Acting US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper (right) greets Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar prior to a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 26.
Following the European media on Turkey, it becomes obvious that many implement a day-to-day analysis, while what is truly required is for them to understand the reasons why Turkey behaves like a bull in a china shop.
Turkey has been a revisionist state since the early days of the republic, immediately after Kemal Ataturk’s death, and this was emphatically evident in the case of the Sanjak of Alexandretta. This revisionism derives mainly from the narcissistic conviction that Turkey must be treated as a great power and not as a regional player.
Thus, Ankara considers the Eastern Mediterranean as a “Mare Nostrum,” it wants to have a plausible say in developments in the Balkans, and lately it has felt the need to expand its influence in the Xinjiang region of Central Asia and in the Middle East and North Africa region too. The end of the Cold War and the emergence of a multipolar international system presented Turkey with the momentum to openly express that yearning for a lot more than what the Lausanne Treaty or a place in NATO could offer its status.
The only difference that has appeared in Turkish revisionism over the last few decades is a qualitative one. In 2001, through his “Strategic Depth” analysis, Ahmet Davutoglu spoke about the need to sharpen Turkey’s soft power in order to ascend the international ladder of power without provoking security dilemmas.
Nowadays, Ankara relies on intimidating shows of hard power and an inordinate diplomatic multilateralism that goes far beyond the customary behavior of a NATO member. As a matter of fact, in the last few years Washington has been getting a taste of Turkish revisionism in the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly by watching valuable allies such as Israel and Greece dealing with continuous Turkish military provocations, while American officials get a taste of Ankara’s unreliability and unpredictability with the latter behaving like a free rider instead of a part of the Western network.
For a long time, Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave NATO allies – but not Greece – the impression that Turkey could be a part of the liberal democratic tradition of the Western world without actually being either liberal or democratic. But now, with Turkey flirting openly with Russia and Iran, it has become obvious that just as you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, you can’t persuade a revisionist state to behave like a status quo one.
On top of its standoff with Washington over the Russian S-400 defense system and concerns over a serious incident in the Aegean Sea due to Turkey’s excessive activity that could lead to a violent collision with Greece, or a new provocation against Israel, Turkey has been continuously undermining the delicate equilibrium in the Eastern Mediterranean.
In order to prevent all this from undermining regional peace and security, NATO must further support the trilateral alliances in the Eastern Mediterranean between Athens, Jerusalem and Nicosia and Athens, Cairo and Nicosia, enabling them to function as elements of smart deterrence against Turkish revisionism.
The only way for Turkey to abandon its provocative attitude in the Eastern Mediterranean is for it to make a conscious decision regarding its future: to be a part of the Western world or trapped in Erdogan’s boastful orientalism. If the West wants Turkey to choose the first – and to be frank this would be the best for our own geostrategic interests – it is vital that Ankara starts sensing that it is not going to be excused for everything by its allies and is not going to be offered unconditional diplomatic congeniality in perpetuity. A red line must be drawn by NATO and it has to be visible both to Ankara and other regional actors too.
Spyros Litsas, PhD is associate professor of international relations at the University of Macedonia and visiting professor at the University of Grenoble’s Institute of Political Studies.