One feature of NATO has always been its collection of somewhat pluralistic democracies standing against the gray monochrome of current and former Iron Curtain dictatorships and kleptocracies. For example, Spain was not admitted to NATO until 1982, well after the death of dictator Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
Now, with Turkey voting essentially dictatorial powers to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it appears that NATO may have to deal with its first de facto dictatorship. The vote was close, according to unofficial tallies, with 51 percent voting for the measure, and of course opposition parties are crying foul.
But with government crackdowns and jailing opposition leaders an essential feature of the campaign Erdogan mounted to gain almost complete control of his country’s government, I wouldn’t bet on protests, official or in the public squares, changing the result.
Now, the Trump administration and NATO members have to figure out how to handle Erdogan. Turkey has been a NATO member since 1952. Its strong secular presence among Muslim-majority countries and strategic position straddling the Bosphorus, the Aegean, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean has made it a lynchpin for the U.S. in several theaters. (Turkey borders, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Greece.)
Erdogan’s leaning toward Islamic-law-centered policies, squabbles with Israel, and outright diplomatic rows with Belgium–home to NATO’s headquarters–will make dealing with him all the more troublesome. But the U.S. must deal with Turkey, which occupies the entire northern border of Syria, north of Aleppo, and offers a safe haven for U.S. aircraft in skies controlled by Russian patrols and advanced air defense batteries.
Perhaps Turkey is the reason that Trump may have abandoned his “NATO is irrelevant” campaign rhetoric in favor of simply getting its members to cough up more cash for military promises made during the Obama years. Should NATO suddenly dissolve, Turkey would be free to align as it pleases, and Russia may have some strong incentives to woo Erdogan.
As a bulwark against the former Soviet Union, NATO is a dead horse. But as a coalition of nations acting in strategic defense of western democracy, there’s no more effective organization. America’s challenge will now be keeping NATO from fracturing if Erdogan goes rogue.