What Erdoğan Has Wrought?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has continued to hold Finland and Sweden’s potential membership in NATO hostage to his stated demands. He wants concessions from the two aspirants on issues connected to Kurdish terrorism and has an unstated agenda of distracting Turks from his catastrophic economic mismanagement, pleasing his Russian “competimate” Vladimir Putin, and making himself the center of attention at the forthcoming Madrid Summit of the North Atlantic alliance later this month, as well as greasing the skids for the potential sale of advanced U.S. F-16 aircraft to Turkey. 

In the wake of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, moving swiftly to incorporate Finland and Sweden into NATO is imperative for the geopolitical and military benefits it brings to European security. It is almost certain that a reluctant President Joe Biden will have to get involved, and it is equally likely that, at the end of the day, Erdoğan’s objections will be assuaged and the NATO enlargement process will move forward. But the damage that Erdoğan has done to Turkey’s standing in Europe and its long-term geopolitical interests (as opposed to his short-term domestic political interests) will be profound.

The damage is thrown into sharp relief by a recent domestic political crisis in Sweden and an extraordinary interview granted by Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö, one of Europe’s few statesmen of any vision or stature. The combination of the two demonstrate both the bad faith of Erdoğan, the unintended consequences of his recent hostage-taking diplomacy, and the potentially long-lasting aftereffects of the Turkish strongman’s strong arm diplomatic tactics. 

Sweden’s path to NATO candidacy was not as direct as Finland’s, where the debate on NATO membership had been much more advanced for years. Moreover, the political situation in Sweden was more fraught since the Social Democratic government had a very narrow margin in the parliament, the country is facing elections in the fall, and the broad political consensus that existed in Finland was not in place—in fact the governing Social Democratic Party was divided over NATO membership. The Finns coordinated very carefully with the Swedes after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, mindful that while public opinion had rapidly and radically transformed in Finland, the change in Sweden, also profound, was not on the same order of magnitude.

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