Elisabeth BrawSenior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies
When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, they did so based on NATO members’ assumption that the two countries’ membership of the alliance would pacify their behavior toward each other.
China was invited to join the World Trade Organization in 2001 on the same premise.
But as every relationship counselor tells quarreling couples, you can’t change someone’s personality. Thus, NATO finds itself with two member states that are officially allies, but whose suspicion of each other is never far from the surface. How to broker between two members without taking sides? NATO seems paralyzed.
But in reality, it’s not. Sure, two quarreling member states will affect an alliance, but NATO is still going strong on its main mission: defending the territorial integrity of its member states against sundry territorial threats from other countries and nonstate actors.
Here, one could in fact wish for more participation from Greece and Turkey. According to NATO’s latest Enhanced Forward Presence figures, for example, neither country contributes to the protection of the Baltic states and Poland. Solidarity goes both ways.
François HeisbourgSenior Adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
NATO’s purpose as an organization is to ensure the collective defense of its members on the basis of its founding Washington Treaty. It was never designed to adjudicate disputes between its members. It should therefore not come as a surprise that NATO is paralyzed over the current Greece-Turkey conflict.
Similarly, in 1974, when Greece and Turkey were on the cusp of war over Cyprus, it wasn’t NATO as such which prevented hostilities but the involvement of its most powerful member, the United States of America. At the time, the United States leaned heavily on the contenders to avoid direct confrontation and basically imposed a ceasefire on Turkish forces operating in Cyprus.
In 2020, the United States has adopted a much lower profile and is operating without a clear sense of direction. This applies both to the Greek-Turkish nexus and to the broader multifaceted crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean, which involves numerous local and external players.
What we are witnessing is a regional example of what happens in a multipolar world in the absence of firm U.S. leadership. Nor is this merely a passing moment linked to the caprice of U.S. President Donald Trump: former U.S. president Barack Obama’s refusal to abide by his own red lines in Syria in August 2013 was arguably the defining moment.
Ben HodgesPershing Chair at the Center for European Policy Analysis
It is imperative that this crisis is resolved. Only the Kremlin benefits from two NATO allies confronting each other in this way.
Certainly, there are legitimate arguments and claims on both sides that must be addressed. Unfortunately, France has chosen sides. Germany must lead this diplomatic effort—as a leader in the EU and in NATO—with strong, clear, and unbiased American support.
Part of the problem is that NATO and the West continue to fail to appreciate the strategic importance of the Black Sea and thus the vital importance of strengthening and maintaining the relationship with Turkey as an ally and economic partner.
I don’t excuse several of Turkey’s bad decisions—for example the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems—or its lack of enthusiasm in pressing the Kremlin on its illegal annexation of Crimea or violations of the Montreux Convention with its submarines. But we do need to reframe the relationship with Turkey—call it TUR-USA 2.0—think beyond the current presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and rebuild trust with our Turkish allies.
More attention by NATO and the United States to this part of Europe and more understanding for the challenges that immigrants and Russian malign influence pose to Turkey and Greece will be key. For this, German leadership is essential.
Julian Lindley-FrenchChairman and Founder of The Alphen Group
Pretty much! Two factors: history and cohesion.
When Greece and Turkey joined NATO in 1952, it was to ensure neither fell under Soviet influence and to stop them fighting each other. In spite of moments when all-out war seemed imminent—for example when Turkey invaded Cyprus in 1974—that strategy worked. And so long as Turkey was inclined to believe it would one day be offered EU membership, Ankara sought accommodations with Athens. No more.
Turkey’s exploration of the Aegean Sea for hydrocarbons threatens to provoke not only Greece but also France. This demonstrates the limits of the alliance as a moderator of strategic national interests.
“Cohesion”? NATO’s political bureaucracy is obsessed with it. The result is an alliance fast becoming trapped by the lowest common denominator at the cost of the necessary. If a state disagrees with anything—innovation, adaptation, or other—NATO cannot touch it. This makes it relatively easy for semi-detached allies such as Turkey or self-obsessed allies such as Greece to seek a form of “rent” from NATO for compliance.
One could imagine a future NATO communique: “The loss of the Baltic states is regrettable. However, the cohesion of the alliance was maintained.” Wither NATO?
Eleni PanagiotareaResearch Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy
NATO is paralyzed by its lack of leadership, not by “the Greece-Turkey conflict,” which is being engineered by an increasingly disruptive and antagonistic Turkey bent on wreaking havoc by disputing maritime boundaries and drilling permits.
While hailed as a strategically important NATO member, Turkey is systematically trying to write a new rulebook, openly flouting the very rules that it is supposed to adhere by.
The purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, for one, was a major breach of NATO air defense rules, yet duly tolerated on the ground. Obviously, toleration breeds (further) unilateralism and invites aggression.
Granted, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has a difficult task. NATO operates by consensus, with well-documented power asymmetries among the thirty-nation alliance.
