Turkey’s Competing Strategic Cultures: Part 4 – Now and Into the Future

(Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.)

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Republican strategic culture is now being challenged and even, in some ways, superseded by a neo-Ottoman strategic culture – the product of a different elite.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. 

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Turkey’s Shifting Strategic Culture: Part 3 – From Republican to Neo-Ottoman

(Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4.)

Coups are a constant reference point in Turkish politics. This is not surprising given the fact that the country has experienced three of them, plus a military intervention into politics in the late 1990s that has been dubbed a “post-modern coup.” The 1980 coup occupies a uniquely salient position in Turkey’s historical memory and contemporary politics. It was the most far-reaching in terms of its remaking of the Turkish polity and the most heavy-handed.  Its masterminds – real and imagined – are routinely condemned and disparaged for their repressive measures. Just this past summer, the two surviving coup leaders, including General Kenan Evren, who served as Turkey’s self-appointed president for most of the 1980s, were sentenced to life imprisonment.  In 2010, amidst efforts to reform the Turkish Constitution, which was heavily revised by the 1980 coup leaders, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused those opposing reforms to be defenders of the coup. He read aloud letters from people who were executed during the coup with tears welling up in his eyes and described the constitutional referendum as a way to “face the torture, cruelty, and inhuman practices of Sept. 12, 1980.”

Ironically, surveying the landscape of Turkish history, it is clear that no event contributed to the rise of Turkey’s new, Islamic-oriented strategic culture more than the 1980 coup. Given the fact that the coup was launched precisely – like those before it – to maintain and defend the republican order, how can this be?

In the previous entries in this series I explained the concept of strategic culture and how it can illuminate our understanding of Turkish national behavior. I discussed the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s republican strategic culture out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the violent struggles that followed. In this entry, I will examine the roots, rise, and character of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture. And in pursuit of that aim, no event is more crucial to understand than the 1980 coup and the political reforms that followed.  But how can we characterize the neo-Ottoman strategic culture?

  • Accepting of diverse identities internal to Turkey, including ethnic and especially Islamic identity.
  • A rebalancing of Western-Eastern orientation.
  • A desire to become the region’s major political, military, and economic power.
  • A related ethos of international activism and even interventionism, particularly in the Middle East.
  • A conception of security interests reaching far beyond territorial integrity.

If republican strategic culture was a rejection of Ottoman universalism and expansionism, neo-Ottomanism is, in turn, a return to these qualities and a rejection of republican constraints. This neo-Ottoman strategic culture (Malik Mufti calls this an “imperial” strategic culture in his excellent Daring and Caution in Turkish Strategic Culture, which has heavily influenced my thinking here)* is a major departure from the republican strategic culture. Now, the external world is a source of opportunity for the spread of Turkish power. And the very idea of Turkish power is now more imperative and far broader in its application. It includes Turkey’s ability to realize its will outside of its borders, even  intervening in internal political matters in other states across the Muslim world.

How does this bring us to the 1980 coup? The coup kicked off three intertwined developments that enabled the rise of a new, Islamic-oriented elite that has come to change Turkey’s strategic culture: the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis, the transformative leadership of Turgut Özal, and neo-liberal economic reforms.  These will be discussed below to explain the rise of Turkey’s neo-Ottoman strategic culture.**

The late 1970s were turbulent years for Turkey. From December 1978 to the coup in September 1980, there were nearly 9000 violent incidents across Turkey, with over 3500 people killed and over 10,000 people wounded.  By 1980, almost half of Turkey’s 67 provinces contained so-called “liberated zones.” The far left battled the nationalist far right. The economic turbulence of this period played no small role in driving the political violence of the 1970s. The Turkish economy languished, feeding instability.  While industrialization and production proceeded, the expansion of the manufacturing sector was not met with a growth in jobs sufficient to take in the labor force bleeding out of the shrinking agricultural sector. Foreign trade was dismal. Unemployment reached 11 percent. Seven months before the coup, consensus formed for a transition from centralized planning of industry and import substitution industrialization to an export-led neo-liberal development model. Özal, during this period, was an economic technocrat with political ambitions. In January 1980, he was charged with implementing a liberalizing economic reform program spurred by the IMF as head of the State Planning Organization and Deputy Under-Secretary of the Prime Minister (then Demirel). 

