For most of its 60 years as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Turkey has been content with a supporting role. But now, with Ankara feeling increasingly confident, Turkish authorities are flexing their diplomatic and economic muscles within the Atlantic Alliance.
Turkey’s bid for greater heft can be seen in its objection to an invitation for two senior European Union officials to NATO’s May 20-21 summit in Chicago. Like all NATO members, Turkey has veto power over the guest list for the military alliance’s meetings. Ankara’s frustration with what it perceives as double-dealing by the European Union with NATO prompted it to push back against Chicago summit invites for José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the EU’s senior policy body, and for Herman van Rompoy, president of the European Council, a club of the 27 EU chiefs-of-state.
"Many countries, including Turkey, have questions and wonder why the two EU chiefs are invited, while the NATO Secretary General [Anders Fogh Rasmussen] is not invited to EU summits," Turkish Foreign Ministry spokesperson Selcuk Unal told EurasiaNet.org.
Weeks of feverish diplomatic efforts by both EU and NATO officials to assuage Turkish concerns finally bore fruit during the past few days. A NATO diplomatic source, who asked not to be named, told EurasiaNet.org that "all sides are happy" now.
Details of the arrangement, have not been announced, and it is unclear whether the EU officials will attend the entire summit. The source said that the EU officials will “definitely attend meetings on Afghanistan,” but noted that their attendance at these gatherings “was never in dispute.”
Considering Turkey’s longstanding goal of joining the European Union, Ankara's objection to the attendance of two top EU officials at the NATO summit has raised some diplomatic eyebrows.
Turkey’s enthusiasm for EU membership – it started the process in 1959 with the European Economic Community – has been steadily eroding in recent years as its own prominence in international affairs has increased. The ongoing euro crisis and objections within the Union to Turkey’s membership – reasons range from its size and predominantly Muslim identity to its support for disputed North Cyprus – have had a dissuasive influence.
That impasse is seen as the underlying factor behind Ankara's decision to play diplomatic hardball over the NATO summit. "It is an indication of how much frustration, disillusionment, and, even now, antagonism have built up over Turkey's accession process," commented Sinan Ulgen, a former senior Turkish diplomat and currently the head of the Istanbul-based research institute EDAM. "And this is leading to this type of negative environment, where Turkey is trying to leverage its own relationship with NATO, to put pressure on the EU."
Ankara’s confidence in pushing back against Brussels comes in part from Turkey's booming economy; by contrast with the European Union’s lackluster performance of late, Turkey’s 8.5-percent growth rate in 2011 ranked as the highest among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Economic success has enabled Ankara to step up its contributions to such key NATO initiatives as Kosovo and Afghanistan.
Turkey's location, though, is probably the most decisive factor in its rising diplomatic influence. The country borders Syria, Iran and Iraq, and with its charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose influence and popularity extends across the Arab Spring countries, the country has become an invaluable American ally.
Turkey has gained “a sort of comparative advantage [in its relationship with Washington] over other countries in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and even Europe,” commented international relations expert Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul's Bahçeşehir University.
Arguably aware of that, Ankara’s invitation objections appear to have gone beyond the two EU officials, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Unal questioned the decision not to invite or to consider invitations to Chicago for “other international and regional organizations who are also dealing with NATO.”
The omission of an invitation for Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the Turkish secretary-general of the 56-member Organization of Islamic Conference, is believed to have particularly irked the Turkish government, which is controlled by the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party.
Turkey’s own plans for the Chicago summit include lobbying for alliance membership for neighbor Georgia and Balkan buddies Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republic of Macedonia and Montenegro, Hürriyet Daily News reported, citing an unnamed diplomatic source. (All four countries, whether in whole or in part, were once part of the Ottoman Empire).
Some senior American foreign-policy hands believe that now is the time for Washington to meet a more assertive Ankara halfway. Earlier this month, a report prepared under former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright for the Council on Foreign Relations recommended that “a mutually beneficial partnership” between the US and Turkey “should reflect not only common American-Turkish interests, but also Turkey's new stature as an economically and politically successful country with a new role to play in a changing Middle East."
The run-up to the NATO summit reveals that Ankara's quest for a new assertive role extends beyond the Middle East to NATO itself. "The power structure inherited from the Cold War is certainly now being challenged by the rise of Turkey.” said former Turkish diplomat Ulgen. ”Turkey wants to have more of a say within NATO, and that is a challenge to the established power structures."
Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.