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Q&A with Turkey's Tacan Ildem: NATO unity must come first

Trans-Atlantic alliance will widen its international aspect with China in picture

Tacan Ildem, former NATO assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy, says the U.S. and Turkey need to overcome mutual distrust and strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance. (Anadolu Agency)

NEW YORK/ISTANBUL -- In the next decade, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will face a world of competing great powers and will need to adapt to new realities, according to a recent report offering a set of analyses and recommendations by 10 advisers to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Tacan Ildem is a member of that brain trust, known as the Reflection Group, and a former NATO assistant secretary-general for public diplomacy. He sat down with Nikkei Asia to discuss the challenges the trans-Atlantic alliance faces, and how his home country of Turkey fits in.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

Q: China features prominently in the NATO 2030 report. How should NATO prepare for a rising China?

A: Authoritarian regimes pose a challenge to the rules-based international order. And we know that China is one of those countries with such an authoritarian model of governance that has ideological objectives.

The main thrust of the NATO 2030 reflection process was to strengthen the political dimension of NATO. As you know, since 2014, after the illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, and its destabilizing aggressive policies in eastern Ukraine, NATO has been adapting itself to the new security environment with a series of military measures. What we basically need is to take steps to strengthen NATO's political dimension to match the military adaptation that it has so far successfully delivered.

When we talk about the political dimension of NATO, unity, cohesion, solidarity among NATO allies are of utmost importance. Another related issue is for allies to use NATO more as a unique and essential trans-Atlantic consultation forum.

Q: Turkey's purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia has angered Washington and caught other fellow NATO members by surprise. Does Turkey see eye to eye with other NATO members on the threats the alliance faces? Does it have a different set of values?

A: It is true that Turkey acquired S-400s from Russia. But at the same time we have to recognize the fact that Turkey, in the past, explored possibilities to acquire these systems from its allies. As the NATO 2030 Experts Group, we addressed this issue in the "Emerging and Disruptive Technologies" chapter of our report. If you read that report, you will see a strong reference made to the need for an elevated military-technological cooperation among allies. The report states that it is crucial to limit the eventuality that allies are denied procurement of key technologies and therefore go to sources outside of NATO.

Now, regarding the other part of your question, of course, the Washington Treaty, which is the founding document of NATO, in its preamble, clearly states that allied nations share common values, such as democracy, individual liberties and the rule of law. Therefore, all allied nations have a commitment in that respect.

At the recent NATO Brussels Summit on 14 June allied leaders in fact recommitted their nations to the very basic principles that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was founded on. No one can claim that all nations are identical in terms of their performance in abiding by these principles. Nevertheless, I consider this recommitment to be an important one.

NATO is not an organization like the Council of Europe, with competences regarding the scrutiny of the performances of each individual member country when it comes to democracy and human rights. There are no enforcing mechanisms within NATO -- nevertheless, reaffirmation of these principles enshrined in the North Atlantic Treaty, to me, is important, and I am sure that allied countries, especially in the new world order where the differences between democratic and authoritarian regimes will get sharpened, would be expected to do their utmost in abiding by these principles.

Q: Is Turkey part of the liberal international order?

A: Every country goes through certain stress tests. Take as an example what happened at the United States Congress at the beginning of this year. It shows that even when you have a claim that you are among the relatively strongest democracies in the world, you may still go through difficult times. The most important thing is whether the essential tenets of the country qualify it to be among those countries defined as democracies. You are right in saying that from time to time, there are question marks regarding the democratic performances of different countries, including Turkey. However, there shouldn't be any doubt that Turkey has a place in the family of democratic nations.

Turkey has been an important key member of the alliance, making significant contributions to the three core tasks of NATO: collective defense, crisis management and cooperative security.

Turkey's contributions could be seen not only from a military, but also from an intellectual standpoint, due to its location in the geostrategic part of the globe and its unique knowledge base and experience. Turkey makes an important contribution in the deliberations of the North Atlantic Council, and I'm sure that in the updating of the Strategic Concept, a forward-looking policy vision document of NATO, Turkey again will be able to bring its value added to the discussion.

Q: Doesn't it come down to a matter or trust? Do the NATO allies trust Turkey enough to share military technology, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's policies seem to take Turkey in a much more religious direction and have cracked down on media?

A: On secularism, I have to emphasize that secularism is something which is safeguarded in our constitutional system. Secularism, a clear separation of state affairs from religion, which was introduced as part of the reforms of the great Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, has been embraced and owned by our nation. And I don't think that any attempt to divert from secularism would be well taken and appreciated by the majority of people living in Turkey.

