Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 2 – The Rise of Republican Strategic Culture

Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 2 – The Rise of Republican Strategic Culture

(Read Part 1Part 3, and Part 4.)

Turkey is in the headlines for its reticence to intervene more aggressively in Syria, both in support of that country’s besieged Kurds in Kobane and against their besiegers, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  A keener understanding of Turkey’s fading, but still relevant strategic culture can illuminate these events and the drivers behind them. As I explained in the first part of this series, strategic culture provides a useful mechanism by which to understand the behavior of nations and the sources of this behavior.

The Ottoman centuries and – more specifically – the Ottoman decline produced a republican elite. And it is this elite class that defined and drove Turkey’s strategic culture, just as a new religious elite has slowly been redefining it since the 1980s. Shaped by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, the republican elite latched on to a strategic culture premised on

  • An obsession with homogeneity and unity;
  • The Sèvres Syndrome (a slightly misleading term), which results in an intense distrust of outside powers – often even allies – and the threat foreign enemies pose to internal unity;
  • A related narrow conception of security, limited to sovereignty and territorial integrity;
  • Reluctance to compromise;
  • And a subsequent reluctance to get involved in the conflicts of others.

How did Turkey get here?

When the 21 year old Mehmet the Conqueror rode victoriously into Constantinople in the spring of 1453, the Ottomans seemed unstoppable. And for a long time they were, but by the 17th century, decline set in.  Conquests continued through the 18th century, but there were now major reversals and defeats. Things had changed.

The Ottoman decline got particularly nasty by the 19th century. A nationalist wave crashed down upon the Empire’s European territories. By the end of the 19th Century, the Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Bulgaria broke free and other territories were lost to Russia. The Ottoman Empire became “the sick man of Europe.” European powers all had various reasons to interfere in the internal affairs of the Empire – the management of debt, protection of Christian minorities, promotion of trade, and enforcement of major economic and commercial concessions known as the capitulations, which – as the Ottomans eventually saw it – left them debt-ridden, humiliated, and resentful of European power.

John Leech, ‘Punch’, September 17, 1853

And while this was all troubling to the Ottomans, Russia was the real problem. Russia, due to its geography and ambitions, was direct in its efforts to seize territory from the Ottomans. Over the course of three centuries, the Ottoman and Russian Empires went to war 13 times. Britain assumed a balancing role in the region, aiming to keep the Ottoman Empire intact enough to serve as a buffer zone between Russia and the Suez Canal, Britain’s lifeline to India, much like Afghanistan was seen as a buffer zone between Russia and India.

Most Ottoman territorial losses were accompanied by wars, many involving Russia, as well as massacres of Muslims by Christians and of Christians by Muslims as well as large, destabilizing population transfers. The Empire was slowly being torn apart while, at the same time, becoming more predominantly Muslim with every passing decade. The so-called Sevres Syndrome predated the Treaty of Sevres. Imagine nearly a century of territorial losses and Muslim refugees flooding into Anatolia and Istanbul and you begin to understand what happened next: the rise of the nationalist Committee of Union and Progress (CUP, which effectively seized control of the Empire a few years into the 20th Century), the hardening of identities, an obsession with internal unity, and an intense fear of division. This is not to excuse crimes against humanity, but to view events from the Turkish perspective, which is crucial to understanding the formation of a Turkish strategic culture.

Punch, 1856: The great powers cutting up Ottoman territories with a map and scissors

By 1914, the Ottoman Empire barely had any European territories left. Ethnic violence within its territory and on its borders was common. Seven years earlier, the British and Russians signed a convention that settled many of their differences and the Ottomans felt left out in the cold. With few friends to turn to, Turkey grew close with Germany, with whom they cast their lot in the First World War, against their traditional foes, the Russians. In the chaos of the war, with death all around, the Armenians of Anatolia met a tragic fate. They were displaced by fighting, faced starvation, forced out of their cities and villages, and even – in many cases – massacred. From the Turkish perspective, there was a great fear that their last refuge – Anatolia – would be torn asunder.  Many Muslims were also killed and displaced in eastern Anatolia and Russia supported Armenian guerrilla bands. The war itself was an unmitigated strategic disaster. By the war’s end, the Ottoman Empire was no more, its capital and its non-Anatolian territories occupied by its enemies. There were 2,500,000 casualties out of a total Anatolian population of 12 million, not including the missing.

