Ostensibly multilateral, NATO is often merely the framework for bilateral relations in which the United States is the commanding partner. Nowhere is this more the case than with Turkey, separated geographically from the other NATO allies by its main adversary, Greece, and heavily dependent on the US for military assistance. Yet Turkey has a second bilateral partner within NATO: the Federal Republic of Germany. The Bonn connection points to contradictory tendencies in Turkey’s NATO commitments.

From the time Turkey joined in 1952, NATO membership has served three major foreign policy aims: 1) to defend the country’s territory and strategic position on the straits against possible Soviet encroachment; 2) to assert and deepen its European identity; and 3) to modernize its military.

These aims were initially in harmony, but when the perceived Soviet threat subsided in the detente years of the 1970s, other less harmonious goals took prominence. Turkey grew more interested in developing commercial and other relations with its Middle Eastern neighbors, and the Cyprus crisis prompted Congress to embargo military aid for a time. Turkey’s rapprochement with its regional neighbors included a reluctance to be dragged into the growing US strategic symbiosis with Israel. In the 1980s, with tensions between Moscow and Washington at a new height and focused on the Persian Gulf, Pentagon strategists saw Turkey primarily as a potential base for “out-of-area” operations in the Persian Gulf or eastern Mediterranean.

West German aid is not linked to such pressures. Since 1964, West Germany has provided military aid to Greece and Turkey, and to Portugal since 1978. This aid was appropriated in renewable 18-month installments until last January, when the period was lengthened to 36 months. Over these three years, as usual, Turkey gets the lion’s share –260 million deutschmarks worth — with 140 million marks for Greece and 90 million for Portugal.

German motives seem to be more political and economic than directly military. Bonn is concerned to demonstrate to the US that West Germany will bear its fair “share” of the “burden” of NATO defense. West German military aid, like that of the US, also serves as a government subsidy to the country’s arms industries. Current beneficiaries include Blohm Voss, Krupp and, above all, Krauss Maffei, for which Turkey served as a last market for unloading its superfluous production of older-model Leopard tanks. One additional political motive (necessarily non-official) is the desire to “compensate” Turkey for the European Community’s refusal to grant freedom of movement within the EEC to Turkish labor.

Since the present era bears some resemblance to patterns of the pre-World War I imperialist age, it may be worth recalling that Germany had been Turkey’s preferred European partner before Germany’s defeat in two world wars equated Western Europe with the “Atlantic” allies. While West Germany remains decidedly secondary to the US, its military aid eventually could weave a relationship of comparable importance, especially if serious frictions develop between US and Turkish political and strategic interests.

One source of friction concerns mutations in the arms market. Ankara is no longer willing simply to provide a market for the developed countries, but is demanding a transfer of arms technology and production to Turkey. Prime Minister Turgut Özal is promoting a military-industrial complex to be a modernization motor. In production or advanced planning are factories that will turn out a range of military goods from gas masks and Stinger missiles to F-16 jet fighters, armored personnel carriers and missile boats. Turkey offers cheap labor, low-interest credits, customs-free imports and exports, tax breaks and regional markets that would be politically difficult or impossible for the US or European producer — for example, delivery to Libya of 14 speedboats manufactured in Istanbul under license and technical direction of Abeking & Rasmussen shipbuilders of Bremen. At the first International Defense Equipment and Avionics Exhibition (IDEA) held near Ankara in April 1987, West German firms accounted for 53 of the 300 exhibits.

This military cooperation has already been denounced within the German peace movement. But it continues to play an important if unspoken role in the dilemma of how to respond to Turkey’s application to join the EEC. Free movement of Turkish workers is a nightmare when high European unemployment seems permanent. Ankara’s application to the EEC is an embarrassment to the Europeans, who do not want to let Turkey in but do not want the Turks to go away angry either. This situation favors indulgence toward the Turkish generals’ appetite for weapons. The preponderance of the Turkish military, and Turkey’s poor political and human rights record, provide the best arguments against Turkish admission to “Europe.”

Bundestag attempts to tie aid to Turkey to human rights improvements have not yet had notable success, but an SPD-Green majority after next year’s elections could make a difference. Just as the large Greek community in the US makes the Congress sensitive to the Cyprus issue, the large Turkish presence in West Germany heightens West German awareness of political repression in Turkey. The expulsion of political refugees back to Turkey is a major issue for West German human rights activists. Secret technical aid by West German special services to Turkish counterinsurgency forces engaged in suppressing the Kurdish rebellion is another potential point of controversy.

Out-of-area operations in the Middle East remain an area of discord. The April 1986 US bombing raid on Libya aroused strong reprobation in Turkey, especially the planning role of Gen. Bernard Rogers, then NATO commander-in-chief. Rahsan Ecevit declared afterwards to the newspaper Hürriyet that “no military action should be planned in NATO European headquarters that stands outside NATO rules and occurs without the knowledge and agreement of NATO member states.” This is a point of view shared by European NATO members, and particularly in Bonn.

For now, the US bilateral relationship, backed by substantial arms modernization aid, dominates Turkey’s relations with NATO. This showed up most recently when Turkey sided with the US and Britain in favor of short range nuclear missile modernization, against Bonn. A time could come when Turkey would see its interests better served by closer harmony with its European and Middle East neighbors than with the distant United States. If and when the Turkish hinge turns, the relationship with West Germany could take on new importance.

How to cite this article:

Diana Johnstone "Turkey’s Other NATO Link," Middle East Report 160 (September/October 1989).
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