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So, why is Turkey in NATO, anyway? A look at the country's complex history with the alliance

Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — Emerging from World War II, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was established by 10 European countries, the United States and Canada to form a bulwark against the communist-ruled Soviet Union. It was a pillar in the new world order that was to last for the rest of the century and into this one.

In the years following World War II, Turkey found itself in a unique geopolitical position, at the crossroads of numerous civilizations, many of them at odds: Europe, Asia, the Middle East, the Caucasus. And sandwiched between the Black Sea to the north and the Mediterranean to the south.

Turkey felt empowered with that position — and vulnerable.

It was eager for protection and status. In 1950, Turkey dispatched its troops to support U.S. and United Nations forces repelling North Korea’s attempted invasion of the southern part of the peninsula, an action that won enduring praise from the West.

And so in 1952, Turkey joined NATO, hoping to bolster its aspiration to a Western identity and to ensure its security, especially against an ascending Soviet Union. It was the first expansion of NATO after its founding in 1949.

That makes the problems NATO is having today with Turkey all the more curious. Once fearing the Soviet Union, Turkey now is out of step with NATO policies in its friendliness with Moscow, buying Russia’s weapons and refusing to join U.S.-led sanctions against the Russian government.


Most of these shifts can be traced to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected prime minister in 2003 and has not left power since.

The most recent obstacle that Erdogan threw in NATO’s path was his refusal to sign off on efforts by Sweden and Finland to join the alliance. The two Scandinavian countries see Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a warning sign — Finland shares an 800-mile border with Russia — and have determined to abandon decades of strategic neutrality to become NATO’s 31st and 32nd member states.

Approval of new membership must be unanimous, giving Ankara power to block the deal. Erdogan maintained that his opposition was rooted in what he calls Swedish and Finnish tolerance of Kurdish activists who have fought his government politically or militarily.

But on Tuesday, as a NATO summit was gathering in Madrid, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, announced that Turkey had withdrawn its opposition and Finland and Sweden would be able to pursue membership. However, Erdogan did not confirm that news publicly, and it was not clear what, if any, concessions he was able to extract in arriving at that position.


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