Ottoman Legacy in Turkish Foreign Policy

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

The first legacy that the rulers of the Turkish republic inherited from the Ottoman past is that the state is the main foreign policy and security actor. Since the inception of modern Turkish Republic in 1923, national security and foreign policy interests have been particularly defined from the perspective of the state. There is a strong state tradition in Turkey. State is the main actor that provides security. State elites define which issues should be considered as security issues and security interests are defined in reference to the survival and well-being of the state. For a long time the prevailing assumption was that issues of diplomacy, foreign policy and national security were so existential and vital that they should not be left to the discretion of politicians who are predisposed to prioritize their short term political interest over long-term requirements of state survival. So long as winning upcoming elections and remaining in power busied politicians, security and foreign policy issues should not be left to their responsibility. This way of thinking has begun to change during the reign of the Justice and Development Party governments over the last eighteen years.      

The new Republic has also inherited the so-called ‘Sevres syndrome’ from the Ottoman Empire, according to which Turkey is surrounded by external enemies which see Turkey as the crown jewel in their geopolitical rivalries. Turkey’s neighbors, acting either alone or proxies of much powerful extra-regional actors, would never hesitate to make use of any opportunities to inflict damage on Turkey’s vital interests. A strong dose of siege mentality exists among Turkish people. Turkish decision makers tend to perceive Turkey’s neighbors to all directions as the pawns in the hands of great powers, which would likely use them as leverage in their relations with Turkey. The facts that many neighbors of Turkey gained their independence from the Ottoman Empire and they were very much assisted by external great powers in their efforts seem to have led Turkish decision makers to feel suspicious of Turkey’s neighbors. Hence the adages that ‘water sleeps but enemy never sleeps’ and ‘if you want peace prepare for war’.  

Another aspect of the Ottoman legacy is that diplomatic and foreign policy issues need to be dealt with secretly and behind closed doors. Open discussion of such issues before the public is generally seen as risky. Diplomatic issues require expertise. For a long time, only the state elites nested in bureaucracy were assumed to have possessed this expertise. Compared to many western liberal democratic countries, the participation of civil society and non-state actors in the formulation of Turkey’s foreign policy interests has long remained a non-starter. Diplomacy has always been the privilege of state elites in Turkey. It is during the process of Europeanization and democratization that civil society has finally begun to acquire an important role in the shaping and implementation of Turkish foreign policy interests. As of today, elected politicians are now more knowledgeable than ever about foreign policy and diplomatic issues and think tanks have emerged as institutional platforms offering expert advice to decision makers.   

Turkish rulers have also inherited an imperial mentality from the Ottoman era in that many have considered Turkey as the re-incarnation of the late Ottoman Empire in today’s world. The imperial mentality also manifests itself in the way how Turkish rulers interact with their counterparts in other countries. Turkish rulers tend to speak with foreigners as if today’s Turkey is the Ottoman Empire of the sixteenth century. Longing for respect, equality and status shapes Turkey’s relations with much powerful countries profoundly. Imperial mentality also suggests that Turkey holds itself responsible for the well-being of people living in the post-Ottoman geography. The practice of defining Turkey as a responsible diplomatic actor that should contribute to the solution of regional and global humanitarian, developmental and security problems has strengthened during the reign of the Justice and Development Party governments since 2002. The imperial mentality seems to have made itself appear in the foreign policy discourse of many high level figures in state apparatus. For example, former Prime Minster Ahmet Davutoglu was fond of underlining that the scope of Turkish diplomacy is global and Turkey should act as an order-creator country in its environment. The circles which tend see Turkey through imperial eyes find it difficult to understand why some people appear to think that foundation of the Republic of Turkey represents a clear break with the Ottoman past.    

Another legacy of the long Ottoman years is that such alternative ideologies as pan-Turkism, pan-Ottomanism, westernizm and pan-Islamism have continued to shape Turkey’s foreign policy thinking and practices during the Republican era to varying degrees. Despite the fact that the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic discarded all adventurist strategies from the lexicon of state and heavily invested in Turkish nationalism, all alternative ‘isms’ have continued to be influential in coming decades. 

Another legacy of the Ottoman Empire inherited by the new Republic is that Turkey would not be able to achieve its national interests abroad if military victories won on battlefields were not translated into political/diplomatic gains around conference tables. Hence, a powerful diplomatic capacity. In this context, Turkish diplomats put a great degree of emphasis on legitimizing Turkey’s national interests through the instruments of international law. Securing legitimacy in the eyes international public opinion through the successful employment of international law has always been important in Turkish diplomacy. Hence, the strong international law tradition in the institutional structure of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  

Turkey’s defensive realpolitik security culture has also been decisively shaped by the Ottoman era experiences. Since the beginning of the Republic, Turkey’s diplomatic efforts have aimed at protecting Turkey’s territorial integrity, national sovereignty and societal cohesion. The number one national security interest has been to preserve Turkey’s gains and ensure that Turkey survives as an independent sovereign country. Maximalist and irredentist claims have never shaped Republican era diplomatic practices. As a middle power, Turkish diplomatic and security initiatives aim at reading the external developments right and taking the most appropriate measures in responding to them. In case Turkey’s internal capabilities lacked, Turkish rulers did their best to secure the cooperation of external actors against common enemies. The idea of playing great powers off against each other is quite strong in Turkey. Balance of powers politics has shaped Turkish diplomacy since the early 1920s. Signing strategic cooperation agreements with Britain and France on the eve of the World War 2 and joining NATO in 1952 should be understood as Turkey’s efforts to achieve its security interests through the implementation of alliance politics.