Helping Turkey Find Its Way Back to the West

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- When I was the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO several years ago, my wife and I would occasionally visit Cologne, Germany, just across the border from the alliance headquarters in Belgium. The region is notable for a variety of historical reasons, but especially as the heart of the ancient Holy Roman Empire. Nearby Aachen is the burial site of Emperor Charlemagne, who died in AD 814 and is famously known as the Father of Europe for having helped stop Islamic invasions well over a millennium ago. 

Last week, Cologne was in the news for a very different Islamic event, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited to open one of the largest mosques in Europe. His trip — while sparking some controversy in Germany given his harsh policies on human rights, the media and the judiciary — was notable for demonstrating that there is hope yet for a warming of relations between Turkey and Europe. The U.S. should do all it can to help the process along. 

There is no exaggerating the danger posed by Turkey — a longstanding NATO member — drifting away from Europe and the U.S. and toward Russia and Iran.

Let’s start with the value proposition of Turkey for the U.S. and its allies. We sometimes think of it as a “bridge between East and West.” Wrong metaphor — Turkey is a power center unto itself, the inheritor of the vast Ottoman Empire and today the 13th-largest economy in the world. It has the second largest army in NATO, and a rapidly growing population — entrepreneurial, inventive and well-educated — that will overtake Russia’s by mid-century. And it sits in a geopolitically crucial zone, with difficult neighbors and a long border with the highly unstable Arab world. For all those reasons, bringing Turkey back into the Western fold makes enormous sense.

Erdogan envisions a Turkey that remains in NATO (it has been a highly capable and effective military partner from Afghanistan to Libya to the Balkans); achieves some kind of privileged economic relationship with the European Union (full membership is probably a bridge too far); moves Turkey to a more fully Islamic culture with strong religious underpinning; and manages to build pragmatic relationships with nations outside the Western orbit, notably Russia and Iran. 

His recent successful campaign to centralize power in a strong executive presidency has given him the time and internal resources to undertake this ambitious strategic plan. The immediate difficulty will be the obvious collision between his and the Western views on Syria, Iran and above all the Kurdish elements in the region.

Losing Turkey from the trans-Atlantic world would be a geopolitical mistake of near epic proportions. Yet the U.S. and its European allies cannot bend our basic views on geopolitics or, above all, our value systems. To remain a NATO member and have a deepened relationship with the EU, Turkey must adhere to rule of law, avoid corruption, allow a free media and respect human rights. Finding a nuanced relationship that allows the West and Turkey to move forward in an aligned way will be difficult — but not impossible.

In order to optimize the chances of a keeping Turkey onside, we should do four crucial things. 

First, take advantage of openings like Erdogan’s trip to Germany. There are 3 million citizens of Turkish descent in Germany today, and accommodating him in a respectful way — as Chancellor Angela Merkel did during the three-day state visit — makes great sense. If there are economic incentives that can be offered to Turkey — especially in helping it cope with nearly 3 million refugees from Syria — the U.S. should partner with the EU to help.

Second, NATO and EU leaders should get to Turkey more frequently. Not just rare visits by heads of state, but also regular missions at the next level down with cabinet leaders and senior military officers. We should bluntly discuss — in private — our concerns about the movement away from Western values. And we should sincerely listen to Turkish concerns about our support for elements in the Kurdish liberation and statehood movements. But for both sides, we should project a public sense of confidence in Turkey’s place in NATO and alongside the EU and the U.S. in the world.

Third, Washington should continue the (frustrating) dialogue with Ankara to solve the obvious discontinuities in our relationship. At the top of the list is helping reduce tensions surrounding Kurdish militant activity in Syria that is directed against Turkey. The U.S. has influence in the Kurdish community, hard-won by our support in the fight against the Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad. The U.S. also has strong influence in northern Iraq, the heart of the Kurdish community throughout the Middle East. We should do all we can to nudge both sides — Erdogan and the more moderate elements among the Kurds — to a peace settlement. Some years ago, before the disaster of the so-called Arab Spring, the two sides were close. 

Finally, we need to work harder with Turkey on military technology and sales. Its purchase of the S-400 anti-air system from Russia is a serious blow to alliance solidarity and, because it isn’t compatible with NATO systems, will greatly complicate efforts to solidify the overall air defense picture. A more open stance on military sales and cooperative defense manufacturing would help pull Turkey back toward the West. That said, the administration and Congress should carefully weigh the pros and cons of planned sales of the new F-35 fighter jet to Turkey, ensuring decisions about moving forward (or not) are part of a larger strategy.

Let’s hope that Erdogan’s trip to Cologne shows he Turks are at least looking westward for the moment and halting the drift in the other direction over the past five years. America and its partners should meet them at least halfway.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former military commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group.

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