In 1919, winners of the First World War convened in Paris to discuss, among other things, the future of the now deceased sick man of Europe. Paul Helmreich writes in his magisterial history of the negotiations as they concerned the Ottomans:

Traditional imperial ambitions and national rivalries, supplemented by personal conflicts and prejudices on the part of the negotiators, dominated the negotiations between the leaders of various Western powers as they proceeded, both gleefully and acrimoniously, to partition the Ottoman Empire along nineteenth-century imperialistic lines.

Negotiations between the victorious powers turned into a disorganized, spiteful process that led the French, Italians, and Greeks to encroach upon Anatolia – most notably with the Greek seizure of Smyrna (modern-day Izmir), while also calling for the creation of Armenian and Kurdish states. This was too much for the Turkish nationalists to endure. Mustafa Kemal, a member of the Committee of Union and Progress and war hero organized the nationalist movement. At the head of a nationalist congress, he presented the National Pact which elucidated a nascent Turkish identity and strategic culture.

The Pact accepted the loss of the Ottoman Empire’s Arab territories, but insisted that those areas not occupied by the victorious powers at the time of the Armistice of Mudros that have a Muslim majority were the homeland of the Turkish Nation. The National Pact rejected any restrictions on Turkish independence and development. It asserted that free trade through the Straits would be a matter for Turkey and other relevant countries to figure out.

War broke out once more, with nationalists fighting Greeks, Armenians, the French, and anti-nationalist militias who supported the Sultan. The Allies sought to formalize the dismemberment and subjugation of the Ottomans with the Treaty of Sevres (August 1920). If implemented, it would have been far harsher than the Treaty of Versailles, which dictated terms to Germany at the end of the war.

Under the terms of the treaty, Turkey would lose of all of its non-Anatolian territories and sovereignty in parts of Anatolia. It would lose control of the Straits, agree to the occupation of its capital, commit to paying reparations, agree to an independent Armenia carved out of its eastern flank and assent to the possibility of an independent Kurdistan within a few years. The Sultan’s government also agreed to “transfer to the Greek Government the exercise of her rights of sovereignty” over Smyrna, Turkey’s most important Anatolian port city, now under occupation of the Greeks. After five years, the Treaty held that Smyrna’s citizens would have the option to vote to unify itself with the Kingdom of Greece.

The signing of the Treaty and the outright Greek invasion of Anatolia changed the nationalists’ fortunes. The elites and peoples of Turkey were disgusted and dejected by the terms of the Treaty, which was rejected by Mustafa Kemal’s nationalists. The nationalists were all that stood between the people of Turkey and Greek aggression. After a major initial defeat, Turkish nationalist forces recovered and decisively drove Greek forces back. Foreign powers began inking agreements with the nationalists, who were increasingly seen as Turkey’s real government. By 1922, non-Turkish forces had all departed or been driven from Anatolia and the parts of Thrace that now belong to Turkey. In July 1923, after eight months of negotiations, the Allied powers and Turkey signed the Treaty of Lausanne, which officially nullified many of the Allies’ ambitions as represented in the Treaty of Sevres and codified the bulk of Turkey’s National Pact.  

Turkey proclaimed itself a republic in October with Mustafa Kemal as its first president. In practice, in this early period, Turkey was a paternalistic autocracy. No other political parties were allowed to organize until years after his death. In March 1924, Turkey abolished the caliphate (the sultanate had been abolished two years prior). This was the start of Kemal’s offensive against the role of the Islamic faith and Muslim institutions in Turkish politics. Within several years, he had subordinated Islam to the state, drove religion out of politics, and placed religious institutions under strict state control and regulation. In 1934 he was granted the name Atatürk meaning “father of the Turks.”

What was the nature of the republican state founded by Atatürk? In the words of Carter Vaughn Findley, it was led by a “modernist intelligentsia” that coalesced around the military, “gained control of the state and then wielded state power to shape the nation to its specifications, rejecting or repressing whatever did not fit its model.” Atatürk’s disciples viewed his principles as “non-negotiable dogmas” expressed by the ”six arrows” of his party’s official ideology: nationalism, republicanism, laicism, statism, populism, and “transformation.” These were written into Turkey’s constitution. In Atatürk’s Turkey, the only identity that officially mattered was national identity: Turkish. Unofficially, Sunni Muslims who spoke Turkish as their first language were always privileged from the start, but the heterodox Alevis were also major supporters of the republican agenda. Yeşim Bayar writes, “By linking the presence of ethnic and linguistic diversity with threats to national security, national unity and political legitimacy, the political elite justified a variety of policies aimed at ethnic groups – ranging from assimilation to discrimination and forced resettlement.”

