The 60th anniversary of the accession of Greece and Turkey to NATO comes at a critical juncture that once again underscores their strategic importance for the Alliance. At the peak of the Cold War, both countries’ geographical position at the underbelly of the Soviet Union rendered them an indispensable part of NATO’s strategic planning, a fact that had dictated their accession in the first place. Together they operated as a natural embankment against any possible Soviet advancement towards the Eastern Mediterranean and the oil rich Middle East, safeguarding at the same time unhindered maritime communication lines. NATO Headquarters and allied installations located there, in close proximity to the USSR, enhanced the reliability of the Alliance’s response to a possible Soviet threat.
Today, Greece and Turkey continue to be placed at the centre of a region of high strategic importance, although they both derive their significance from different considerations and threat assessments. Already in the aftermath of the Cold War, it became obvious that political instability and asymmetric threats at the periphery of Europe would become the number one security priority for the Continent. At first, it was Balkan instability right at the door of Greece and Turkey that made their contribution pivotal. Later and in particular after September 11 and the terrorist attacks in Madrid and London, it became evident that attention should now be focused on the wider Middle East. Both countries’ presence in the Eastern Mediterranean and NATO installations there are of critical importance for the presence of the Alliance itself in the region.
As far as Greece is concerned, its key value in maritime security in particular has been constantly confirmed. The Greek Navy plays an active part in NATO operations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East and its potential, as well as that of the Greek merchant fleet, for contributing to security in the region is remarkable, as it was demonstrated during the Lebanon crisis in 2006 and more recently in Libya. Greece has been an active participant in NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour, which patrols the Mediterranean with the aim to deter and protect against terrorist activity, and also in the Ocean Shield counter-piracy operation off the Horn of Africa. The NATO base of Souda has been vital in supporting all NATO operations in the region. The NATO Maritime Interdiction Operational Training Center at Souda is considered as a most efficient training facility for advancing inspection techniques and the enhancement of maritime security, and the Multinational Coordinating Centre for Strategic Maritime Transport in Piraeus utilizes Greece’s merchant and passenger fleet for strategic maritime transport by NATO and the EU. Apart from its key maritime contribution, Greece also supported the NATO Training Mission-Iraq and participates in NATO’s operation in Kosovo and in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, where it was one of the first participating countries, twice taking charge of the airport in Kabul.
It is true, however, that tense bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey have also affected the effectiveness of their participation in NATO throughout the years. The Cold War environment and the notion of dealing with a common enemy had dictated unity within the Alliance, nevertheless already from the mid 1950s bilateral frictions changed national priorities. In the Greek defence doctrine, allied Turkey soon replaced the Warsaw Pact as a number one threat, especially after the invasion of Cyprus and Turkish claims in the Aegean. Likewise, it is also true that Greek public opinion gradually distanced itself from the priorities of the Alliance, since it felt that those were surpassed by more urgent and unique national security priorities, which NATO could not address. And although bilateral relations between Greece and Turkey have undoubtedly improved during the past years, the lack of progress in the core of their friction that touches upon security concerns causes cooperation in the security sector to remain fragile.
Recent developments in the wider Middle East and in particular North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean underline once more the importance of Greece and Turkey for NATO and indeed of their cooperation. Both countries are located at the heart of this critically transforming part of the world, they have strong traditional ties with the countries of the region and their security and interests are seriously and directly affected by instability there. Had they managed to overcome bilateral frictions and work together in the region, their operational and political added value and effectiveness would be notably enhanced. For Greece, security concerns that shadow bilateral relations must be addressed, so that distrust and the pursuit of national priorities will not disrupt the pursuit of stability in the region. This will also improve significantly public attitudes towards the Alliance in Greece. In that case and due to the traditional ties of Greece and Turkey with the peoples of the region, joint peace operations or diplomatic mediation would be well received by the governments there and the local population and they would also set the example of reconciliation. Asymmetric threats that will probably target both countries in the future could be addressed and deterred more efficiently by joint action, an example of which is the joint patrolling within operation Active Endeavour. Combined efforts would bring to the surface common concerns for the stability of the region shared by both countries and they would reveal the major contribution their cooperation could make to the Alliance.
Dr Marina Skordeli is the Foreign Policy Advisor to the former Prime Minister of Greece, K. Karamanlis and Director, Jean Monnet European Centre of Excellence