Under Erdoğan, however, Turkey exports domestic authoritarianism and blatant disregard for the rule of law to the international stage. In the process, it is undermining NATO’s collective defense and liberal values.
The more Stoltenberg maintains a facade of neutrality and hides NATO’s current inability to broker a resolute stance and move beyond the “hands-off approach” denounced by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis or—worse—outsources management altogether to the powers that be, the more he is doing a disservice to the organization he is meant to serve.
To avoid a potential “accident,” paralysis must now give way to generating a pragmatic and credible framework of de-escalation, potentially by exploiting Turkey’s deteriorating economic situation.
Marc PieriniVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
Despite official claims to the contrary and intensive positive communication by the Turkish military, NATO policies had already been hampered by Ankara’s 2019 decision to deploy Russian-made S-400 missiles, which had a direct negative effect on Europe’s missile defense architecture.
The conflict with Greece on maritime boundaries is not new. It predates the current era of Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party. It’s rather the language and methods used around the issue that has shocked NATO and EU circles: establishing new boundaries through an outlandish legal arrangement with the Tripoli-based Libyan Government of National Accord; unilaterally declaring that vast areas are now Turkey’s own; sending large numbers of navy vessels to escort gas exploration and drilling rigs or to push back other navies and air force; and using a fiercely nationalist narrative.
This aggressive policy, albeit being based on substantive claims, has created a distinct malaise within NATO. At the same time, Turkey is keen on carrying on with joint exercises and operations with other NATO fleets, at the price of an unsustainable bipolarity. At the time of writing, brinkmanship seems to be Ankara’s preferred choice, carrying the risk of incidents in the high seas—with one having already occurred.
For the time being, the issue is not negotiation, it is rather how to stop Turkey’s string of disruptive moves and show that unilateral and forceful moves are not the way to go.
Jamie SheaProfessor of Strategy and Security at the University of Exeter
No. NATO’s day-to-day business—such as consultations, exercises and operations—are all proceeding as normal.
Moreover, NATO has a long history of handling Greek-Turkish disputes in the Aegean, whether over territorial claims, airspace infringements, naval exercises, and recently the monitoring of illegal migration from Turkey to Greece.
NATO secretary generals have long been seen mediating these disputes and coming up with imaginative NATO solutions—such as the common Recognized Air Picture over the Aegean or the Military Committee’s recent arbitration of an incident between a French and two Turkish ships—as part of their job description. So, expect plenty of vigorous diplomacy to be going on behind the scenes.
It is precisely Turkey’s membership of NATO that provides a framework for Greek-Turkish disputes to be managed. If Turkey leaves NATO, it will lose its leverage over the West, particularly for when it comes to receiving support for its many regional security problems.
Yet Turkey is too important to be isolated. So as so often in the past, the major allies, especially the United States and Germany, need to get behind Stoltenberg and bring Athens and Ankara to the negotiating table—as Turkey has proposed.
Eventually, a solution giving all sides equitable access to the oil and gas reserves of the Eastern Mediterranean will need to be found—in exchange for renouncing provocative military activity. But let’s see NATO as key to the solution here rather than as the hapless victim.
Sinan ÜlgenVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
NATO could indeed have a role in the conflict mitigation related to the Eastern Mediterranean.
First, NATO could leverage its unique position as a political platform that includes the main sides of the dispute as its members. Also, given the potentially disastrous consequences for the integrity of the alliance of a potential military escalation of the conflict, NATO should in fact prioritize this capability.
There is a role for Stoltenberg as a trusted facilitator. But the issue could also be brought to the agenda of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal decisionmaking body, to allow for a mature exchange of views between Turkey, Greece, and France.
Second, NATO could be more active in the establishment and oversight of technical deconfliction measures in the Eastern Mediterranean. A case in point is the recent naval incident between a Turkish and a Greek frigate. NATO could take the lead in establishing the mechanisms that would prevent the repeat of these types of accidents which could lead to a dangerous and unwanted escalation.
Anna WieslanderDirector for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council
No, NATO is not paralyzed. Having both Greece and Turkey as members creates opportunities to help de-escalate the crisis. As of now, processes within the alliance are working without any party blocking them.
NATO has long-standing deconfliction arrangements—used at several occasions before—which have been reactivated to settle issues such as minimum distances between aircrafts and ships, and so-called hotlines at various levels.
The alliance also functions as a platform for Greece and Turkey to talk to each other, explain positions, and exchange information. With the EU ramping up its measures against Turkey, NATO plays a pretty extensive role in this regard.
By fostering responsible behavior between Greece and Turkey in the military sphere, NATO aims at creating the space for diplomatic efforts to succeed. The fact that neither ally is blocking anything is a promising sign of will to solve the conflict by diplomatic means.
Still, Germany, which is designated to lead the diplomatic efforts, has to navigate an environment characterized by high tensions with France and by a United States that does not push the way it used to. Several of the political and economic issues underlying the conflict are beyond NATO’s mandate.
In sum, what NATO provides is necessary but not sufficient to resolve this crisis.