Why Washington must take the opportunity of the NATO Summit to reengage with Turkey

From July 9 to 11, the United States will host the NATO Summit in Washington, marking the seventy-fifth anniversary of what has been deemed by some as the world’s “most successful military alliance.” While the summit will mark an important milestone in NATO’s history, it will also provide an opportunity to discuss the future of the Alliance and for high-level officials to engage in discussions about boosting defense and deterrence in the most dangerous security environment since the Cold War.

Among those attending the summit will be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey has been a major contributor to NATO’s operations around the world since it joined the Alliance in 1952 to defend itself and NATO’s southeastern flank against the Soviet threat. Today, as the Alliance’s second-largest military power and the gatekeeper of the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Turkey plays a critical role in European stability and security. However, the complex nature of Ankara’s relationship with Washington and a lack of dialogue between the allies have often overshadowed the successes in the transatlantic partnership and limited opportunities for cooperation.

US Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake recently said that the NATO Summit provides an opportunity for a meeting between Erdoğan and US President Joe Biden, as “there is some desire on both sides” to do so. It remains unclear, however, whether this meeting will take place. Erdoğan’s previously scheduled visit to the White House in May was canceled due to scheduling problems, as cited by both sides, and Flake said it happened at a time when the crisis in Gaza cast a “difficult political backdrop.”

Despite that backdrop, Biden and Erdoğan shouldn’t let another opportunity to meet go to waste, as close cooperation would bring to bear several geopolitical, economic, and security benefits.

Why the timing matters

It is important that the meeting takes place this time. Biden has met Erdoğan in person only twice during his presidency, and both times on the sidelines of international summits. Erdoğan will travel to Washington for the NATO Summit shortly after his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Kazakhstan and just weeks after Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan’s statement in China about Turkey’s interest in joining the developing country grouping known as BRICS.

Russia has embraced its opportunities to widen the rifts between Turkey and other NATO allies, so it’s no wonder the Kremlin was quick to welcome Ankara’s desire to join BRICS. A cold shoulder from Biden, contrasted with warm welcomes from the leaders of Russia and China, would only reinforce Ankara’s quest for what it perceives as a fair multipolarity and Turkey’s feeling sidelined by both the European Union and the United States. The perception of Erdoğan as an unwanted guest in the West would become another brick in the wall of mistrust between Ankara and Washington.

Winds of positive change

Significant progress in the F-16 deal, the successful completion of Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO membership processes, and increasing US-Turkey cooperation on joint military production have had a positive impact on both regional security and Turkey’s relations with the West. For example, as the Pentagon set about revamping its munitions factories, several such factories in Texas worked with Turkish company Repkon for the design and installation of machinery. Flake estimated that around 30 percent of all 155 mm rounds produced in the United States will come from these factories, boosting military production and helping support Ukraine. In addition, the effort is strengthening US-Turkey strategic ties and demonstrating to Europe that increasing cooperation with Turkey can help bolster defense capabilities.

Both the United States and Turkey stand to gain significant geopolitical and economic benefits from a reinvigorated relationship. As Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations put it, “Turkey sits in the middle of too many global flashpoints for the United States to delay a new dialogue.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war in Gaza, geopolitical realignments in the South Caucasus, and the emergence of the Russia-Iran-China axis add weight to Turkey’s already central role in NATO.

For its part, Turkey must understand that while it may gain immediate benefits from trade and energy cooperation with Russia, its economic and security interests are closely aligned with the West, not with autocratic regimes such as China and Russia. Doing business with sanctioned, unstable, and undemocratic countries is a major geopolitical risk and comes at a huge economic cost. Russia’s economy has become a war economy, and there is not much future in doing business with Moscow, especially with the prospect of secondary sanctions looming. For many years, Germany and the United States have maintained their leading positions as Turkey’s largest export partners, and while joining BRICS may help Turkey manage a balancing act between the West and the Global South, the bloc wouldn’t be likely to help sustain Turkey’s economic growth in the long run. This economic pragmatism, combined with new geopolitical realities, should provide a solid basis for revitalizing the transatlantic partnership.

