an example that they wish to emulate and have especially praised some of his illiberal policies. Trump, too, has not hesitated to express his liking for Erdoğan and so far has not criticized his politics.

Secondly, Erdoğan’s hand is strengthened by the weakened state of liberal democracy in the EU and the United States. Freedom House noted in its 2018 “Freedom in the World” report that the U.S. role as a champion of democracy has eroded “amid an accelerating decline in American political rights and civil liberties.” The EU has not so far been able to stop—let alone reverse—democratic regression in a number of Central and Eastern European countries, especially Hungary and Poland. This worrying picture extends to Western Europe with the growing presence of right-wing populist parties in the parliaments of a number of countries such as Denmark, Finland, Germany and governments in Austria and Italy. In many ways, the United States and European Union have lost the high ground and their status as the shining light on the hill for liberal democracy. Instead, illiberalism appears to be in fashion and increasingly able to perform well or even win in elections.

Finally, the need to deal with imminent threats to Turkish national security—coupled with U.S. and European disengagement from the Middle East—nudged Erdoğan to hedge and get closer to players with growing influence in the region such as Russia. Turkey’s willingness to purchase the S-400 Russian missile defense system, for instance, is raising serious questions about Turkey’s commitment to the alliance. Even so, Turkey continues to participate in NATO missions, such as the one in Afghanistan, to host parts of the NATO missile defense system, and to share its military facilities with NATO allies. Turkey is an important ally because of its location and the size of its military—hence, it remains as relevant to Western defense today as it was during the Cold War.

What is next?

One thing is clear: Turkey’s democracy is in trouble and it is likely to remain that way for the foreseeable future. It is also difficult to imagine that NATO could enjoy much influence over Turkey to ensure its commitment to the shared values so eloquently raised in the NATO communique (in which member states reinforced their commitment to “common values, including individual liberty, human rights, democracy, and the rule of law”). The emphasis of NATO—and of key member states such as Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States, which seek to defend liberal democracy—in the near future should be on making sure that Turkey stays aligned with the trans-Atlantic community. In the meantime, allies need to be realistic and accept that until they can stop and reverse democratic regression elsewhere in the trans-Atlantic community, they will enjoy limited influence with respect to improving democracy in Turkey.

This does not necessarily mean that NATO should remain silent, especially with respect to egregious violations of democratic values both in Turkey and beyond. However, alongside its criticism, NATO should offer greater recognition of Turkey’s contributions to the defense of the alliance and acknowledge Turkey’s unique national security needs resulting from the ongoing war in Syria. In addition, NATO members (particularly the United States and members of the European Union) could incentivize Turkey to re-establish rule of law and restore a secure investment environment by offering to expand economic relations with Turkey. This could be particularly promising, since unlike its neighbors in the region, Turkey has no oil or gas to sell. Its economy has to produce, attract foreign direct investment, and trade—and the EU is by far Turkey’s most important partner in this regard. This dependence gives NATO members leverage over Turkey, even more so when the country faces a pending economic crisis. Specifically, the United States could offer to exempt Turkey from new tariffs and the EU could offer to modernize the Customs Union with Turkey in return for certain rule-of-law-related improvements.

At a time when we are starkly being warned that a “world crisis is upon us,” threatening to wreck the international order as we have known it, weakening of Turkey’s bond with NATO would deeply undermine the trans-Atlantic alliance. The challenge will be how to maintain a balance between realpolitik and the defense, if not the promotion, of shared democratic values within the alliance.

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