If NATO hopes to maintain a central role in shaping its strategic neighborhood, it will need Turkey to take on a position of leadership within the Alliance. Within the next decade, a Turkish Secretary General should lead the Alliance. But for that to happen Turkey will have to act like the responsible power it should become, and Europe will have to be willing to accept a leading Turkish role in European affairs.

The Atlantic community is much stronger because it can count Turkey among its members. Turkey is the only power within the Alliance that is rapidly gaining influence on the global stage. Turkey’s economy is booming, its demographic profile is positive, and its active diplomacy has bolstered its clout regionally and internationally. Today, Turkey is the most influential European country in the pivotal Middle East. This is a tremendous asset for the Alliance.

By inviting Turkey to join the Alliance in 1952, NATO allies not only secured Europe’s southern flank from Soviet influence and prevented regional rivalries with Greece from flaring into conflict, but also laid the groundwork for Turkey’s peaceful ascent to its historic role as a European and Middle Eastern power, extending NATO’s influence into a volatile and strategic region.
The growing turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has made Turkey even more important to the Atlantic community. Turkey’s unique geography and culture make it a privileged interlocutor with the Middle East and North Africa, while also exposing it to greater security threats than any other country in the Alliance.

For too long, Turkey has been relegated to NATO’s back bench. Turkey has been excluded from NATO’s traditional ruling circle, the ‘Quad’ (the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany). No Turk has ever been considered to lead NATO. This must change. A Turk should become NATO Secretary General within the decade.

Turkey, however, will have to earn its place of leadership within the Atlantic community. First, Turkey must bring a spirit of cooperative leadership to NATO, seeking to build consensus, rather than burdening NATO by blocking cooperation with the European Union and preventing Israel from working closely with NATO. Turkey can earn newfound leadership within NATO by recommitting to internal democratic reform, improving its relations with its ethnic minorities, pursuing peace with Cyprus, continuing efforts to normalize relations with its neighbors, and lowering tensions with Israel.

The challenge does not lie with Turkey alone; Europe has responsibilities too. If Turkey is able to advance reforms and fully embrace the values embodied by the transatlantic community, Europe has to be willing to welcome Turkey into a position of leadership within the Alliance and ultimately in the European Union.

Unfortunately, Europe has rejected Turkey for decades, causing Ankara to turn its attention to the East. There Prime Minister Erdogan has found greater receptivity to his leadership and diplomatic energy. Modern Turkey’s unique blend of Islamism, secularism, and democracy serves as an inspiration for transitioning states in the region. President Obama has embraced Turkey’s rise through close personal engagement with Prime Minister Erdogan. While Turkey remains a difficult partner in NATO and elsewhere, the United States has reaped impressive gains through its engagement with Ankara. President Obama has secured Turkey’s agreement to host a NATO radar as part of its approach to missile defense and Turkish support for a tough line against the crackdowns of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, especially Syria.

Europe should follow Washington’s lead and think more openly about how to encourage Turkey to lead. Just as Europe was able to shape the democratic development of Central and Eastern Europe through its reform-minded support for European Union enlargement, Europe can regain its flagging influence with Turkey by reversing its de facto rejection of Ankara’s application for European Union membership. France and Germany are most responsible for Europe’s current path and can do the most to reverse this major strategic error in policy by reconsidering Turkish membership in the Union.

German and French hostility toward Turkish membership in the European Union minimizes Europe’s influence in pushing for continued reforms in Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan has reformed Turkish politics by exerting civilian control over the military. But summary arrests of Turkish generals and restrictions on the media have raised serious concerns about his ultimate aims. Erdogan’s efforts to ensure that democratic principles apply to Turkey’s military and judiciary do not give carte blanche to persecute political enemies, restrict free speech, or imprison military officials and journalists. A more open road to the European Union might help check negative tendencies while reinforcing progressive policies.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”

Related Experts: Jeffrey Lightfoot and Damon Wilson