Turkey Tests What NATO Stands For | Opinion

When Washington, D.C., hosts the 2024 NATO Summit this week, member Turkey will attend with a lot of anti-democratic baggage, which last week was called out by 142 members of Congress.

Among the 32 member states of NATO, Turkey is the only one classified by democracy watchdog Freedom House as “not free.” The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2023 democracy index listed Turkey as 102nd in the world. Norway was first, Canada 13th, and the United States 29th. No other NATO member state is anywhere close to Turkey’s poor ranking.

NATO was formed to provide collective security to Western democracies against the communist, totalitarian regime of the Soviet Union. At its founding, the United States, Canada, and Western European countries declared they were determined to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.”

It is alarming that NATO—celebrating its 75th anniversary this year—now recognizes a need for an internal effort to preserve and protect the democracies of its own members. There is a proposal to form a Centre for Democratic Resilience within NATO because, as Representative Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said, “Democracy, while resilient, is also fragile. It must be constantly strengthened and protected against attempts to undermine it from within or from without.”

The NATO flag flutters in the wind.


Although NATO members have had a fluctuating—though generally improving—relationship with democracy over the years, the power-grabbing practices of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the two-decade authoritarian downslide of his regime could be a major reason behind this effort.

Turkey has been a NATO ally since the first expansion of the bloc in 1952. It sits in a strategic location between Europe and the Middle East, and it is the second-biggest country—and second-biggest military—in NATO.

But these desirable traits come at a significant cost—the constant suffering of Turkish citizens produced by an autocracy-inclined leader who has his hand on all levers of power, his thumb in the eye of democracy, and his foot on the neck of human rights.

Erdogan has perfected an “autocrat’s playbook” that includes appealing to populism and nationalism, extending executive power, covert election manipulation, exerting control over big capital, strangling independent news media, filling the judiciary with loyalists, and abusing states of emergency while maintaining a democratic façade through sham elections.

With no domestic brake on this behavior, it takes the international community—through sanctions, shaming, or other mechanisms—to push Erdogan’s government to fulfill Turkey’s signed international commitments to protect human rights and freedoms.

A European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision last year did that, exposing Turkey’s silencing of dissidents behind the veil of a politically manipulated judiciary. The court ruled that the Turkish government’s prosecution of Yuksel Yalcinkaya, a Turkish citizen and former teacher, violated three fundamental guarantees from the European Convention on Human Rights—the right to a fair trial, no punishment without law, and freedom of assembly and association.

Yalcinkaya was incarcerated not based on any evidence of crime but for his affiliation with Hizmet, a faith-inspired civil society movement that promotes interfaith dialogue and tolerance, education, and humanitarian aid.

Turkey’s punishment of Hizmet stems from Fethullah Gulen, the movement’s originator, refusing to pledge unconditional allegiance to Erdogan. Erdogan tried to pin a mysterious 2016 coup attempt on Gulen, failing to convince any Western governments of his complicity. Then, despite Gulen’s emphatic rejection of Erdogan’s charges, Erdogan turned to persecuting Hizmet participants—suspending, arresting, or jailing hundreds of thousands of them. The Turkish government has seized assets worth over $11 billion from more than a thousand privately owned companies.

The ECHR said that more than 100,000 convictions could be illegal based on the same grounds. Naturally, Turkey reacted poorly, with the justice minister questioning its jurisdiction despite Turkey being party to the court. Erdogan angrily called the decision “the straw that broke the camel’s back” on seeking European Union (EU) membership.

Change will take more than one court case, though, and NATO and its members have an opportunity to send a strong, simple messages to Erdogan this year—Stop persecuting innocent citizens on made-up charges. Stop using hate speech against civil society groups. Stop transnational repression, including kidnapping people outside your borders. Live up to the democratic ideals of NATO’s alliance to continue as a respected member.

NATO and its members must get over Erdogan’s back-pedaling, political maneuvers, and threats. His delayed approval of Sweden’s entry into the alliance is the most recent illustration of his Machiavellian mindset. His purchase of Russian S400 missiles is a clear indication that he does not care about congruence within the alliance.

Fixing Turkey’s enormous democratic deficit is no less important for NATO than protecting it against an external aggressor. If NATO is not protecting democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law in countries like Turkey, then it simply is protecting an authoritarian regime that is no different from the very threat NATO was initially formed to fight.

Alp Aslandogan is the executive director of the Alliance for Shared Values, an American nonprofit organization that serves as a unifying voice for cultural, civic, and service organizations associated with the Hizmet social movement in the United States.

The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.