Beyond NATO: The True Costs of a Greco-Turkish War

Beyond NATO: The True Costs of a Greco-Turkish War

The looming confrontation between Turkey and Greece drives home the need for NATO to regain its bearings and focus on fundamentals. 

A Longer Perspective 

These trends in part reflect the relative decline of American power. Heretofore, the United States has been able to treat NATO as if it were the board of directors of a limited liability company wherein one’s contributions were proportional to one’s influence. Now, ever-greater American arm-twisting is needed to move the alliance in a given direction, while its most powerful members, feeling least in need of the alliance’s protection, feel at liberty to chart their own course when the alliance does not meet their immediate needs. Such is the case with Turkey offering its good offices to broker agreements regarding grain shipments from embattled Ukraine, and even an abortive effort to negotiate an end to the conflict. In other words, the United States can expect more demonstrations of defiance within NATO as its fissures, left latent under the nimbus of two superpowers, become explicit as power relationships across Eurasia begin to shift. 

A Russo-Turkish axis is unlikely to last. They may be tactical allies, but it is difficult to envisage Moscow and Ankara as strategic allies. They are historic foes in the Caucasus, most recently expressed in a massive victory for Turkish arms over Russian ally Armenia in late 2020 (a situation in which Russia was humiliated). A similar pattern was repeated in the early weeks of the Ukrainian conflict. Thus, inherent geopolitical tensions will likely overcome any temporary affinity between the two authoritarian leaders over time. By the same token, Turkey, whatever headaches it may provide American leaders in the region, remains a natural rival of Iran and thus a potential counterweight to Iranian influence in the contest, particularly regarding greater Syria. Even if Turkey is no longer a treaty ally of the United States, this does not mean that the geopolitical basis for their alignment will have simply evaporated.  

A good example is in the nineteenth century, when Britain, a liberal sea power and sympathetic to independence movements throughout the Balkans, nevertheless understood the geopolitical threat posed by Russian expansion at the expense of the decaying Ottoman Empire. Thus, however iniquitous they believed it to be, British leaders concluded that a relatively intact Turkish empire was vital to holding back a Russian drive toward the straits, and ultimately the Middle East. Liberalism was forced to compromise given the geopolitical realities. Britain’s defense of Turkey did not imply any degree of ideological approbation or compatibility of domestic institutions, nor did it require an alliance—the arrangement was pragmatic and conditional. The United States will be obliged to make similar calculations moving forward, wherein Turkey is neither entirely adversarial nor an ally, but something in between.

Brandon Patterson is a national security professional and recent graduate of the University of California, San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He is a military analyst with a focus on risk consulting.

Dino Bozonelos, Ph.D. is a lecturer in the Departments of Political Science and Global Studies at California State University, San Marcos, and in the Department of International Business at Kedge Business School. His research interests mainly revolve around global issues, including geopolitics, religion and politics, and comparative political economy.

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