To engage Turkey, make it part of the plan

The Black Sea can become a test case for Turkey’s reinvigorated cooperation with the West, as that is where core interests of NATO allies in the region—such as restoring Ukraine’s territorial integrity and freedom of navigation, deterring Russia, counterbalancing Russia-Iran ties, and promoting energy diversification—largely converge. While the region remains sensitive to fluctuations in the US-Turkey relationship, it also hosts an opportunity, particularly in maritime security, to improve transatlantic relations and collectively defend the region.

Turkey has developed close cooperation with Black Sea NATO members Romania and Bulgaria and has been a vocal supporter of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. Ukraine’s recent successes in degrading Russia’s naval capabilities and shifting the balance of maritime power in Turkey’s favor have made Kyiv a natural ally for Ankara, as both countries seek to counter Russian superiority in the Black Sea. This strategic connection that runs via Kyiv could anchor Turkey’s tilt to the West.

Closer maritime cooperation between Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria, potentially joined by Ukraine, would deny Russia the ability to conduct provocations and false flag operations in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones and help protect assets deployed in the northwestern part of the Black Sea. This is particularly important as both Turkey and Romania are working to develop their offshore gas fields—Sakarya and Neptun Deep. Since the successful development of these reserves would help reduce the region’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and thus undermine Moscow’s energy strategy in the region, one could expect the Kremlin to employ a variety of hybrid tactics to prevent the implementation of these offshore energy projects.

Since Romania and Bulgaria do not have significant naval capabilities, increased cooperation with Turkey is necessary to protect their critical infrastructure. For example, now that the Black Sea Mine Countermeasures Task Force—launched in January 2024 as a trilateral initiative between Bulgaria, Romania, and Turkey to clear their territorial waters of floating mines—has become operational, it should become a permanent patrol mission to ensure the security of sea lines of communication and maritime trade and to curb Russia’s illegal activities in the Black Sea.

Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, and Ukraine are working together to shore up defense and deterrence capabilities in the Black Sea region. At the NATO Summit, Biden and Erdoğan should discuss, among many topics, how the United States and other European allies can increase support for these efforts.

While the Montreux Convention limits the ability of non-littoral states to increase their Black Sea naval presence, the United States and European allies could strengthen NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities in the region by enhancing the air defense and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities of littoral states; supporting defense industrial projects; and deploying more coastal-defense, anti-ship, anti-submarine, and electronic-warfare systems to NATO’s eastern flank. For its part, Turkey could play a central role in strengthening NATO’s sea-denial capabilities to secure Black Sea port infrastructure and sea lines of communication.

Key to enabling this cooperation with the United States and European allies is first engaging in dialogue.

As the United States works on its new Black Sea strategy and prepares the agenda for the NATO Summit—which will be dominated by regional security issues—it’s time to integrate Turkey, a regional leader, into its plans. Against the backdrop of continued Russian aggression in Ukraine and the growing involvement of Iran and China in the Black Sea, increased cooperation between Turkey, Ukraine, and Western partners is critical to both European security and the democratic resilience of these countries.

Yevgeniya Gaber is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY and a professor at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. Follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, at @GaberYevgeniya.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.

This blog is part of a joint research project of the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY and the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies entitled “A Sea of Opportunities: Can the West Benefit from Turkey’s Autonomous Foreign Policy in the Black Sea?” The research provides a lens into Turkey’s aspirations for regional leadership and identifies possible avenues of collaboration between Ankara and its Western allies in the Black Sea region in several areas, such as defense and military cooperation, political and diplomatic dialogue, and maritime and energy security.

Further reading

Image: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meets with Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan in Prague, Czech Republic, May 30, 2024. Petr David Josek/Pool via REUTERS