The Republic of Turkey will hold a presidential election on May 14. Its significance to the people of that ancient land and extraordinary country cannot be overstated. Nor can its importance to the future of NATO and security in Europe.
The incumbent, President Tayyip Erdogan, has ruled for two decades with an increasingly authoritarian bent. He now faces a unified opposition that probably presents his greatest electoral challenge ever. Many critics note that Erdogan has overseen an economy wracked by high inflation and turmoil, undermined democratic principles, pulled the country to the hard right, and responded slowly to the devastating earthquake that killed tens of thousands a few months ago. His response is to score points beyond Turkey’s borders.
On the international stage, Erdogan has played various roles, usually taking on issues and pursuing strategies that promote his profile abroad and his political support back home. During my time at the Pentagon, I sometimes felt he was a bigger challenge to NATO than Vladimir Putin. This is not easy to say. After all, Turkey is one of the oldest, more capable, and strategic members of the alliance since joining in 1952. Yet just a few years ago, Erdogan kept Washington busy with one issue after another: from threatening our fellow ally Greece and aggressively challenging French warships in the Mediterranean, to blocking the approval of NATO war plans in Brussels and buying advanced air defense systems – designed to defeat U.S. aircraft — from Moscow, just to name a few.
Fast forward a few years, and the friction has only grown as the stakes have increased. Ankara is now the primary obstacle to Sweden joining NATO, and is doing so amid the most destructive conflict in Europe since WWII. It’s a patently political move that surely pleases Moscow.
Many believe that by taking such a tough stance against Sweden (and Finland until recently), Erdogan is aiming to consolidate his support in nationalist circles prior to the upcoming election. His argument – Stockholm has not done enough to support Turkey decades-long fight against the PKK.
Ankara has legitimate concerns about the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the U.S., EU, and Sweden have rightly identified as a foreign terrorist organization. Since the 1980s, the PKK has been waging an insurgency against Turkey in which more than 40,000 people have been killed. This is often the lens through which Erdogan sees (or interprets) many things.
As such, Sweden has taken several steps over the past year to address his concerns, from amending its constitution and passing legislation that tightens the country’s anti-terrorism laws, to taking a harder line toward the PKK (and their affiliates) and ending its arms embargo against Ankara. These steps and others were included in a trilateral memorandum agreed to last year by Finland, Sweden, and Turkey. Yet as time passed and the election neared, Erdogan continued to up the ante for Stockholm by adding new demands.
There is no doubt that Sweden’s membership in NATO would improve this historic alliance. Over the years, this proud Scandinavian country has conducted military exercises with NATO, shared intelligence, developed effective weapons and equipment, and ensured its armed forces (especially its maritime capabilities) are modern and compatible with its future allies. It needs to spend much more on defense as a share of GDP, but it has contributed generously to Ukraine and its geography enhances the security of both the Baltic Sea and the Arctic.
Turkey’s election is just days away. Meanwhile, war rages in Ukraine as frontline allies and non-NATO European states like Sweden worry if they are next on Putin’s menu. At this point, there is not much else to be done until the polls close on May 14. But after that, the U.S. and its allies should demand Ankara immediately approve Sweden’s admission to the alliance.
President Erdogan has been given more than enough time to do the right thing. If he doesn’t budge, then it’s time to dramatically increase the pressure and take the actions necessary that would result in a greenlight for Stockholm. Otherwise, we risk sending a message of disunity to Moscow that could embolden their operations in Ukraine, and Putin’s broader aspirations in the region. Admitting Sweden to NATO, on the other hand, would not just improve that country’s security, but would enhance the security of all other NATO allies as well, including (ironically) Turkey.