Scholars of strategic culture have noted that multiple strategic cultures can exist in the same country or community. Indeed, this is true of the concept of culture writ large. As Alastair Iain Johnston argues, “the diversity of a particular society’s geographical, political, cultural, and strategic experience will produce multiple strategic cultures….” This is certainly the case in Turkey where two elites have produced two competing strategic cultures – one republican and the other neo-Ottoman.
The rise of the neo-Ottoman strategic culture and the slow decline of the republican one have been the subject of this series so far. Both strategic cultures were elite driven (as strategic cultures almost always are). Republican strategic culture rose from the traumatic dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, which lost its populous, prosperous European territories from the early 19th century through to the First World War. This process culminated in the never-enacted Treaty of Sevres, which sought to end Turkish control of the Straits, put Smyrna under Greek suzerainty and then sovereignty, and carve out independent Armenian and Kurdish states from Eastern Anatolia. Turkish nationalists prevailed in the end under the inspiring leadership of Mustafa Kemal. These experiences and the hard realities of geography forged a strategic culture that was obsessed with homogeneity and internal unity, distrustful of outside powers (particularly Russia), saw security as limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity, slow to compromise, and fearful of getting dragged into outside conflicts.
Republican strategic culture is now being challenged and even, in some ways, superseded by a neo-Ottoman strategic culture – the product of a different elite. Mustafa Kemal disestablished Islam’s political role as he forged the Turkish Republic and the military and government bureaucracy served as reliable guardians of the principle of laicism. But in the aftermath of Turkey’s 1980 coup, a spectrum of devout political actors, including Islamists from the Milli Görüş, found more fertile soil in which to grow. The military and republican elites turned to the Turkish Islamic-Synthesis to stave off far leftist ideologies that, as they saw it, almost tore Turkey apart in the late 1970s. They enacted educational reforms that gave religious actors more room to maneuver. Turgut Özal, who from deputy prime minister to prime minister to president in the 1980s, embodied many of the transformational reforms of the era in the political, religious, military, and social spheres. He championed a more forward-leaning, activist foreign policy. While he was often stymied in these efforts by the Turkish Armed Forces, he set the stage for the more assertive strategic culture now seen embodied by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture accepts diverse, subnational identities; prefers more balance in Turkey’s Western-Eastern orientation; seeks greater regional power, if not regional hegemony; favors activism and involvement, particularly in the Middle East and broader Muslim world; and views security as a far broader concept than territorial integrity. In this entry, I will briefly address how Turkey’s two strategic cultures are interacting with two key issue facing Turkey today: Syria and the Kurdish problem. I will then discuss one case where Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture is clearly ascendant and dominant: post-Arab Spring Egypt.
Syria: Problems with a Neighbor
Bashar al Assad’s Syria was once the testing ground of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy doctrine. Erdoğan and Assad seemed to have become friends and even vacationed together. That was then. The Syrian civil war broke out and now Erdoğan and Assad are deadly enemies, with the former supporting a wide range of rebels, including a wide range of Islamists, who seek to depose the Alawite-dominated regime. Throughout the course of the conflict, Turkey’s political opposition parties have loudly and consistently protested Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue, accusing him of adventurism and recklessness (echoing opposition criticisms of Özal back in the day). From Kurds to Alevis to republicans and beyond, many Turks have serious objections with Erdoğan’s Syria policies. And as much as he grumbles about Western power and foreign lobbies, Erdoğan is still afraid of acting boldly without Western (and particularly American) backing. Erdoğan is therefore constrained. He is unable and unwilling to follow through on the strategic culture he has been so instrumental in advancing.
Kurds: Trying to Answer the Eastern Question
The Kurdish problem is perhaps the most interesting illustration of the tension between Turkey’s two strategic cultures. A restive Kurdish population has been the biggest challenge to the homogenous Turkish identity the modern Republic has sought to establish. Both Özal, himself of partial Kurdish extraction, and Erdoğan extended more political and social rights to Turkey’s Kurds than they previously enjoyed. Under Erdoğan, the Kurds enjoy greater freedom to use their own language and organize as Kurds. And in the aftermath of America’s second war in Iraq, the Turkish government forged ties with Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and started peace talks with the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), with which the Turkish state had been fighting since the 1980’s. A peace deal with the PKK would involve even greater Kurdish freedoms in exchange for PKK disarmament and demobilization.
And then two strands of Turkish policy collided. Just as the PKK talks had reportedly reached discussions about disarmament, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) exploded out of Syria into Iraq, seizing much of the country’s north and west, threatening the KRG, among others. ISIL also advanced on Kobane, one of three main Syrian Kurdish enclaves that had enjoyed relative autonomy for the last two years. While Turkey could accept military relief and support for the KRG, Kobane was a different matter. The Democratic Union Party (PYD) is the predominant Syrian Kurdish faction and is affiliated with the PKK. The PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has been effective in the field against ISIL previously, but talk of arming them came up against serious opposition from Ankara. A tension was thereby revealed between a neo-Ottoman strategic culture that sought to advance Turkish power abroad and accept sub-national identities and a republican strategic culture that was threatened by challenges to internal unity.
