In response to last week’s article – in which I called for the immediate inclusion of Georgia into NATO – a friend of mine told me, “Well, I do hope you know why they don’t let them in. It’s just diplomacy”. I reminded him that I was well aware of that when I penned the piece; my point was that although the modern West has mastered the Teddy Roosevelt art of speaking softly, they seem to have forgotten the part about carrying a big stick.
Treading carefully around Russia has done absolutely nothing to curtail the Kremlin’s aggression on the international stage. Yet if the West needs to take a stern line with Moscow, it needs to be even harder with Turkey – not least because although Russia is a clearly defined opponent (if not quite an open enemy), Turkey is supposed to be an ally.
Last weekend, Turkey’s increasingly dictatorial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted two senior members of Hamas, much to the fury of the United States, who strongly condemned the move in a State Department release. Indeed, one of the men with whom Erdogan met, Saleh al-Arouri – one of Hamas’ top military commanders – is wanted and has a $5 million bounty on his head, but instead of being clapped in handcuffs and turned over to American authorities, al-Arouri and Ismail Haniyeh, one of Hamas’ senior leaders, were treated with the deference typically shown to representatives of foreign governments.
Add to this the fact that this is, in fact, the second official meeting between Turkish authorities and Hamas this year (the other having taken place in February), and one can be confident of Turkey’s total disregard for the West’s opinion of Erdogan’s domestic or international politics.
Yet the feelings towards Ankara from Athens are far stronger than the concern of the US and the West. The navies of both countries are currently eyeing each other in the Eastern Mediterranean, a contested area where Turkey has been conducting seismic exploration operations in the hopes of uncovering additional oil and gas reserves. Although both parties to the tensions have been holding naval exercises, the West has not helped diffuse matters as several NATO partners are taking part in the training practices of both countries.
French, Italian, and Cypriot ships have been working with their Greek counterparts, while the US Navy contributed a vessel to the Turkish exercise. In addition, the same Italian ship involved in Greece’s training efforts also worked with the Turkish Navy. In short, it is hardly a firm demonstration to Athens that NATO is staunchly in its corner.
It calls to my mind the Bohmermann affair, also known as “Erdogate”. Jan Bohmermann, a German comedian and satirist, purposefully insulted Erdogan in the most crass, crude, and offensive way imaginable in a poem which was broadcast on national television. The Turkish government complained to the German authorities, which resulted in a criminal prosecution case being launched against a German citizen, in Germany, for exercising his constitutional right to free speech under German law.
The fact that this happened at all should be staggering enough. That a German – a European citizen – was exercising his right to criticise (albeit in a vulgar way) a foreign despot, and could be prosecuted by his own government is an insult to every value Europe ostensibly holds dear. To demonstrate this, British journalist Douglas Murray launched a poetry competition wherein he invited his Twitter followers to write their own poems about Erdogan, in which they were ordered to be as defamatory as possible. The contest was ultimately won by then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who is, himself, of part Turkish origin through his paternal great-grandfather.
Of course, the Merkel government’s appeasement of Erdogan was a fine demonstration of my friend’s words to me last week; “It’s just diplomacy”. Naturally, the half-hearted Turkish commitment to holding back the migrant tide from Syria and Iraq was higher on the political agenda than a comedian’s attempt to draw attention to the increasingly neo-Ottoman tendencies of Erdogan’s government.
Prudence would suggest that appeasement is the sensible course of action. In fact, anything to avoid a major European or global conflict would sound like common sense, with the world ending the weapons that are available today. And yet, the other side of that argument is that there is historical precedence that warns against appeasement. The world has been in similar circumstances before. The parallel may not be exact, but the fear of provoking Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin is not so far removed from the current terror of angering Putin, Erdogan or Xi Jinping. The rest of this analogy can, I hope, remain comfortably unsaid.
I understand Europe and the US’ reluctance to take a hard line with any of the dictators that plague the planet, but the West’s mewling timidity is proving to be more of a catalyst than a preventer. Would Putin be as bellicose in Ukraine if the West had threatened to send troops to Georgia to counter his invasion six years earlier? He may have been provoked, or he may have been backed down. For all of his calculating ruthlessness, he is no madman. It could well be argued, therefore, that the West would have fewer problems if it took a more aggressive stance and that attempting to avoid conflict demonstrably only makes conflict more likely.
The only thing bullies respect is strength, and the Free World has shown precious little of that in recent times. Touching on my previous article about Georgia’s acceptance into NATO, at this time, the West is ignoring allies who have quite literally bled for it in wars that have nothing to do with them, while simultaneously maintaining alliances with others whose hostility is becomingly increasingly overt.
As is often remarked, history is doomed to repeat itself. This being the case, Western leaders would do well to look back to a little under a century ago and perhaps consider the fact that the last time a soft line with foreign dictators was taken, it resulted in the worst conflict the world has ever known. It may be worth considering finding some backbone. Perhaps, if the West had been more aggressive with Hitler and Stalin in the 1930s, the planet would have arrived at the same destination in 1939 anyway – or perhaps not. At least it can hopefully be agreed that it wouldn’t have made things any worse.