NATO Needs a Suspension Mechanism

Turkey’s recent decision to block the ascension of Sweden and Finland into NATO should not be surprising. Over the last several years, President Erdogan has grown increasingly bold in his pursuit of strategic autonomy. While most NATO members reliably align their foreign policies with those of their alliance partners, Erdogan has regularly pitted himself against the alliance, often with Russia, in order to extract concessions from NATO partners. In addition to Turkey’s strategic drift from NATO, it is also drifting ideologically. Turkey, once thought to be the emerging model for democracy in the Middle East, has cemented its status as an authoritarian state with an abysmal human rights record. While there is much bemoaning on the part of NATO, threats of retaliation carry little weight due to the lack of a formal suspension mechanism within NATO’s charter. The lack of such a mechanism strongly incentivizes Turkey to maintain its autonomy, as Erdogan can exploit NATO allies and consolidate domestic power without risking Turkey’s membership in the alliance. Now more than ever, it is clear that NATO needs to create a suspension mechanism to disincentivize Erdogan’s pursuit of strategic and ideological autonomy.

Turkey’s pivot towards strategic autonomy began with the conclusion of the Cold War, though it gained steam after the 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan’s regime. While the U.S. remained largely silent, Putin called Erdogan and offered his unconditional support. Thus began an era of pragmatic cooperation between the two men. In 2017, as a major rebuke to the West, Turkey inked a deal with the Kremlin to purchase Russian S-400 SAM systems. The move was especially antagonistic considering that the operation by Turkey of the S-400s could have potentially compromised the highly sensitive F-35 program of which it was a part. Then, in 2021, Turkey began signaling its interest in buying Russian-made fighter jets. And of course, most recently, Erdogan single-handedly blocked the ascension of Finland and Sweden into NATO.

In each of these examples, Erdogan aligned himself against NATO for the purpose of extracting concessions. In the case of pursuing Russian military hardware, Erdogan sought to convince the U.S. to reconsider its decision not to sell Patriot SAM systems and F-16s to Turkey. In the case of NATO enlargement, Erdogan dropped Turkey’s veto in exchange for commitments from Finland and Sweden to extradite Kurdish nationals, designate Kurdish entities as terrorist organizations, and drop their arms embargoes against Turkey. 

In the case of Turkey’s human rights abuses, the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks it as the 6th worst jailer of journalists in the world. Freedom House, which rates nations according to their protection of civil rights and liberties, awarded Turkey a score of 32, putting it in the company of states like Iraq and Algeria. Perhaps the starkest example of this reality can be seen in Turkey’s treatment of religious minorities. The long-beleaguered Ecumenical Patriarchate faces extinction in the face of Turkish lawfare. Additionally, missionaries are being deported at an alarming rate and Erdogan shows no sign of halting his campaign to convert ancient churches into functioning mosques.

In 2019, Dr. Aurel Sari, Director of the Exeter Centre for International Law, wrote an article for Just Security arguing that Turkey’s behavior could be considered a “material breach” under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, thus entitling the North Atlantic Council to suspend Turkey by unanimous consent. In a more recent article published by the Wall Street Journal, former Senator Joe Lieberman and Ambassador Mark Wallace assert that one means of creating a suspension mechanism would be to amend and expand upon Article 13 of the NATO charter, which affirms the right of member states to withdraw from the alliance. The exact methodology of formally recognizing or adding such a mechanism will require a very nuanced understanding of international law and, therefore, falls outside of the scope of this article. 

Of course, there are those who fear that the creation of such a mechanism may have the unintended consequence of driving Turkey out of the alliance rather than altering its behavior. To be fair, that is a possibility. It is conceivable that Turkey would prefer to remove itself from the alliance rather than alter its behavior or face the humiliating threat of suspension. However, such a move would only serve as further confirmation of Turkey’s predatory ambitions within the alliance. If Turkey left NATO because it realized that it could no longer extort other members, then it would probably be for the best. While Turkey’s geostrategic position is undeniably important, we must also be honest in evaluating its intentions. 

What is clear is that Turkish behavior has grown increasingly audacious over recent years. So long as NATO lacks an effective means to revoke Turkey’s membership, Erdogan will continue to extort his alliance partners and move Turkey deeper into authoritarianism. For those who wish to appease Turkey out of fear of pushing it out of the alliance, it is essential to remember that appeasement is an incentivizing force behind Turkey’s pursuit of strategic autonomy and extortion. If NATO wants to reign its wayward ally back in, it is time to change Turkey’s calculus.