Egypt: Neo-Ottomanism Ascends
As the so-called “Arab Spring” took off in Egypt, then Prime Minister Erdoğan and his foreign minister saw this as their moment to shine and exert Turkey’s fatherly influence on this emerging Middle Eastern democracy and former Ottoman territory. As it rose to power, it did not take long for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood to cool to Erdoğan’s advances, although this did not decrease his desire to woo them with the so-called “Turkish Model.” When the Brotherhood was deposed, Erdoğan harshly condemned the coup as an affront to democracy and has since sheltered Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including a body that resembles a sort of government-in-exile. Erdoğan continues to condemn Egypt’s new government every chance he gets. Turkey is not only missing out on a healthy relationship with Egypt – its ties with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are also strained over the issue, aligning itself with the Muslim Brotherhood at a time these Gulf states have banned the group.
These examples demonstrate to different extents the tension that still exists between republicanism and neo-Ottomanism. Turkey’s republican strategic culture is far from irrelevant and still exerts influence over the military, opposition parties, and even explains some of the hesitancy of the ruling AKP, the key vehicle of neo-Ottoman strategic culture.
Why is this? Strategic cultures change slowly – often very slowly. Dominant strategic cultures are resilient even in the face of revolutionary strategic change (continuity between the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation provide a good example of this). One reason for this, and one that certainly applies to Turkey, is that bureaucracies are stubborn – a simple, yet under-acknowledged factor in the study of strategic culture.
Where does all this mean for U.S.-Turkish relations? It is hard to say. I will focus here on two points: the historic difficulties of U.S.-Turkish relations and the limits of personal diplomacy. Since Erdoğan rose to power, Western op-ed pages have regularly worried about Turkey’s reliability as an American ally. These op-eds constitute a genre of their own They reflect on Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism, Islamist leanings, anti-Western and anti-Israel rhetoric, and his general bombastic and stubborn style. The tone of these op-eds has intensified in the context of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s tolerance (and worse) of violent Islamist networks, its refusal to allow U.S. warplanes to use Incirlik as a base against ISIL, and Ankara’s resistance to come to the relief of the besieged Turks of Kobane have left many American observers frustrated and angry. In these op-eds, vexing Turkish policies are always juxtaposed with the simple fact that Turkey is a NATO ally as if they are asking: “How could this be? They are in NATO!”
Unfortunately, people who write op-eds for a living often have a blinkered view of history and this is especially true for those penning op-eds in this genre. The fact of the matter is, Turkey has almost always been a rather difficult ally, even at the height of the Cold War when republican strategic culture reigned. For example, this is not the first time Ankara has restricted U.S. usage of Incirlik. The air base has long been, as one reviewer put it, “a pressuring mechanism in the hands of Turkey to gain concessions from the US.” In 1970, Turkey told Washington not to use the air base to relieve Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom during Black September or to supply Israel in 1967 (although the United States did both anyway, just as Washington more recently resupplied the Kurds of Kobane in the face of objections from Ankara). In 1967 and 1974, Turkey nearly went to war with Greece – another NATO ally. In 1974, Turkey actually did seize northern Cyprus despite American objections (and thought they had sunk two Greek warships, when in fact it was a friendly fire incident against Turkish naval vessels). In response, the United States imposed an arms embargo that impacted U.S.-Turkish military relations until it was lifted during the Carter Administration. While the character of the challenges presented by Turkey have changed in line with its strategic culture, a recalcitrant, difficult Turkey is nothing new and exclusive to neither republican or neo-Ottoman strategic cultures. So before someone writes another op-ed about how uniquely impossible Erdoğan is, they should take a beat and view today’s problems in historical perspective.
During President Obama’s first term, he depicted Erdoğan as his one of his most important international friends. The president directed considerable charm and attention to strengthening and maintaining the U.S.-Turkish relationship, talking to Erdoğan regularly. But personal diplomacy does not always pay off. Turkey has gradually become a more authoritarian place and its foreign policies have been, from Washington’s perspective, far from ideal. But we cannot blame Obama for this. The forces at work driving Turkey’s foreign policies and strategic cultures are bigger than Obama and bigger than Erdoğan. Strategic culture is manifested in personalities and represented by them more than it is driven by them. I hope the United States applies this lesson, not just to Turkey, but to dealings with other allies and especially with rivals such as Russia and China.
Ryan Evans is the founder and editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks. The author would like to thank Soner Çağaptay, Michael Koplow, Bill Park, Joshua Walker, and Chase Winter for their input and mentorship in all matters Turkey.