Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Abhorrent Liability

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, May 17, 2022 --  

Finland and Sweden are about to become NATO's cleanest members. Too bad that requires an ugly payoff to its dirtiest.

With Sweden and Finland declaring plans to join the NATO alliance, the military club is enjoying its greatest popularity since the end of Cold War. Gone are the days of dubious peacekeeping operations and petty interventions in obscure territories like Kosovo. Today, nobody doubts why NATO exists: to stand up against brutal Russian aggression.

Russia says it invaded Ukraine because it can't tolerate Kiev joining NATO. While Russia may be struggling to win on most measures, on this one it has already succeeded. There is no way NATO will admit Ukraine so long as it is partly occupied by Russia and a violent conflict continues.

Although Ukraine cannot be in NATO, ample military aid and bountiful sympathetic words make it clear that NATO members strongly support Ukraine. NATO's backing ofUkraine's fledgeling democracy in its David and Goliath battle against authoritarian Russia sets up a clear moral dichotomy. On the one side you have North American and European democracies and on the other side you have authoritarian Russia and its reluctant allies of Belarus and China.

This paints a beautiful picture of good vs. evil. But it was shattered last week by NATO's biggest problem child: Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his opposition to Sweden and Finland joining the alliance because the countries have refused to help Erdoğan represss his internal enemies. We now have the specter of an evil authoritarian leader of a NATO country vetoing the addition of two of Europe's most stellar democracies to the alliance.

To be clear, Erdoğan's beef with Sweden and Finland are morally repulsive. He wants to extradite Kurdish and Turkish residents of the Nordic countries because he accuses them of siding with the Kurdish independence movement (the PKK) and the opposition movement led by Fethullah Gulen (who Erdoğan claims was behind a 2016 coup attempt.). The Nordic countries refuse to do so both because the allegations are dubious and because they know that Erdoğan's enemies cannot get a fair trial in Turkey.

Sweden and Finland are hardly alone in their refusal to send suspects to Turkey -- the United States is home to Fethullah Gulen (Erdoğan's number one enemy) and refuses to extradite him as well. The United States also allied itself with the PKK's Syrian wing known as the YPG during its war on the Islamic State in Syria. If the United States weren't already in NATO, Erdoğan's might try to block it as well.

In the end, it is likely that a compromise will be reached and Sweden and Finland will be allowed in. Perhaps they will cave to the pressure and hand over a few of Erdoğan's enemies for him to torture in a dungeon in Ankara. Or perhaps the United States will agree to sell some fighter jets to help Erdoğan kill more Kurds. However Sweden and Finland are admitted, expect a deal with the devil in Ankara.

All this ugliness begs the question: why is Turkey a member of NATO, anyway? Back during the Cold War, it was a strategic asset on the Soviet Union's southern border, a great place so station bombers and missiles for the expected atomic battle. This strategic importance allowed NATO to quietly ignore its democratic failings -- the regular military coups and internal repression.

Shortly after the Cold War came the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Turkey was a useful counter example of a moderate and (for a brief time anyway) democratic Islamic country.

But those days are gone. Nobody needs Turkey as a base for atom bombs. The Islamo-Fascist movement has collapsed and no longer needs a counter example. Meanwhile, Turkey's brief period of democracy has been wiped away by Erdoğan's ever-increasing Putin-like authoritarianism. Today's Turkey is best known for refusing to stand by its American NATO ally in the wars in Iraq and against the Islamic State because it preferred to focus on slaughtering Kurds.

Turkey has gone from one of NATO's greatest assets to its most abhorrent liability.

No matter how ugly its authoritarianism, there are many practical obstacles to expelling Turkey from NATO. Perhaps the biggest is that it isn't the only authoritarian regime in the alliance. Hungary has similarly moved away from democracy in recent years, and unsurprisingly, has also cuddled up to Vladimir Putin. And Poland's government, while no fan of Putin, also has been widely criticized for backsliding on democracy and human rights. If NATO expels Turkey, must it expel Hungary and Poland as well?

For all the nastiness of these regimes, it may be best for other NATO members to just grin and bear it, biding time for political winds to ultimately replace them. Given that Sweden and Finland are known for good governance and stellar human rights records, their good example will hopefully overshadow whatever ugly Turkish payoff is needed to let them in.

Related Web Columns:

NATO's Wayward Ally, January 30, 2018

Shaky Alliance, August 30, 2016

Neither Loyalty, Nor Morality
The Coming Partition of Turkey
, April 15, 2003