President Trump called Turkey President Recep Erdogan to congratulate him and his ruling party on a narrow win for a constitutional referendum that will change the country's system of government from a parliamentary to a presidential one in a way that will also leave the presidency with fewer checks and balances—reinforcing Trump's preference for an authoritarian style of government while also illustrating why he was correct not to treat NATO as a sacred cow during the 2016 election, even though he's come to do so as president.
American presidents call dictators all the time—U.S. foreign policy has gone a long way from George Washington's warning against "permanent alliances" and Thomas Jefferson's promise of "honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none," arriving in the opposite place, with all kinds of entangling alliances with dishonest friends, while NATO is as permanent alliance as it gets. There is not even a formal mechanism to eject a country that, say, is sliding toward authoritarianism or pursuing an aggressive foreign policy that increases its risk of the kind of attack that might trigger Article V, the mutual self-defense guarantee.
Turkey's transformation into an authoritarian government did not start with the results of Sunday's election, which was highly criticized by election monitors on the ground. The Turkish government's crackdown on a free press had been ongoing for years, and accelerated last summer after a failed coup attempt. During the referendum campaign, Erdogan likened his European NATO allies to Nazis for not permitting his government to electioneer in favor of the referendum in their countries.
More worryingly, Turkey has been repeatedly accused of providing support for ISIS and other extremist groups in Syria, especially those fighting the Kurds, with whom the U.S. and other NATO members involved in the war on ISIS have allied. Earlier this year, Turkey lobbied the U.S. unsuccessfully to drop Kurdish forces from the forces organized to take Raqqa from ISIS.
Turkey is just an Article 5 invocation away from throwing the kind of monkey-wrench into NATO's mechanics that observers worried Trump would when he refused to say that the U.S. would come to the aid of a NATO country that was under attack.
Article 5 has only been used once, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S. Since then, the U.S. has embarked on a foreign policy that has helped put it and its allies at risk. ISIS, a self-styled state, emerged from the chaos fueled by an ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003 and has taken advantage of the conditions created by U.S. interventions from Afghanistan to Libya to set up shop. ISIS-aligned fighters have carried out a number of high profile terror attacks in Europe, including France and Belgium. Both are NATO members.
Article 5 wasn't invoked after the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris on November 15, 2015, despite France President Francois Hollande calling the attacks an "act of war" and the use of Article 5 offering, as Ilya Somin pointed out in The Washington Post, a legal justification for the war the Obama administration was already waging on ISIS.
Trump's appropriation of non-interventionist stances on issues like NATO, U.S. alliances with authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia, and military interventions in places like Libya and Iraq was unconvincing, in part because of the general fluidity of every other political position he took, in part because of his consistent admiration for authoritarian leaders, and in large part because of his expressed, genuine-seeming desire to "blow the shit up out of ISIS."
In this context, Trump's heel-turn on NATO shouldn't be surprising. It's a lot easier to escalate the U.S. wars he inherited, and start his own, without also trying to challenge the international status quo.
But recent developments in Turkey show why just such a challenge is important. U.S. foreign policy is guided by decisions made after World War 2 and during the Cold War, of which Turkey's membership is a relic. During the presidential campaign, Trump promised serious reflection on the U.S.'s role in the world. His promise was false, but that reflection continues to become more necessary by the day.