US, NATO have strong interest in keeping Turkey close, says Blinken

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attend a photo opportunity during a NATO Foreign Ministers' meeting at the Alliance's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, 23 March 2021. [EPA-EFE/YVES HERMAN / POOL]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday (23 March) pledged to rebuild and revitalise the transatlantic military alliance after a bruising four years when Washington portrayed NATO as outdated, divided and in crisis.

The first top US official to pay a visit to NATO since President Joe Biden took office in January, Blinken said the alliance was at a pivotal moment but could emerge stronger after internal disputes over Turkey and Russian gas.

“I’ve come here to express the United States’ steadfast commitment (to NATO),” Blinken told reporters, speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“The United States wants to rebuild our partnerships, first and foremost with our NATO allies, we want to revitalise the alliance,” he added.

“The last thing we can afford to do is take this alliance for granted,” said Blinken, a longtime Biden confidant who is seeking to repair damage done by Trump’s “America First” policy.

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“The process of confronting our own shortcomings can be very painful. It can be ugly. But ultimately, at least today, we’ve emerged the better and the stronger for it,” he said.

Blinken said China’s military rise and Russia’s attempts to destabilise the West were threats that required NATO to come together, urging Turkey to embrace the alliance.

Turkish tensions

Washington has repeatedly expressed concerns about NATO ally Turkey purchasing Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems and its activism in the Eastern Mediterranean which has infuriated Greece.

Turkey had briefly blocked NATO defence plans in 2019 and launched an offensive on US-backed rebels in Syria, prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to assert that NATO was “experiencing brain death”.

Blinken said that, despite public differences with Ankara, the US and NATO had a strong interest in keeping Turkey anchored in the alliance.

“Turkey is a long-standing and valued ally,” Blinken said speaking at an event in NATO headquarters, saying it was also in Ankara’s interest to remain in the alliance.

During the meeting, Ankara pledged to host a mediation meeting to support to the Afghan peace process, which many observers have interpreted as a positive development, which would signal a willingness to rapprochement.

However, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants to reject the US peace plan and instead schedule elections within six months as part of his own plan. Ghani will present this move in April at an international meeting in Turkey, Reuters reported quoting high-ranking members of the government.

Stoltenberg acknowledged the difference in opinion regarding the S-400s issue and the Eastern Mediterranean conflict, but noted that NATO provides a significant platform to discuss and solve problems.

“I think that the strength of NATO is that by having NATO ships there, we’re able actually to bring Turkey, Greece, and the European Union together, and help to implement an important agreement,” Stoltenberg said.

This, however, comes after diplomats from both NATO members failed to reach a breakthrough on Tuesday during the latest round of talks on their stand-off over eastern Mediterranean borders and energy rights.

In Brussels, observers suggest that US President Biden has asked Europe to keep a low profile with Turkey in light of an escalating crisis between the West and Russia.

Tables have turned: EU is handling Turkey issue together with Washington

Turkey is not just a European-Turkish issue, but also an issue in our transatlantic partnership, and obviously, our partnership with NATO, senior EU officials have said.

Indo-Pacific

How to move forward with Russia and China is part of NATO’s new strategy, which also calls for greater involvement of non-NATO member countries from in the Indo-Pacific.

“It is about building new partnerships with partners in our neighbourhood, training, capacity building, but also building partnerships with like-minded countries, for instance in the Asia-Pacific: Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan – they are partners, so we’d like to strengthen our partnership to stand up for a rules-based order and also address the consequences of the rise of China,” Stoltenberg told reporters.

Asked what expanded NATO role he would see for the region, Stoltenberg has vowed to back Australia in its disputes with China.

“They have behaved very badly against Australia after Australia asked for an independent investigation into the origins of coronavirus,” Stoltenberg said.

“It is important to demonstrate we’re able to stand together when we see China trying to bully countries all over the world,” he added.

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