Married for Life? Can and should NATO divorce itself from Turkey?

Jonathan Blaha
Vol. 41 Associate Editor

On October 6th, President Trump decided to remove United States military personnel and endorse Turkish operations near the Turkey-Syria border.[1] As the world waits to see the extent of Turkish operations and its effects on Syrian Kurds,[2] ISIS,[3] and the Syrian Democratic Forces,[4] calls for the expulsion of Turkey from NATO have renewed with greater fervor. These calls began with Turkey’s authoritarian slide.[5] and seemingly reached their crescendo after Turkey’s agreement to purchase Russian S-400 missiles and subsequent expulsion from the United States’ F-35 program.[6] However, they have resumed and even extended to members of the United States government, including a promise from Senator Lindsey Graham to “call for their suspension from NATO if they attack Kurdish forces who assisted the U.S. in the destruction of the ISIS Caliphate.”[7]

However, it is unclear if NATO could expel Turkey. The 1949 North Atlantic Treaty does not provide a mechanism for expulsion.[8] In addition to whether it is possible for NATO to expel Turkey, another consideration is whether NATO would be best served by expulsion.

Over its seventy years of existence, NATO has not expelled a member state.[9] Within the treaty, the only provision for a member state to leave the alliance is through its own denunciation of the treaty.[10] The parties to the treaty could meet under Article 12 to remove a member[11], but due to NATO’s principle of consensus decision making, the party that the other members seek to remove would effectively have veto power over this decision.[12]

It is possible that NATO could expel Turkey under Article 60, of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which covers “Termination or suspension of the operation of a treaty as a consequence of its breach.”[13] Paragraph 2 covers multilateral treaties:

2. A material breach of a multilateral treaty by one of the parties entitles:

(a) the other parties by unanimous agreement to suspend the operation of the treaty in whole or in part or to terminate it either:

(i) in the relations between themselves and the defaulting State; or

(ii) as between all the parties[14]

NATO could claim that Turkey committed a breach as defined by Article 60, paragraph 3(b), which defines a beach as “the violation of a provision essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.”[15] The provision breached would be Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty which says, “[t]he Parties will contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, … and promoting conditions of stability and well-being.”[16]

Prior actions by Turkey, such as the reaction to the Gezi Park protests in 2013,[17] the increase in presidential powers in 2016,[18] and questionable elections of 2015, 2017, and 2018[19], could qualify as a failure in “strengthening their free institutions.” The crackdowns on civil society, as well as the undermining of democratic norms, are clearly the opposite of “strengthening free institutions. The ongoing military incursion into Syria and the potential genocide of the Kurdish population, would qualify under the same reasoning as a failure to “contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations.”

The objects and purposes of the North Atlantic Treaty, as established in the preamble include safeguarding “freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law,” as well as “the preservation of peace and security.”[20] The Article 2 commitments, both “strengthening their free institutions” and “contributing toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations,”[21] are “essential to the accomplishment of the object or purpose of the treaty.” Therefore, Turkey’s breach of both articles could be grounds for expulsion from NATO under the VCLT Art. 60, paragraph 3(b).[22]

While NATO may ultimately be able to expel Turkey, it would not be in NATO’s best interest to do so. First, the expulsion of Turkey could lead to increased antagonism between Turkey and NATO. Second, the loss of Turkey’s military contributions would be a significant loss to the alliance.

Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus placed it in conflict with fellow NATO member Greece.[23] While NATO membership did not prevent the conflict, in part because Cyprus was not a member of NATO, Cyprus has maintained an uneasy peace since the invasion, managing to accede to the European Union in May of 2004.[24] An unaligned Turkey may be more likely to disrupt the peace in Cyprus, which is not a NATO member and may not be defended by the international community.

The preserved peace in Cyprus, and the value of the NATO forum for preserving that peace, may be instructive for influencing potential future actions by Turkey. While the results of Turkey’s incursion into Kurdish controlled parts of Syria are currently unknown, NATO is more likely to influence Turkey as a member than a non-member potentially allied with Russia.

Additionally, a loss of Turkey’s military contributions to NATO would significantly weaken the alliance. Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base serves a critical role in NATO operations. At the peak of the fighting, missions from the base dropped an average of 180 bombs per day.[25] Turkey is the geographically nearest member to Syria and Russia, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan,[26] and a loss of the base would hamper NATO operations in the region. NATO has invested over $5,000,000,000 on infrastructure in Turkey.[27] The importance of Incirlik Air Base to NATO was affirmed by the inclusion of $48,000,000 for its improvement in the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal year 2018.[28]

In addition to its strategically vital location, Turkey’s military contributions to the alliance would be missed. Turkey has the second-largest military in NATO, larger than the third and fourth largest militaries combined,[29] as well as the seventh-highest defense expenditures.[30] Turkey has been part of the NATO mission in Afghanistan since 2001 and may have advantages in peace brokering due to shared Islamic religion.[31]

There are clear benefits to maintaining Turkey’s membership and this course of action has advocates.[32] However, the question of membership may not matter. The United States is considering removing nuclear weapons from Turkey.[33] This would signal that NATO does not trust Turkey, making it a member in name only, and one unaligned with the rest of NATO, making the question of membership strategically irrelevant.


