Conflict Casts Shadow over NATO Enlargement

Sweden’s bid to join NATO has been stalled by Turkey’s hardened stance. Both countries should overcome the dispute, considering the significance of the military alliance to deal with threats from Russia.

Nordic countries Sweden and Finland applied for North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership in May last year, having judged that they could no longer maintain their security through a policy of military neutrality in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

To become a member of the military alliance, the approval of all 30 NATO member countries is necessary, and 28 member countries have already given their approval. Hungary is expected to complete the process for its approval this month, leaving Turkey as the only country that has not approved the bids.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was once positive about approving the bid, but reversed his stance after a far-right group burned a copy of the Koran, the holy book of Islam, near the Turkish Embassy in Sweden in January, and withheld his support for Sweden’s bid.

For Muslims, who constitute the majority of Turkey’s population, burning the Koran is tantamount to rejecting their existence. Erdogan’s protest is understandable, even though the president is apparently trying to appeal to his domestic base ahead of the presidential election in May.

However, this issue and the affairs of NATO enlargement should be dealt with separately. Last June, Turkey reached an agreement with the two Nordic countries to support their bids.

Erdogan has mentioned the possibility of approving only Finland, but it goes without saying that it is preferable for the two countries to join NATO together.

Sweden has stated that the government does not support the burning of the Koran, though it is a matter of “freedom of expression.”

European and Islamic countries have repeatedly been in violent conflict over such incidents as caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad and the burning of the Koran.

Freedom of expression is fundamental to democracy, but that does not mean it is without limits. Isn’t it a prerequisite that people of different cultures and religions are not hurt?

And if such radical demonstrations occur frequently in the vicinity of the Turkish Embassy, the Turkish side will remain distrustful and there will likely be no improvement in their bilateral relations. Sweden is also urged to take action to prevent a recurrence.

NATO membership for the Nordic countries will be a symbol of the will of the Western countries to unite themselves to strengthen security in Europe and thereby prevent further aggression by Russia. Any delay in realizing the memberships could give Russia a chance to take advantage of the situation.

The United States, which has influence over both Turkey and Sweden, should make all possible diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Feb. 14, 2023)