German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel came back Monday from Ankara empty-handed. German military personnel currently stationed at NATO air bases in Turkey will likely soon follow. Amid a growing rift between Berlin and Ankara, Gabriel had failed to convince his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to lift Turkey’s ban on German lawmakers visiting the approximately 250 soldiers deployed to the Incirlik air base, a key site of NATO operations in the ongoing assault on ISIS. The prohibition was payback for the German government’s decision last month to grant asylum to Turkish military personnel and their families accused of conspiring in last year’s failed coup attempt.
This morning, the latest tit-for-tat came from Germany’s ruling cabinet green-lighting the removal of the country’s troops from the Turkish military base.
The troubles in German-Turkish relations are part of a growing fissure between Turkey and its Western allies that extends beyond the coup aftermath. Turkey recalled its ambassador from Berlin last June after the German Bundestag voted to formally accuse Turkey of perpetrating the Armenian Genocide between 1915 and 1917, which resulted in the deaths of some 1.5 million Armenians.
In March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called Dutch authorities “Nazi remnants and fascists”, after they refused foreign minister Cavusoglu and the Turkish Minister of Family and Social Policies, Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, the opportunity to speak at a rally in the lead-up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum.
Then, last month, Turkey, a NATO member state, vetoed a proposition to allow Austria’s cooperation with the military alliance in apparent retaliation for Austria’s call to halt all talks on Turkey’s ascension to the EU allies.
Fully conscious of his country’s critical geopolitical position, Erdogan has shown a readiness to strongarm his NATO allies
President Erdogan seems keen on pushing relations with Western partners to the brink since Germany has been the lynchpin in the peripheral country’s accession to the EU. Turkey, to be sure, has some strong cards to play. Beyond its key role in NATO operations, Turkey cut a deal last year to stop the flow of refugees from its territory into Europe, and the threat of reversing such a policy worries European leaders. Fully conscious of his country’s critical geopolitical position, Erdogan has shown a readiness to strongarm his NATO allies, a tactic that has proved successful in the past, as both the United States and Europe have tended to tread lightly in their dealings with Ankara. President Barack Obama, for example, never recognized the Armenian Genocide although he had previously as a U.S. Senator.
Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and President of the United States Donald Trump: Michael Kappeler/ZUMA
Obama’s successor, too, appears reticent to attack the key strategic ally in the fight against ISIS. More to the point, Donald Trump seems to share a similar leadership style with Erdogan, both outspoken, “strongmen” figures. Both have harangued the media (although only in Turkey are journalists routinely arrested and entire news organizations shut down), and goaded their supporters into lashing out at dissenters.
But the similarities also appear to carry over into their respective approaches to international diplomacy, and more specifically toward their common historic allies in Europe.
Trump has spoken fondly of the UK referendum to pull out of the European Union and repeatedly criticized Germany’s trade policy. At last month’s G7 summit, Trump chastised his NATO allies for not contributing enough to the military alliance, and later pulled out of the historic 2015 Paris accord on climate change. Beyond the substance, he was also criticized for his often dismissive and aggressive behavior toward European leaders, which is also reminiscent of the increasingly shrill way in which Erdogan interacts with his neighbors to the west.
For Europe, this brutish politicking has become unpalatable. The continent appears increasingly skeptical of Turkey’s place in the Western alliance and has not shied from rebuffing the Turkish president. Such perhaps surprising firmness from European leaders, meanwhile, can also be seen across the Atlantic. Trump’s grandstanding has been met with Europeans chiding the American president’s ham-handedness rather than seriously considering his desires. In fact, Germany’s Merkel suggested recently that Europe “must take [its] destiny into its own hand,” though Berlin-based Die Welt daily noted there are limits to just how free it can be of American influence and resources.
Still, the expected departure of German troops from the base in Turkey is perhaps the first concrete step that Merkel (and the rest of Europe) are taking toward greater self-sufficiency. There are both historic and cultural reasons that Europe (and Germany in particular) are bound to have little tolerance for political strongmen — and it may even be provide a double dose of courage and unity the Old Continent so desperately needs.