The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) held its annual summit in Vilnius, Lithuania on July 11-12. NATO was founded in 1949. Its purpose was for Western Democracies to establish collective military security against the Soviet Union which, after the Second World War, was able to take many eastern and central European countries into its fold. That included a part of Germany too. Communist ideology was also spreading among sections of the Western elite and in other parts of the world. The dominant US objective was to contain it and military alliances were an essential part of US strategy.
While NATO was focused on Europe, the US established other military alliances too. These included the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO) in 1955 focused on the Persian Gulf and the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) in 1954 with its remit on Asia-Pacific. While CENTO and SEATO were dissolved in 1979 and 1977 respectively, NATO continued even when its primary motivation of containing the Soviet Union dissipated with its dissolution in 1991, the end of the Warsaw Pact which, in a sense was the Soviet bloc’s military alliance in Europe, and almost complete popular and universal disenchantment with communist ideology.
Indeed, an important part of Russian President’s Vladimir Putin’s grouse against the West, especially the US, is that it has violated the assurances that were given, although privately, that NATO would not be expanded. Putin believes that the Soviets had agreed to the re-unification of Germany only because of the assurance that the then Soviet Union’s security interests would be respected. And, the Soviet leadership had made it clear that NATO’s eastward expansion would be seen as jeopardizing its security. As Russia is the successor state of the USSR the assurances given to the Soviets apply to it too. The Russians objected to each NATO expansion but they were ignored. Putin drew a line on Ukraine which has the aim of NATO membership a part of its constitution. Whatever, may have been the provocation Putins’s invasion of Ukraine was unjustified. More importantly, instead of halting the further expansion of NATO it has contributed to that process with Finland and Sweden wanting to join the alliance.
NATO’s rules prescribe that all member-states should give consent to the admission of a new member. Finland’s case did not create an issue but President Erdogan of Turkey held up Sweden’s application. He did so on the ground that Sweden was ignoring Turkish concerns relating to Kurdish militants and the Gullen group people who have, the Turks allege, been given permission to live in Sweden. Erdogan has good ties with Putin and knows that he would earn his goodwill if he could halt even one country’s NATO membership. Clearly, a long period of negotiations between the NATO secretariat, Sweden and Turkey and with the US intervening in the process from time to time has gone on.
Erdogan has the reputation of being a tough and tenacious negotiator and right on the eve of the summit it seemed that he had not only dug his heals on Sweden’s membership but had brought a new issue on the table. This was regarding Turkey’s long pending desire to join the European Union (EU). On July 10, that is, one day before the NATO summit, Erdogan was quoted by the media as saying in Ankara “I am calling from here on those countries that are making Turkey wait at the door of the European Union for more than fifty years. First, come and open the way for Turkey at the European Union and then we will open the way for Sweden, just as we did for Finland”.
Major European countries, particularly France, did not think that Turkey qualified for EU membership when it had a secular orientation under the traditions set out by Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. There objections were grounded in the role of the Turkish army in the country’s political life and what they believed was an insufficient commitment to human rights. Now, that Erdogan has been undoing the secular philosophy of Ataturk and has taken Turkey in a definite Islamic direction it is doubtful if the EU will accept a large Islamic country as its part. Ultimately and undeniably, many EU countries take their Christian heritage seriously and this conservative religious trend is rising as part of a right-wing resurgence in some countries.
Erdogan’s comments made it appear that the Vilnius summit would not be able to reach a decision on Sweden’s membership. However, within a day of linking Sweden’s NATO membership with Turkey’s EU admission Erdogan changed his position. He cleared the way for Sweden. Intense discussions took place between Sweden and Turkey with the participation of the NATO Secretary-General and US President Joe Biden also spoke to Erdogan. Obviously, a deal would have been reached but it is not clear what Turkey has got in it. Sophisticated US aircraft and Swedish support for Turkey’s EU bid and action against the Kurds and the Gullen people are some of the commitments that it may have received. Sweden’s NATO membership will have to be ratified by the Turkish Parliament but that is considered a formality for it is entirely under Erdogan’s control. But Erdogan is mercurial and hence the Vilnius summit statement was somewhat cautious in noting “We look forward to welcoming Sweden as a full member of the Alliance and, in this regard, welcome the agreement between the NATO Secretary-General, the President of Turkiye and the Prime Minister of Sweden”.
Certainly, Putin would not be happy with this development. Will he ‘lump’ it or try to stymie it?
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.