Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part I

Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part I

(Read Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.)

When Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was recently sworn in as the President of the Republic of Turkey, the ceremony did not lack in symbolism, much of it contradictory.

Erdoğan represents a shift in the nature of the Turkish state. He is a fundamental departure from every Turkish national leader before him and the most consequential Turkish political figure since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. Erdoğan emerged on the national stage out of the country’s Islamist Milli Görüş movement, which is often compared to the Muslim Brotherhood (although it differs in some key respects). After breaking with the movement in 2001, he took his Justice and Development Party (AKP) from victory to victory and was the country’s longest serving prime minister since İsmet İnönü, Atatürk’s right-hand man.

Erdoğan’s rise to the presidency is not quite the coup de grâce to Turkish laicism that admirers and critics both imagine, but observers could be forgiven for seeing it that way. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), the party of Atatürk’s, has singularly failed to achieve any sort of meaningful electoral victory for years. Rather than nominating a presidential candidate that reflected the secular ideals of their party to face off against the Erdoğan juggernaut, they joined with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – an even more Kemalist-inclined party – to nominate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu. A graduate of Islamic world’s premiere center of religious learning, Al-Azhar, and former head of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, based in Jeddah, Ihsanoğlu was not the candidate secularists hoped to see. While many secularists condemned the CHP-MHP alliance for not sticking by their principles, others praised what they saw as a pragmatic recognition of the Turkish electorate’s center-right and religious orientation.

Regardless, Ihsanoğlu lost and a prominent CHP deputy was reduced to hurling a parliamentary rulings book at the Speaker of the Turkish General Assembly before Erdoğan’s swearing in. No one really could have defeated Erdoğan, even after a corruption scandal and mining disaster that left him bloodied. As such, the opposition’s presidential nominee represented something beyond the immediate contest — a signpost, pointing to where they now understand votes can be found in the future. Turkey has changed indeed. (Michael Koplow and Steven Cook wrote an effective analysis of the Ihsanoğlu nomination and its implications.)

After Erdoğan took the oath (which includes a promise to protect “the principle of a secular republic”), he went to Atatürk’s tomb, as is customary, to pay homage to Turkey’s founding father. He then went to continue the ceremony at Çankaya Mansion, the presidential residence (at least until now; Erdoğan will be the Turkish Republic’s first president that lives elsewhere). In his remarks there, Erdoğan vowed, “The era of the Old Turkey is over. We are now in the era of a New Turkey, the Great Turkey that carries the substance and spirit of the Republic.”

Erdoğan’s friends and foes alike would agree that this is indeed a new Turkey. Over the past eleven years, Erdoğan centralized power via his party, whose leaders represent a new Islamic-oriented elite driving national policy. The Ergenekon trials ended the battle over civil-military affairs in favor of a segment of the former camp. The AKP’s “no problems with neighbors” foreign policy has been strained if not shattered. Yet its foundational ideas based on Islamic identity still drive Turkish foreign policy and its chief advocate, Ahmet Davutoğlu, was promoted to the prime ministry. It seems that, perhaps, there has been a major shift in Turkey’s strategic culture – one that has its roots in the 1980s but has not fully manifested itself until much more recent times.

But what does that mean? What is strategic culture and why is it so important? And how can it help us better understand Turkey?

Strategic culture provides a useful mechanism by which to understand the behavior of nations and the sources of this behavior.

This concept and the best means by which to investigate it are hotly contested.  There are three generations of strategic culture scholarship. While the second and third generations illuminated some methodological shortcomings with the first, they did little to improve upon them, in my opinion. And since this isn’t a literature review, I’m not going to discuss them (but feel free to read a major critique of the first generation here).

The pioneers of the first generation included Jack Snyder, Colin Gray, and Ken Booth. Snyder coined the term, describing strategic culture as the “sum total of ideals, conditional emotional responses, and patterns of habitual behavior that members of the national strategic community have acquired though instruction or imitation and share with each other with regard to nuclear strategy.” Yes, nuclear strategy. This was 1977, still in the thick of the Cold War era. These thinkers were inspired, according to Gray, by Bernard Brodie’s observation that “good strategy presumes good anthropology and sociology.” One might imagine they couldn’t have helped but also be inspired by George Kennan’s incisive “Long Telegram” and subsequent Foreign Affairs article, signed X, which focused, as the title promised, on “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” many of which were cultural, historical, and ideological.

As with all things regarding strategy, one can do much worse than starting with Colin Gray, who defined the concept as “modes of thought and action with respect to force, which derives from perception of the national historical experience, from aspirations for responsible behavior in national terms” and from “the civic culture and way of life.” He offered the most incisive and useful exploration of the concept of strategic culture in a 1999 article aptly sub-titled: “the first generation of theory strikes back.”

Gray argued that “different security communities and sub-communities (1) tend to exhibit in their strategic thought and behaviour [emphasis original] patterns that could be termed cultural, and that (2) strategic culture finds expression in distinctively patterned styles of strategic behaviour.” He defines strategic behavior as that “relevant to the threat or use of force for political purposes,” but strategy and strategic behavior encompass so much more than war and war-making. It includes the matching of ways and means in pursuit of national goals writ large and therefore involve economic, diplomatic, and informational behavior, in addition to force and its particular coercive properties.

As for culture, Gray prefers the definition offered by Raymond Williams who says culture is composed of three general categories: the “ideal,” the “documentary” – or “’the artefacts’ of intellectual and imaginative work in which human thoughts and experiences are variously recorded,” and the “social” – or the “description of a particular way of life which finds expression in institutions and ordinary behaviour.”

“Strategic culture,” argues Gray, “matters deeply for modern strategy, because the culture of the strategic players, individuals and organisations, influences strategic behaviour.”  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself touched on this when he said, “[T]he matter to which foreign policy most relates and on which it is most dependent is the state’s internal organization.”

Turkey has a distinctive approach to strategy that we can unearth and understand by examining its history, geography, political and military speeches, military strategies and organization, political organization, sense of nationality and identity, etc. And I argue that this strategic culture has been gradually experiencing a major shift since the 1980s and the pinnacle of this shift is best represented by the rise of President Erdoğan.

Turkey had a distinctive approach to strategy based on the experience of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the trauma of World War I and the war of independence that followed. The Turkish state was inward looking and obsessively focused on internal unity, strict control of religion, and a straightforward interpretation of Turkish identity that did not tolerate competition. In foreign affairs, it was not activist. It sought to stay out of foreign conflicts and to align with the West culturally, politically, and militarily. On the security front, its most important concern was its territorial integrity and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. The United States quickly became its most valuable ally after World War II. 

Ever since the death of Atatürk, political power has been slowly devolving – in uneven fits and starts, often interrupted by coups – from the center to the periphery. The shift in Turkey’s strategic culture began with the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that followed the 1980s coup as well as the leadership of Prime Minister and, later, President Turgut Özal. The late 1980s and 1990s saw the rise of the Welfare Party of the Milli Görüş movement. But we will get to that story soon enough.  

In Part II, I’ll discuss Turkey’s old, fading strategic culture. In Part III, I’ll turn to Turkey’s new strategic culture and the mechanisms that explain the shift. In Part IV, I’ll argue that this matters a great deal for the United States.

Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.