In the context of the Cold War and Turkey’s own internal divisions, the greatest concern for the Turkish Armed Forces was the far left. They saw far left militants and activists as serious threats to the internal unity of the state being sponsored by a fundamentally hostile Soviet Union. The religious right armed itself as well, but was not a major player in the political violence that wracked Turkey. They did, however, hold a series of provocative rallies during which they chanted for sharia (Islamic law) and the remaking of the Turkish state into a theocracy. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in neighboring Iran had provided an example that no one in the Turkish Armed Forces cared to emulate.

With alleged support from the United States, General Kenan Evren planned and launched a coup on September 12, 1980. Tens of thousands were arrested, weapons were seized, and politicians were deposed.

From 1980 to 1983, the Turkish Armed Forces set about remaking the country’s social and political fabric into something more durable. Schools were purged, curricula rewritten, and existing political parties banned. General Evren became president and stayed in that role, wielding veto power until 1989. A new constitution was approved in 1982. Leftist leaders and groups bore the brunt of the crackdown. After the coup, Özal was appointed as Deputy Prime Minister in charge of Economic Affairs.  The military regime, in a departure from its preference for state planning, chose to continue down the path of liberalization.  As a part of its transition to a neo-liberal development model, Turkish imports and exports took off in the post-coup period, more than doubling from 1979 to 1981. And GNP rose, although inflation remained high (but far lower than it had been in the late 1970s). Trade took off.

Evren’s regime attempted to bolster the Turkish right and infuse it with Islam in what became known as the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis. This ideology, intended to counter leftism, had its roots in the Intellectuals Hearth, a movement started in the 1960s that sought to bridge the divides across the political right between far right nationalists and the devout. Banu Eligur, in her excellent study of Turkish Islamism, explains, “The nationalist intellectuals associated with the Hearth viewed Islam not only as a crucial part of Turkish culture, but also as a part of the ideological context of society.” Like elsewhere in the Muslim world during this time, Islam was understood to provide a strong barrier against communism. This is not to say that the Turkish state began to sponsor and endorse Islamism, but it became far more tolerant of a spectrum of Islamic political activism as a bulwark against subversive leftism. Tapper, in his classic volume Islam in Modern Turkey, tells us “Proponents of the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis wanted an authoritarian but not an Islamic state: religion, the essence of culture and social control, must be fostered in schools, but it must not be politicized.” Still, Eligur argues that this “represented a fundamental shift in state ideology away from Kemalist secularism.” This led to a few contradictions in Turkish policy (religious principles were still constitutionally banned from political life) leading left wing secularists and Islamists themselves to criticize the state.  Eligur explains, “As a result of the military’s strategy, the process of Islamization in society grew stronger than ever.”

Civil elections took place in 1983 under very strict controls. Only three parties were permitted to participate. Among them was Turgut Özal’s Motherland Party. His party won a majority of seats and he formed a government by December. He was therefore able to solidify and sustain the liberalizing economic reforms as Prime Minister once the transitional period was over. The Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party, founded by Necmettin Erbakan in 1983, was one of the parties that was at first banned from national elections, but it was allowed to be otherwise active. Martial law remained in effect for some years after. Key reforms were enacted that made religious education mandatory and provided religious groups more room to maneuver. 

Özal himself embodied many of the reforms of the period beyond just economics. He, the first neo-Ottoman national Turkish leader, set the stage for Erdoğan’s successful offensive against the republican strategic culture. Özal was devout without being an Islamist, although he ran in the 1970s unsuccessfully on the Islamist National Salvation Party ticket before going to work for Demirel’s Justice Party. As Metin Heper explains (pdf):

[Özal’s] father, Mehmet Sıddık, was a devout Muslim, having played a significant role in Özal’s religious beliefs and practices. At different periods in his life, Özal regularly attended the Naksibandi Brotherhood’s İskenderpaşa Dergahı (Seminary) in Istanbul. Özal had connections with Mehmet Zahit Kotku (1897-1980), who was the Shaykh of the İskenderpaşa Dergahı.

Kotku was the spiritual guide of Erbakan, the founder of Turkey’s preeminent Islamist movement, Milli Görüş (National View, or Outlook).  Heper continues:

Although Özal opposed certain Republican ideals and policies, his reservations about those…were not informed by religious considerations. Particularly in the early Republican period, the Ottoman past had been relegated to the attic of Turkish history, as those centuries were considered a complete failure. In contrast, Özal held the Ottoman past in high regard.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Turkey was faced with a turbulent Middle East and Özal often strained to get more involved in matters beyond Turkey’s borders, for which he was criticized by Turkey’s republicans for “adventurism.”  The Middle East had been mostly ignored by Ankara in the Cold War era, but Özal was not merely being an adventurist. He was, in part, responding to the fact that Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbors – namely Iran, Iraq, and Syria – had developed strong and capable military forces, to include ballistic missiles that could threaten Turkey. Özal had a vision to make Turkey “one of the [world’s] ten or fifteen leading nations,” as he said in a 1992 speech. He said, “In the years of the Republic, we see a timid Turkey; a Turkey that remained closed in on itself and…that took care to have as little contact as possible with the outside world. We have constructed a kind of wall around ourselves….” Özal aimed to take down that wall.

