President Trump insisted throughout the presidential campaign (and even after being elected) that NATO was “obsolete”, mainly focusing on the fact that many of our European allies don’t put forward the appropriate proportion of their GDP toward their defense budgets and on the claim that the transatlantic organization doesn’t do enough to combat terrorism (the latter a far less fair criticism than the former, especially given the fact that the only time the group has invoked its Article 5 mutual defense provision was to assist the United States in the wake of the September 11th attacks). President Trump recently abruptly reversed course, now saying that NATO was no longer obsolete. But Donald Trump actually was right about NATO obsolescence, although right for the wrong reasons. It’s not because we no longer need NATO as a bulwark against Russia (we do) and not because NATO is no longer useful in the age of international terrorism (it is), but it is “obsolete” because an increasingly authoritarian Turkey has become an increasingly obsolete member.
When NATO was formed at the dawn of the Cold War, it represented the line of defense between a free Western world and a dictatorial Communist empire. The North Atlantic Treaty, signed in 1949, proclaimed that its signatories “are determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.” In a nationwide referendum on April 16th, 2017 (one fraught with fraud and suppression), Turkey abrogated the very principles espoused in this treaty. Under Turkish President Erdogan’s direction, the nation officially shed the final vestiges of the secular parliamentary democracy envisioned by its founder, Kemal Ataturk, with a majority of its population voting to leave the constitutional republic behind to establish something approaching a constitutional dictatorship in its stead. This is a development we should be mourning, not congratulating. NATO is the alliance that helped bring down the Berlin Wall. Now, one of our NATO allies – whom we are obligated to defend if attacked – is on the precipice of becoming an Islamist dictatorship with regional ambitions. RIP to the Republic of Turkey, 1921-2017. So how did we get here? This tragic occurrence was a long time coming.
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk: Father of a New Secular Nation
Mustafa Kemal Ataturk built the modern state of Turkey out of the ashes of World War One. Born in 1881 in the twilight of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk rose to fame for his adept leadership skills in the First World War, most notably leading the Turks to a major win during the Battle of Gallipoli – but the nation’s wins were few and far between. The Ottoman Empire, which for hundreds of years challenged the West both technologically and militarily, had fallen into utter disarray, and its death knell was its choice of sides in the war – the Allies would shatter the empire and divvy up the Middle East between France and England. But Ataturk would lead the Turkish National Movement in opposition to the European powers, declaring a new Turkish capital in Ankara, turning back the European armies that attempted to re-establish control, and winning the Turkish War of Independence. He would then declare the Ottoman Empire (and its caliphate) officially over with, establishing the Republic of Turkey in its stead. Ataturk would reshape this new Turkey based on his own vision for the nation – a constitution fashioned after European nations, a parliamentary system with both a president and a prime minister, and a strict separation of powers. Ataturk placed a national emphasis on democratic values, secularism, laicism, education, equality, and modernization, all with a pro-Western orientation – intending to separate the new Turkey from the old Ottoman caliphate. After his death, Ataturk’s supporters – called Kemalists – would turn his tomb into a national shrine that would be visited by millions. It was this Turkey – Ataturk’s Turkey – that would join NATO in 1951. It was this Turkey – the one facing West, the one looking to Europe, the one moving toward democracy – that would join the alliance of free peoples. Kemalists would carry on Ataturk’s legacy and would dominate society and government, especially the civil service and the judiciary, for decades. Moreover, the military became the proud bulwark against corruption and Islamism, conducting military coups in 1960, 1971, and 1980 and removing an Islamist government from power as recently as 1997. But throughout the century since the establishment of a secular republic, Kemalists have seen their proportional numbers shrink and their power and influence wane, as an old power emerged anew – that of revanchist authoritarian Islam.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Father of a Throwback Islamist Nation