You mentioned the religious element a couple of times, and I beg to differ with any unnecessary suggestion entailed in the question. I don't think that we could make judgments on the basis of religion or cultural backgrounds when it comes to membership to organizations like NATO. Otherwise, we are exposed to a thinking that would guide us to easily say that "this country is not Christian; therefore, it is not qualified to become a member or enjoy a partnership relationship with NATO." I don't think this should be the main consideration.

In Turkey's case, whose population is predominantly Muslim, as long as she continues to embrace the common values that I alluded to earlier, religion should not be a matter of concern. On the contrary, the fact that Turkey's population is predominantly Muslim adds to the capacity of any organization, including NATO, in reaching out to different nations, with different backgrounds.

Let us not forget that NATO has been operating in Afghanistan, a country with the abundant majority of the population being Muslim. Or having strong relations with a number of partners, Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Partners, which are Muslim countries. NATO has a center in Kuwait. We have political dialogue and practical cooperation with all these countries. And religion is not an issue. We have a NATO training mission in Iraq. Again, a country where there are Muslims living there.

Therefore, I prefer not to take religion as a determining factor in passing a judgment on any allied or partner nation. This would no doubt pose a severe challenge for the unity among allies. Turkey has been appreciated throughout the past decades, with all the attributes that it has, including its cultural background. So I found these references not to be conducive to a better thinking for the future.

Q: Should U.S. President Joe Biden trust Erdogan?

A: You mentioned the trust issue coming from Washington towards Turkey, but I must say that it is a two-way street. Yes, I agree there is a trust issue, but what we can talk about is a mutual distrust. Suspicions on both sides exist vis-a-vis the other one.

Now, for different circles both in Washington and in other Western capitals, the acquisition of S-400s could be seen as something to symbolize Turkey to join the ranks of Russia strategically, forgetting the alliance that it belongs to, NATO. However, we should be rather careful in making analysis about Turkey-Russia relations. I believe it is worth sparing some time on this perception. Turkey is one country that had fought against Russia throughout its history. So Turkey knows Russia more than any other country. Geography also dictates a good working relationship with Russia.

I recall the time when the Russian warplane which violated Turkish airspace was downed by Turkey in November 2015. The NATO secretary-general in his statement after the extraordinary North Atlantic Council meeting that was convened upon the request of Turkey not only expressed allies' solidarity with Turkey, but also expressed the hope that Turkey and Russia engage with each other for diplomacy and de-escalation.

In NATO discussions for years, Russia was considered as a threat coming from the east.

But when you look at Russian military activities now, they no longer remain in the east of the NATO area. It's also in the south, with the projection of power from Crimea, a jumping board that it invaded and annexed in 2014. It created A2/AD in the Black Sea, also in order to project power to the south.

In Syria, it acquired military bases that serve as bridgeheads. In Libya, you can see the presence of Russia. So Turkey's bilateral engagement with Russia should be seen as a necessity. If, for an example, there is a military presence in Idlib, in the fight against terrorism, which is an existential threat to Turkey, who suffered with so many loss of lives, then the necessity to have a proper coordination and decoupling is needed with Russia, who has forces there.

However, engaging with Russia does not mean that Turkey and Russia are eyeball to eyeball in Syria. On the contrary, they have opposing interests, not only in Syria, but in Libya as well. Russia is supporting Haftar with the Wagner Group mercenaries. But Turkey supports the Government of National Unity, the provisional government recognized by the United Nations, so there is a clear-cut situation in which they are on the opposing sides of the equation.

No matter how critical one may be about the policies of certain governments and their leaders, still a more thorough evaluation is needed before being part of a systematic naming-and-blaming exercise. Insofar as Syria is concerned, for instance, Turkey is one country that has been affected with the situation there. We are talking about 4 million refugees, who have found safe haven in Turkey. The European Union and all Western powers are quite happy as long as these refugees stay in Turkey. But they are not so much concerned about the root causes of the ongoing situation, or the way how to bring an end to the humanitarian suffering in Syria. As long as they can contain the situation which would not pose an imminent threat to them, it's fine.

I can give you another example: the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. It has been on the international community's agenda for so long. And what happened? The Minsk Group was created within the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The Minsk Group has three co-chairs, the United States, France and Russia, to be in charge of a lasting settlement to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. When things have changed recently on the ground, we heard calls urging both sides to stop aggression and prevent escalation. I don't know whether those who were making such calls were aware that the territories in question were occupied territories. Three co-chair countries were perhaps satisfied until recently that they could contain the conflict and have a new "status quo" with these territories under the occupation of Armenia. What we need to recall ourselves is that these are Azeri territories. Not a single country is immune to committing certain mistakes in the conduct of its foreign and security policy. However, those who stick to certain stereotype cliches should make an effort to see a more comprehensive picture with important details before labeling others with qualifiers of their choosing.

