The symbolism of NATO’s first Muslim-majority nation is crucial in and of itself. In many regions, Turkish soldiers face considerably less hostility and opposition than forces from other countries. Turkish businesses, hospitals, and schools dot the Afghan landscape and are only set to grow through more public-private partnerships. And the largely untapped potential of Turkish private enterprise has yet to be leveraged on the scale of Ankara’s impressive campaign in Somalia.
Eliminating redundancies is a key priority for NATO, but the fact that Turkey’s European Union accession has stalled has directly affected attempts to integrate NATO and European Common Defense and Security commands. By thinking creatively about Turkey’s new role, Western policymakers can further strengthen the transatlantic community through Ankara’s newfound activism and ambitions. This may require recasting Turkey’s growing regional aspirations in a transatlantic context rather than as Turkish nationalism or “neo-Ottomanism.”
As individual militaries have formed the bedrock of the transatlantic military alliance, recognizing the extraordinary efforts of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) on behalf of NATO would also go a long way to reviving that institution and its domestic constituency. The TAF has always promoted itself as a defender of the West in Turkey and a guardian of the country’s secular values. But ongoing trials against generals and continued tensions within Turkish society over the military’s historical role mean that the TAF is now a spent political force. Yet it still has an important role to play, both domestically and internationally. By working with NATO pragmatically to transform itself into a modern 21 st century professional peacetime securityproducing institution, the TAF is in an excellent position to reclaim much of its popularity and support in Turkey. By redefining its role, NATO can help TAF alleviate the polarization in today’s Turkish politics, to the benefit all parties involved.
As the Middle East’s largest and Europe’s fastest-growing economy, Turkey is uniquely situated to play a decisive role in the future evolution of NATO. At a time when Western leadership is being questioned, encouraging Turkey’s emergence as a responsible transatlantic partner in regional stability has never been more necessary.
Joshua W. Walker is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.