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1 July 2022

Erdoğan exposes Nato’s mirage of unity

The president of Turkey is leveraging Sweden and Finland’s desire to join Nato to further his interests abroad and at home.

By Megan Gibson

The relief was palpable but short-lived. On 28 June – the first day of Nato’s summit in Madrid – Turkey signed a joint memorandum with Finland and Sweden, signalling that the objections of its president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to the Nordic nations’ proposed membership had been resolved, and that he would no longer block their accession.

The Nato secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and state leaders, including Boris Johnson and Joe Biden, hailed it as a pivotal turn that would both bolster security in Europe and strengthen the alliance. Finland and Sweden, after decades of military non-alignment, looked to be on the verge of joining Nato – a decisive blow to Russia and a moment of unity for the alliance.

Yet that unity now appears to be a mirage: on 30 June, the final day of the summit, Erdoğan reversed course, announcing that unless Sweden extradited 73 people that Ankara has deemed to be terrorists, the accession “would not happen”. Erdogan’s original objection to Sweden’s membership centred on Stockholm’s supposed support of a Kurdish group that Turkey claims is behind a failed coup in 2016. While the joint memorandum signed on 28 June did not stipulate any extradition requirements, it did spell out that both Sweden and Finland would “not provide support” to the Kurdish group. That vague language is now being exploited by Erdoğan.

The Turkish president has plenty to gain by blocking Nato expansion at a moment of genuine crisis for Europe. Because Nato accession must be unanimously approved, the other member states – along with Sweden and Finland — must placate Turkey in order to move forward. So far, Erdoğan has managed to get Sweden and Finland to consider addressing his security concerns: he has secured a commitment from them to lift a de facto arms embargo against Turkey; and he has advanced his case to Joe Biden to back the sale of US F-16 jets to the Turkish military. By indicating that he’s still willing to upend the entire expansion process, Erdoğan is clearly using the significant leverage that he possesses to further his interests both abroad and at home, where he’s keen to improve his standing ahead of next year’s election. (This is not the first time that Erdoğan has played the enfant terrible of Nato: Turkey has an ongoing dispute with fellow Nato member Greece over Mediterranean waters.)

This uncertainty exposes the fragility of the alliance, and raises questions about what it can withstand. On the one hand, Russia’s war in Ukraine has validated Nato’s raison d’être; Western nations with robust militaries are now clamouring to join and long-time member states are pouring funds into their respective militaries. On the other, Turkey’s obstinance should serve as a warning. After all, there are two events in the near future that could destabilise the alliance, perhaps irrevocably. 

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The first is the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House. It’s impossible to predict what an emboldened Trump would do with another term in power. He was not only actively hostile to Nato during his presidency – famously calling it “obsolete” in January 2017 – but he also repeatedly threatened to withdraw from the alliance completely. Chief among his gripes was the lack of “burden-sharing” by European nations that did not meet their minimum annual defence spending targets of 2 per cent of GDP. He also claimed the alliance should keep cosier ties with Russia – the suggestion was ludicrous then and has only worsened with the passage of time.  

Yet Nato, and the US’s membership therein, survived the Trump years. Much of the credit goes to Stoltenberg, a skilled diplomat who quietly but strategically worked to flatter the US president’s ego in a way that made Trump feel powerful. According to a study on Stoltenberg’s leadership, published last year in the journal International Affairs, after European countries did increase their spending, “the Secretary-General always chose to compare the spending figures to 2016 – the year of Trump’s election – rather than 2015, when the allies’ budgets first showed increases, to obscure the possibility that factors other than Trump could be responsible”. 

Which brings us to the second event that could shatter any semblance of Nato unity: Stoltenberg’s tenure as secretary general comes to an end in September 2023. The fact that his contract was extended by two years in 2019, and then again for another year in March, demonstrates what a steadying force he has been for the alliance. The question of whether Nato could withstand the loss of Stoltenberg at a time when Turkey is still willing to burn goodwill in order to further its own interests and a destructive, potentially pro-Russia US president re-enters the White House is one that will need to be answered, and soon.

[See also: Nato unity faces scrutiny as defences to protect the Eastern flank ramp up]

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