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born in 1954, less than two decades after the death of the man whose legacy he’d spend a lifetime attempting to undo. He was the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 until 1998 – the year he was thrown in jail for publicly reciting an Islamic poem that contained the following tract: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” He would form the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001, and he would lead it to many victories (his main roadblock would always be reshaping the constitution, which he finally pulled off). He espoused what is now termed as Erdoganism – a mixing of a cult of personality, populist economics, and a call for the return the influence of Islam in society. This is a movement that harkens back not to Ataturk, but to the old glories of the Ottoman Empire. Political Islam has become a greater and greater force over the decades, marching its way through institutions like the small towns and cities, the civil service, the judiciary, and, under Erdogan, even bringing the secular Turkish military largely to heel. Adherents to Islamism have eclipsed Kemalists both in population and in influence. And these modern-day Ottomans no longer look to joining Europe, but rather to leading the Muslim world. During his terms as Prime Minister from 2003 to 2014 and then as President from 2014 until now, Erdogan has established himself as a savvy manipulator willing to do what needs to be done to further his goals of greater power for himself and a more Muslim character for his nation. After a failed coup attempt against him in 2016 (which he blamed on political rival Fethullah Gulen), Erdogan declared a state of emergency (still in effect today) and used that opportunity to destroy swaths of the independent press, to jail opponents, to shut down protests, and to tighten his grip on power. That brings us to the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2017, which totally eliminated the position of prime minister, made the presidency vastly more powerful, severed the final constitutional connections to Ataturk’s republic, and allowed Erdogan to likely set himself up as President-for-Life. The man who President Obama once called one of his favorite world leaders seems to have defeated his long-dead rival, Ataturk. Islamism is ascendant – and Kemalism and secularism and Western values, which have been on the ropes in Turkey, were just given what could be the knockout punch. Erdogan once supposedly said: “Democracy is like a train. We shall get out when we arrive at the station we want.” It seems like Erdogan decided that now is the time to disembark.
For America and NATO: It’s Now Decision Time
Much of the leverage that the West might have once held over Turkey has dissipated. The possibility of EU membership – once dangled over Turkey’s head to encourage them to move toward democratic values – now apparently holds little sway, and although that door has been shut for now, the EU should make sure it doesn’t reopen. Envisioning Turkey as some great bulwark against Russia is much more fantasy than reality since Erdogan has actually gone out of his way to align himself with Putin on an important subject to both of them – a mutual hostility for the EU and the West generally. And Turkey’s battle against ISIS seems less focused on defeating the radical terrorist group than it does on thwarting Kurdish ambitions for a homeland. For all intents and purposes, Turkey is now the Achilles Heel of NATO – its swift movement toward authoritarianism and Islamism is totally antithetical to the most basic ideals of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law laid out in the very text of the treaty itself. And, in allowing Erdogan to denigrate these ideals, NATO participates in their cheapening.
The following questions thus arise: Why should America consider any of this to be acceptable behavior from an erstwhile ally? Why should nearly half of a 75 million-person nation languish under an authoritarianism they abhor? Why should we stand by as Erdogan deconstructs a beautiful and proud nation? And why should one single American life be promised to come to the mutual defense of a thug like Erdogan and the anti-Western regime he has fashioned for himself? The “Yes, that’s all true, but we need them!” excuses have been out in full force for over a decade and have given Erdogan the space he needed to carry out his coup against Ataturk’s vision and against the Turkish people. Eight years of an Obama presidency watched Erdogan transform himself from head-faking reformer to wannabe caliph, and our new President needs to recognize what is happening. The biggest negotiating tool that we hold with Turkey is their membership in NATO. Of course, America currently works with a number of different fairly unsavory allies – the Gulf States come to mind – but membership in NATO is different. It confers a level of legitimacy that Erdogan has demonstrated he no longer deserves. Membership in NATO is a right, not a privilege, and carries with it responsibilities that Erdogan has shrugged off with the understanding that we would just let him. It’s high time that America stood up for the good people of Turkey and stood up against this second-rate sultan. To even consider ejecting Turkey from NATO is complicated, without precedent, fraught with peril, perhaps impossible – and is also probably the right move if Erdogan continues down this path. If we hadn’t so blinded ourselves to the reality that seems to have now arrived, this is the conversation that America and her allies could have had a decade ago. But it’s always better late than never. Unless, of course, it’s already too late.