[1] Statement From the Press Secretary, (Oct. 6, 2019), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/statement-press-secretary-85/ (last visited Oct. 8, 2019).

[2] Turkey v Syria’s Kurds: The short, medium and long story, BBC (Oct. 7, 2019), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-49963649.

[3] Saphora Smith, Turkish invasion of Syria would be ‘godsend’ for ISIS, experts warn, NBC News (Oct. 8, 2019, 11:54 PM), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/turkish-invasion-syria-would-be-godsend-isis-experts-warn-n1063621.

[4] Id.

[5] See e.g., Stanley A. Weiss, It’s Time to Kick Erdogan’s Turkey Out of NATO, Huffington Post, (Feb. 23, 2016, 4:50 PM), https://www.huffpost.com/entry/its-time-to-kick-erdogans_b_9300670.

[6] See e.g., Doug Bandow, Time to Kick the Islamizing Turkey Out of NATO, The American Conservative, (July 25, 2019), https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/time-to-kick-the-islamizing-turkey-out-of-nato/

[7] Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC), Twitter (Oct. 7, 2019, 10:47 AM), https://twitter.com/LindseyGrahamSC/status/1181219542778953728.

[8] North Atlantic Treaty, Apr. 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

[9] Daniel R. DePetris, Sorry, Lindsey Graham: America Can’t Kick Turkey Out of NATO Unilaterally, The National Interest (Oct. 7, 2019), https://nationalinterest.org/blog/skeptics/sorry-lindsey-graham-america-cant-kick-turkey-out-nato-unilaterally-86461.

[10] North Atlantic Treaty art. 13, Apr. 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

[11] North Atlantic Treaty art. 12, Apr. 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

[12] Consensus decision-making at NATO, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (Mar. 14, 2016, 4:41 PM), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natolive/topics_49178.htm

[13] Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties art. 60, opened for signature May 23, 1969, 1155 U.N.T.S. 331.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] North Atlantic Treaty art. 2, Apr. 4, 1949, 63 Stat. 2241, 34 U.N.T.S. 243.

[17]Kemal Kirişci & Amanda Sloat, The rise and fall of liberal democracy in Turkey: Implications for the West, Brookings Institute, Feb. 26, 2019, at 2, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/FP_20190226_turkey_kirisci_sloat.pdf.

[18] Id, at 3.

[19] Id, at 4-5.

[20] North Atlantic Treaty, preamble.

[21] Id, at art. 2.

[22] Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties art. 60.

[23] Turkish invasion of Cyprus, //www.newworldencyclopedia.org/p/index.php?title=Turkish_invasion_of_Cyprus&oldid=992988 (last accessed Oct. 8, 2019)

[24] Treaty of Accession of the Czech Republic, Estonia, Cyprus, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, Apr. 16, 2003, E.T.S. No. 2/03

[25] Matthew Bryza, The U.S. can’t afford to lose Turkey, Wash. Post, (Aug. 15, 2018), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/global-opinions/wp/2018/08/15/the-u-s-cant-afford-to-lose-turkey/.

[26] NATO on the Map, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, https://www.nato.int/nato-on-the-map/#lat=47.11664924473305&lon=-23.273505200000045&zoom=-1&layer-1, (last accessed Oct. 8, 2019).

[27] NATO Allies stand with Turkey: Secretary General Stoltenberg, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, (May 06, 2019), https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_165855.htm.

[28] H.R. Rep. No. 115-404, sec. 2903 (2017).

[29] Erin Duffin, Number of military personnel in NATO countries in 2019 (in 1,000s), statistica, (Aug. 9, 2019), https://www.statista.com/statistics/584286/number-of-military-personnel-in-nato-countries/.

[30] Niall McCarthy, Defense Expenditures Of NATO Members Visualized [Infographic], Forbes, (July 10, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/niallmccarthy/2018/07/10/defense-expenditure-of-nato-members-visualized-infographic/#55d40b3b14cf

[31] Vinay Kaura, Turkey Sees Expanding Role in Afghanistan, Middle East Institute, (Sept. 26, 2017), https://www.mei.edu/publications/turkey-sees-expanding-role-afghanistan.

[32]See e.g., Lorne Cook, Turkish invasion sparks NATO crisis but eviction is unlikely, ABC News, (Oct. 16, 2019), https://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/turkish-invasion-sparks-nato-crisis-eviction-66315653.

[33] Ellen Ioanes, US officials are considering pulling nuclear weapons from Turkey, Business Insider, (Oct. 14, 2019), https://www.businessinsider.com/trumps-threats-against-turkey-could-threaten-us-nuclear-arsenal-2019-10.

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