Q: Do you have advice for President Biden?

A: For the United States, Turkey's acquisition of S-400s from Russia could be an important issue that damages the trust towards Turkey. But equally important, maybe even more important for Turkey, is the U.S. stand in fighting terrorism. People on the streets of Ankara, Istanbul or anywhere in Turkey, no matter with what political party affiliation, when asked will tell you how disturbed, disappointed and even frustrated they are to see the United States, a friend and ally, to side with terrorist groups in Syria, YPG/PYD, affiliated bodies of [militant Kurdish nationalist organization] PKK. Ironically, PKK is also classified as a terrorist organization by the U.S. This does not fit into the spirit that should guide relations between friends and allies.

One could only hope that the bilateral meeting between the two presidents that took place on 14 June on the margins of the NATO summit could be followed up within the institutional mechanisms and each and every item on a long list of issues that threaten the very fabric of Turkish-U.S. relations could be resolved serving the mutual interests of both sides and the alliance that they both belong to. There is an American expression "to talk turkey" -- to talk seriously, to dive into the details of the matter. Now is the time for that.

Q: President Erdogan [in 2019] wrote an op-ed for China's Global Times calling for more defense collaboration.

A: NATO leaders in their communique of the 14 June summit emphasized the need to foster technological cooperation among allies in NATO, promote interoperability, and encourage the development and adoption of technological solutions to address their military needs. I hope this strong statement reflects the genuine desire to try to remedy some of the gaps that exist among allies in terms of technology. This is vital for maintaining NATO's technological edge against its competitors.

It would be logical for Turkey to cooperate with her allies. I will give you one example of the recent past which was the SAMP/T air and missile defense system co-production project that Turkey was trying to achieve together with France and Italy. Why Turkey should go out of NATO, as our report talks about, to sources like Russia or China, instead of having a cooperation with allies which will also ensure the fundamental objective of having interoperability of weapon systems in its inventory?

Like any other ally for Turkey also it would be preferable to acquire weapons that could integrate to the network of systems within the alliance. It would be advantageous to work with allies rather than countries like Russia or China in defense cooperation, because whatever system that you can acquire from the latter will be doomed to remain as a stand-alone system without any chance of being integrated into the NATO system.

One issue related to China which I have to emphasize is the necessity for NATO to engage with Asia-Pacific partners, and Japan is an important partner together with South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. It is important for NATO to engage with these partners, if we really mean to have a strong front in keeping the rules-based international order intact. Political dialogue is so important because these countries are in the region, sharing the same geography with China. For NATO's situational awareness, it would be necessary.

Q: Will NATO become a global alliance one day?

A: The secretary-general's priorities while launching the NATO 2030 reflection process were making sure NATO remains strong militarily, becomes even stronger politically and takes a more global approach. Having a global approach does not mean NATO will become a global alliance or "the police of the world." NATO does not have any ambition of that sort. NATO will remain a regional alliance, a regional organization, with SACEUR's [supreme allied commander Europe's] area of responsibility that is known to all of us, so there wouldn't be any change.

Nevertheless, in our time, the hybrid tactics, the economic, political, military elements to be used all together against NATO and allies, in order to make countries feel threatened, unfortunately blur the line between peacetime and conflict. And we know that usually the hybrid activities are of a global nature.

When we talk about cyberattacks, when we talk about disinformation campaigns with the use of advanced technology, they do not recognize any geographical boundary. So, we cannot say China is too far distant from us. Chinese are too close with all these technologies. But China is physically very close to us, too. They are in the Arctic, they are in all parts of Europe with the control of key infrastructure installations, and also in the Mediterranean Sea and Africa.

Therefore, China is definitely a country that we need to sharpen our situational awareness on it with all the challenges that its rise could confront us. It is felt as a competitor, but also a country that we can cooperate when time and circumstances warrant. It depends on how China will perform in the coming years. If it engages with NATO allies, let us say, in transparency measures, in informing each other about big military exercises to provide predictability, in discussing, let's say, some confidence-building measures, then it is fine.

In any case, NATO has not qualified China as an adversary, and China does not right now pose any military threat to NATO. So we have to be very clear about that. We are only talking about challenges and opportunities. This strengthened awareness will help efforts in trying to eliminate some of the gaps when it comes to vulnerabilities.

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