How does NATO address democratic backsliding in Turkey and other members?

United States President Joe Biden arrived at his first NATO summit on Monday to make the case for reinvigorating the democratic values of its member states. Rachel Ellehuus, the deputy director and senior fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C, said Turkey is among the NATO members which currently presents a challenge to protecting these core values. And it has company.

“Turkey is not alone” as a NATO member that has steadily retreated from the democratic values which underpin the alliance, Ellehuus told Ahval News in a recent podcast. Members, including Poland and Hungary, have travelled along a similar authoritarian path as Turkey, while other members such as Greece are of concern in some areas. 

In his speech, Biden made a case for a democratic renewal within NATO as an extension of the alliance’s security. Issues of corruption, divisive “phoney populism”, disrespect for the rule of law and restrictions on the press are all, in his view, opening the door to a dangerous rot that adversaries could exploit. 

Ellehuus, who co-authored an article that argued NATO should uphold its own democratic values, also argued that members who are backsliding into illiberal authoritarianism should be held to account in ways that will not undermine NATO’s cohesiveness. 

To this end, she and co-author Pierre Marcos proposed that NATO develop mechanisms for managing and resolving disputes within the alliance while creating an incentive system that would discourage a further erosion of democracy at home. These include monitoring members’ adherence to the principles enshrined in the preamble of the North Atlantic Treaty and raising the political costs for straying away.

For much of its existence, NATO has tended to turn a blind eye to its members’ dalliances with authoritarian practices in line with its consensus model. Portugal entered the alliance at its founding even though it was ruled by the dictator Antonio Salazar. A military junta that came to power in a coup also ran Greece from 1967 to 1974. 

Turkey, which experienced three successful military coups and a failed coup attempt in July 2016, has stood out in some ways because of the way it has undermined “unspoken boundaries” within NATO, said Ellehuus. These relate to actions that directly impact the alliance’s ability to act by challenging its defence needs. Examples of such actions are Ankara’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia, its dragging of bilateral disputes with fellow members into alliance business, and its watering down of statements whose strength depends upon NATO unity. 

According to Ellehuus, Turkey’s behaviour can partly be explained by a feeling that its own unique security concerns are not taken seriously by the rest of NATO. This was a point President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan emphasised on Monday and one repeated by his advisers ahead of the summit. It has also been used to explain Ankara’s unilateral actions that concerned NATO partners, such as its incursions into northern Syria. 

Ellehuus contends that this is another instance where Turkey is again not on its own. But legitimate or not, she believes Turkey and Erdoğan could avoid creating turmoil for NATO by putting more efforts into building consensus with its allies on these concerns. At the same time, if Turkey continues in the vein of being a “bad ally” for disregarding collective interests without any accountability, it will continue to play the role of a disruptor. 

“If countries can behave in a way where they don’t face any consequences, of course they will be repeating that behaviour,” said Ellehuus. 

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