Westernization and Ataturk’s Legacy in Turkish Foreign Policy

By: THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu

Westernization is a very important structural variable of Turkish foreign policy in the sense that since the second half of the nineteenth century Ottoman Empire’s efforts to join the key western/European international organizations, viz. external westernization, has gone hand in hand with the transformation process at home in line with the constitutive norms and values of western international community, viz. internal westernization.

Westernization is also thought of a security strategy in that Turkey would feel itself safe and secure if it came closer to the West/Europe and its western/European identity were recognized as such by westerners/Europeans. Given that the Ottoman Empire came to an end at the hands of the western European nations, the founding fathers of the Republic assumed that Turkey’s security and survival would be ensured should Europeans see Turkey as a member of the western/European family of nations. Looking from this perspective the danger would arise if western/European nations continued to define Turkey among Europe’s others. The more Europeans defined Turks as their others, the more likely Turkey would be put in the crosshair of Europeans.

Westernization/Europeanization process has both negative and positive connotations in the context of Turkish foreign policy. Turks love and hate westerners simultaneously. The negative experiences of the Ottoman past would assumingly be left behind if Turkey completed its westernization process. However, whenever westerners/Europeans questioned the credentials of Turkey’s western identity, the dominant view on the part of the majority of Turks happened to be that westerners did never and would never recognize Turkey as western/European. For example, the reluctance of Europeans to admit Turkey to EU membership has generally been interpreted as the continuation of the traditional European attitude towards Turkey, according to which Turks have been among the constitutive others of Europeans.

Turkey’s membership in NATO since 1952 and the ongoing accession negotiations with the European Union have long been the most important dimensions of Turkish foreign policy, no matter Turkish decision makers of different political persuasions have from time to time adopted non-western alternatives. Westernization has mostly manifested itself in Turkey’s efforts to side with the US-led western international community against the Soviet Union during the Cold War era. Claiming to represent the western world in its regional environment and playing an active role in the promotion of western/European values onto non-western geographies in its close proximity has constituted one of the hallmarks of Turkish foreign policy. Despite all kind of problems experienced in relations with western/European nations, particularly during the post-Cold war era, Turkey’s westernization process is still on and membership in NATO is seen vital to the fulfillment of Turkey’s national security interests. Many other foreign policy alternatives have mostly come to the agenda whenever Turkey’s relations with western/European nations deteriorated. For example, the growing crisis in relations with the United States during the course of the developments associated with the so-called Arab Spring seems to partially account for Turkey’s coming closer to Russia and Iran. Similarly, at times of tension in Turkey’s relations with the European Union, the idea of Eurasianism tends to become popular among Turkey’s strategic elites.

Turkey does not have a fundamental problem with the mainstays of the liberal international order and has never adopted a strictly revolutionary attitude towards its replacement by any non-western alternative. Yet, Turkey’s main priority is that its claim to strategic autonomy and an equal relationship with its western/European partners be recognized and given due respect within the contours of the emerging multipolar world order.         

That said, westernization/Europeanization process in Turkish policy is closely associated with the legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Republic. Despite the fact that Turkey gained its independence against the colonial European nations in the early 1920s, Ankara soon mended its relations with key western/European capitals with a view to containing and then defeating the revisionist powers. Turkey’s number one national interest during the interwar era was to protect the newly gained independence and sovereignty as well as successfully completing the radical transformation process at home, and this transformation led by Ataturk was very much western/European in its essence. Such efforts on the part of the founding fathers of the Turkish Republic required the pursuit of a pragmatic, prudent and realist foreign policy, enshrining the principle of ‘peace at home peace in the world’. Turkish rulers tried to help bring into existence a stable and cooperative regional environment so that developments outside the borders would never have negative consequences on the ongoing modernization and development processes at home.

In this sense there seems to exist a strong degree of continuity between Turkey’s efforts to support regional cooperation during the interwar years through the Balkan Entente and Saadabad Pact and the attempts of the Justice and Development Party governments at encouraging regional cooperation initiatives over the last two decades.

Western/European friendly pragmatic Turkish foreign policy approach also suggested that Turkey would do well to construct good neighborly relations with its former enemies. Involvement in the internal affairs of other states and pursuit of expansionist and irredentist foreign policies do not hold any place in Ataturk’s foreign policy understanding and this is very much line with the Westphalian character of the liberal international order long supported by key western/European nations. This is the main reason why any attempt at regime change abroad is very much criticized at home. Traditionally Turkish foreign policy has long reflected the idea that states are independent in their internal affairs and Turkey should not be involved in the business of regime change or value promotion. Trying to solve national security problems through diplomacy and international law is another legacy of Ataturk’s foreign policy understanding, which is also a point shared in common with European foreign policy culture. The revision of the Lasuanne regulations on the status of Turkish Straits through the Montreaux Convention in 1936, the incorporation of Hatay region into Turkey in 1939, and the settlement of the Mousul question and the border dispute with Iraq in 1926 are all examples of using international law and diplomacy effectively in Turkish foreign policy.