Is it time to consider yanking Turkey's NATO membership?

The latest attempt to secure the release of American Pastor Andrew Brunson through normal court procedures has failed. (Though to their credit, the Turks did release the Amnesty International representative and two Greek soldiers they’ve been holding hostage.) An escalating series of sanctions and tariffs between our two nations continue to ratchet up. To date, none of this has been effective and Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains defiant. Is there anything that can be done?

Surprisingly, the WaPo editorial board recently came out mostly in support of President Trump’s handling of the situation. They temper that support by suggesting that increased sanctions should not be applied to the entire country, but to individual people in the upper ranks of Erdogan’s regime, similar to what we’ve done with some of the wealthy kleptocrats in Russia. That really seems to be quibbling over crumbs rather than tackling the larger questions.

Turkey has gone from being one of the more promising democracies in the Muslim world only a couple of decades ago to something indistinguishable from any other totalitarian state today. Democratic principles have been erased and to call the Turks unreliable allies at this point is a tragic understatement. More severe measures may be required, and there have been renewed suggestions that perhaps it’s time to expel Turkey from NATO.

This isn’t the first time the idea has been proposed. There were officials suggesting this drastic course of action back in July of 2016, shortly after the failed coup attempt. Nothing came of it then and, despite how satisfying such a course of action might be, it’s unlikely that anything will come of it now. It’s true that if Turkey were applying for membership in the treaty organization today their application would be rejected immediately. We need look no further than the first qualification listed in NATO’s Membership Action Plan (MAP). It states that NATO “requires candidates to have stable democratic systems, pursue the peaceful settlement of territorial and ethnic disputes, have good relations with their neighbours, show commitment to the rule of law and human rights, establish democratic and civilian control of their armed forces, and have a market economy.”

While there was a time when Turkey was a promising nation which met most of those criteria, they would fail virtually every one of those tests today, with the possible exception of having a market economy. (And even that is collapsing at the moment.) Erdogan continues to spit in the faces of his supposed allies while becoming increasingly close to the leaders of Russia, Iran, Venezuela and other totalitarian states. There’s obviously a clear argument for removing Turkey from the alliance.

But that prospect presents a couple of serious challenges. When NATO was originally formed, there was no procedure established in their rules for removing a member nation. The original members never imagined a situation where any of them would need to be removed. Various theories have been floated, such as suggesting that a unanimous vote by the rest of the members could expel Turkey, but it’s not clear how that would work. More radical suggestions include having everyone else in NATO withdraw voluntarily (and there is a provision for withdrawal) and then form a new alliance without them.

So it’s probably not technically impossible, but would we really want to do it? Turkey’s geographic position is critical in a number of ways, not least of which is the fact that they are the southern “gateway” to NATO territory. The alliance would have a much larger southern border to defend without them. Also, they have the most formidable military (besides the United States) in the alliance. As far as European military resources go, NATO would be left relying on Germany (whose military is seriously broken at the moment), France and Britain. Most of the rest of the member nations are comparatively defenseless.

In the end, Erdogan as a NATO member is probably less dangerous than as an incensed enemy who has been kicked out. It’s the old saying about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Aside from sanctions on high-ranking Turkish officials and more pressure on trade with the rest of our allies, it’s unclear how much more leverage we can create with Turkey.