While Atatürk’s principles set out a clear vision and path to achieving them, Frederick Frey, writing in the mid-1970s, argued that they “pertained primarily to the first stage – the stage of elite modernization.” He continues: “It clearly had very little to say about the second stage – that of bringing mass elements into active participation.” The decades that followed Atatürk’s rule have been defined by this struggle over how the Turkish people, beyond the military-centric laic elite, would participate in politics and, in doing so, shape Turkey and its strategic culture.

Turkey had to rebuild itself and recover after the devastation of the First World War and violence that followed all while shaping itself into a modern nation, which also contributed to the development of the republican elite-driven strategic culture. Bruce Kuniholm summarized Turkey’s interests in this period in his excellent history, The Origins of the Cold War in the Near East:

…Turkey renounced expansionist, revisionist ventures and concentrated on internal transformation. International peace and hence the status quo were prerequisites to her development. Development, in turn, was necessary to assure continued independence. As a small power, Turkey followed a realistic policy which, while cognizant of international pressures and the global balance of power, remained rooted in her own, national self-interest.

The Turkish Republic was a status quo country. She signed nonaggression treaties with her neighbors and other regional and European countries, including the Soviet Union and Greece. When World War II broke out, anxiety across Turkey was high. Both sides tried to pull Turkey into the war, particularly the Allies. Turkey resisted these pressures, due – in equal measure – to fears of German retaliation and Soviet post-war intentions toward the Straits and Turkish territory. Turkey remaining neutral until Germany’s defeat was a foregone conclusion.

All of this fits quite well with the republican strategic culture mentioned at the start of this article. President İsmet İnönü said “our national policy completely rejects the mentality of seeking adventures abroad.” During a period of intense international peril, Turkish leaders executed a number of diplomatic maneuvers to keep out of the war. They focused on internal unity, rebuilding their economy and military, and extending and deepening Atatürk’s reforms. To an extent, one can discern the same concerns animating Ankara’s stubbornness over getting involved in the fight against ISIL, but this does not paint the full picture, as we shall see in the next entry in this series.

As World War II came to an end, the focus of the great powers – especially Moscow – was increasingly focused on the post-war order, including in Turkey’s neighborhood. In fact, Ankara’s reluctance to become embroiled in the Second World War can be explained more by its fear of leaving itself vulnerable to the Soviet Union than by German retaliation, especially as the war dragged on.  Turkey feared losing territory and control of the Straits to the Soviet Union as well as the spread of Soviet Communism. Turkey could no longer afford to be quite so inward looking. 

Britain, worn out and weakened by the war, could no longer balance against Soviet/Russian power. As communist power threatened to encroach on Greece, Turkey, and the rest of what became known as the “northern tier,” the United States assumed Britain’s traditional role with the announcement of the Truman Doctrine in 1947. An American military assistance mission to Turkey was immediately dispatched and it endured for much of the Cold War. After paying a price of admission (Turkish participation in the Korean War), Turkey became a member of the new NATO alliance in 1952, aligning itself with the West against Russian aggression, which had previously been so perilous to the Ottomans. This defined Turkey’s overall strategic position for the duration of the Cold War, in sync with the republican elite’s strategic culture. The alliance secured Turkey’s sovereignty, allowing it to focus on internal development, but never again to the same extent that they could before the Cold War. Indeed, many key events of the Cold War tested Turkey’s strategic culture and drew out contradictions both internal to it as well as between it and the strategic reality that faced Turkey.

This overview of the experiences, geography, and ideologies that shaped Turkey and its strategic culture help explain its national behavior through the Cold War and even up through the 1990s.  The painful dismemberments of the late Ottoman period and the First World War as well as the tumult that followed have been salient to Turkey’s strategic culture. However, in the aftermath of the 1980 coup, a new strategic culture began to manifest itself. This will be the subject of the next installment in this series. 

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


Further reading:

– Dietrich Jung, “The Sevres Syndrome: Turkish Foreign Policy and its Historical Legacies,” American Diplomacy, August 2003

– Joanna Christobel Kidd, Turkey’s Participation in the European Union’s Common European Security and Defence Policy, 1998-2003 (King’s College London: DPhil Dissertation, 2009)

– Malik Mufti, Daring and Caution in Turkish Strategic Culture: Republic At Sea (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

– Güneş Murat Tezcür, Muslim Reformers in Iran and Turkey: The Paradox of Moderation (University of Texas Press, 2010).

– Yeşim Bayar, Formation of the Turkish Nation-State, 1920-1938 (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).