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Middle East

Turkey's Troubled NATO Status

Erdogan's nation faces a growing number of conflicts within the military bloc

The heated campaign for the April 16 Turkish referendum, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes will deliver him powers verging on the dictatorial, has created a diplomatic crisis between Turkey and some of its key North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies. Relations with the Netherlands are all but broken off, Germany is struggling to remain civil under a barrage of Erdogan insults, and Denmark is siding with its north European neighbors.

Add to this Turkey's differences with the U.S. and the perennial tension between Turkey and Greece, and it's no longer clear how much of a NATO member Erdogan's country really is. Despite its considerable military strength, Turkey's participation in alliance activities isn't extensive, and its interests don't necessarily align with those of NATO.

A lot of northern Europe's resistance to pro-Erdogan campaign rallies on their soil has to do with domestic politics. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte faces a strong nationalist, anti-immigration challenge in an election on Wednesday; keeping out Turkish ministers who want to agitate the diaspora in Dutch cities helps him score political points. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's popularity suffered from her perceived softness on immigration; she could do without raucous Turkish rallies in Germany prior to her September vote. Merkel hasn't acted as harshly as Rutte, but she's let municipalities cancel the rallies on any pretext they can find. In Denmark, no major election is coming, but the government has asked Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim to postpone a visit: It wouldn't look good to welcome him after Erdogan likened the German and Dutch governments to Nazis.

Erdogan himself is playing both to his domestic audience -- his backers like his feisty willingness to take on all comers -- and to the European diaspora, which often feels that local governments aren't doing enough to prevent its treatment as second-class citizens.

That doesn't mean, however, that once all the elections and referendums are over, a bitter aftertaste won't remain. U.S.-Turkish relations haven't quite recovered since Erdogan unleashed similarly strong rhetoric against the U.S. last year, accusing it of being behind the failed plot to remove him, and Secretary of State John Kerry came close to threatening Turkey with the loss of its NATO membership. That membership, though, doesn't appear to be particularly meaningful at present.

In Syria, the world's biggest war theater today, Turkey acts as an independent player and sometime rival to the U.S. That became evident last year, when Turkey and Russia became co-brokers of a ceasefire and a peace process that excluded the U.S. This year, the U.S. and Russia found themselves unlikely situational allies against Turkey near the Syrian town of Manbij, preventing a Turkish push against Kurdish forces called terrorists by Erdogan's government but considered useful allies against the Islamic State by both America and Russia. There's no sign of a U.S.-Turkish joint strategy, and any U.S. move to help the Kurds will be seen as a betrayal in the charged post-coup atmosphere of Ankara.

Cyprus is another tension point within NATO. Turkey is refusing to withdraw its troops from occupied Northern Cyprus and thus hindering the latest talks on unifying the island. This worsens a historically rocky relationship with Greece, which has led to something of an arms race between the two NATO members.

All in all, Turkey appears to have more disputes than friendships with its NATO allies. And its engagement with the alliance itself, which it joined in 1952, isn't particularly strong.

According to the just-released NATO annual report for 2016, Turkey only took part in four of the 18 key NATO exercises held last year. Despite having the fourth-strongest military in the bloc (after the U.S., France and the U.K. but ahead of Germany) and the second-highest number of military personnel (after the U.S.), its involvement in NATO's deployments is small, amounting to just 4 percent of the personnel in the mission to train the Afghan security forces, and 7 percent of the Kosovo force.

Besides, despite repeated calls on NATO members to abide by a commitment to spend 2 percent of economic output on defense, which have only grown louder since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, Turkey has been moving in the opposite direction. Its military spending exceeded 2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 but has been slipping since, just as other NATO members have increased their outlays:

Erdogan's post-coup purges have hurt Turkey's status within NATO. Some Turkish officers attached to the NATO headquarters in Brussels even asked for asylum, and others were abruptly dismissed from the military. Alliance ties were weakened, and that's what some radicals within Erdogan's AK party want. Earlier this year, Samil Tayyar, an AK legislator, called NATO a "terror organization" that "threatens Turkey." He accused the alliance and its members of being behind all Turkish coups since 1960 and called for Turkey to leave it.

Erdogan himself has never suggested going that far. His brinkmanship is designed to retain the benefits of formal NATO membership without taking on too many commitments. The U.S. and its top European allies tolerate that because a Turkish departure would, in effect, put the Black Sea and the Balkans officially in play as parts of the world where Russia and Turkey can openly vie for influence. The West would also lose a key Middle Eastern foothold. 

In reality, however, Erdogan is nobody's long-term ally. He's a populist, mostly interested in consolidating domestic power for the long term, and his country's strategic importance to everyone -- Europeans, Americans, Russians, Arabs -- gives him a sense of impunity. Turkey is only bound by treaties so long as they don't force Erdogan to do anything he doesn't like. And the referendum, if Erdogan wins it, will only strengthen that position.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.