Among the social and political consequences of economic liberalization championed by Özal was the growth of wealth and economic activity outside of traditional, state controlled networks and other business networks close to the state.  This began to expand the middle class and awaken the political influence and awareness of segments of Turkish society that had thus far been far more peripheral.  Erbakan’s Welfare Party was one of the beneficiaries of these developments. Özal became Turkey’s president in 1989 and served in that capacity until his untimely and suspicious death in 1993. Upon becoming president, Özal began to acknowledge and even foster Turkey’s sub-national identities, admitting publicly that he himself was partially of Kurdish extraction.

But something else happened: the Cold War ended. And with the end of this era, the Russian threat to Turkey suddenly and dramatically withered.  The end of this era left Turkey’s elites both relieved and vulnerable. They were of course pleased that an expansionist communist empire was longer at their border, but there was also concern that Turkey would now be seen as a less important ally to the West in a post-Cold War world. Özal said, “[I]n the balance of the future…we will hold two cards. One is the card we hold with the Western countries, and the other is the card we hold with these Islamic and Arab countries. Turkey is obliged to carry both these cards.”

Erbakan’s Welfare Party went from success to success in the 1990s and he even captured the prime ministry, only to be deposed by the 1997 “post-modern coup” after proposing educational reforms that displeased the military and pursuing openly Islamist foreign policy aims. In the years following the coup, Turkey’s religious right reconfigured itself and some younger Islamist leaders, including Turkey’s former and current presidents – Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan – broke from Erbakan and the Milli Görüş to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which promised to be Islamic without being Islamist and would embrace rather than heap scorn upon the West. Among some key early AKP leaders were former members of Özal’s inner circle from the Motherland Party.

Erdoğan and the AKP went from victory to victory at the ballot box since the 2002 national elections, making Erdoğan Turkey’s most powerful leaders since Atatürk and the AKP the most successful political party since the multi-party period began in the 1940s. The character of the AKP has evolved from a center-right party that attracted both liberals and the devout to a conservative party with mild authoritarian tendencies and an appetite for greater risks abroad. Many of the liberals who joined with the AKP out of exasperation with the military’s role in politics and the tiresome antics of the established parties have since left the AKP.

In the context of Turkey’s strategic culture and approach to foreign policy, there are some interesting parallels between Özal and Erdoğan besides their piety. In some cases, where Özal fell short, Erdoğan has succeeded. But in others Erdoğan has fallen into the same traps. Both sought to confront the military and shake up military personnel at the highest levels of leadership. Özal, as president, overruled the recommendation of the outgoing chief of staff of the Turkish Armed Forces and appointed his own choice, which was described by the media at the time as a “civilian coup.” He sought unsuccessfully to reduce the military’s influence over Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Erdoğan cooperated with the Gulenist-influenced police and judiciary to imprison nearly 15% of all Turkish generals and flag officers in an effort to coup-proof the state to protect the AKP’s democratic gains. One of Erdoğan’s most loyal lieutenants now runs the MİT. Both Özal and Erdoğan sought to bury old problems with neighboring states. When Özal ascended to the presidency, in the words of Mufti he “installed an underling in the prime ministry and ran Turkey “virtually by decree, and began agitating for a formal shift from a parliamentary to a presidential system.” Erdoğan has followed the same script. Özal tried and failed to smooth things over with Greece and Syria. Erdoğan implemented Ahmet Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy (described here by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and evaluated less charitably here), which imploded with the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war.

Regardless, the republican elite that once governed the country and maintained its particular strategic culture has now been supplanted. They have been defeated at the ballot box and republican military guardians have been jailed, cowed, and largely silenced for the time being. Turkey has not totally abandoned its republican strategic culture, but it now has a stronger competitor evident in Turkey’s contemporary behavior, which I will discuss in the next entry in this series.


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


* Many of the quotes in this article are translations from Mufti’s book and I recommend it highly.

** Rather than trying to discuss every major foreign policy event or crisis during the period under discussion in this article, I focus on the drivers and factors shaping this new, rising strategic culture. 

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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).

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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.

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