Turkey’s Anti-Imperial Agenda Turkish Foreign Policy, from Ataturk to Erdogan

By Nick Danforth. With even the short-term political consequences of Turkey’s June 7 election still very much up in the air, it is far too soon to predict with certainty what the vote will mean for the ERDOGAN-SYZYGOS11-06JUNE2015country’s foreign policy. What is clear, though, is that the AKP will no longer unilaterally steer the country’s course.

Even so, elements of AKP foreign policy that have most troubled Washington over the past decade will probably remain in place, at least if the campaign rhetoric of the AKP’s opponents over the past months is any guide. Although the opposition has been quick to criticize Erdogan’s foreign policy failures over the past few years, the fundamentals behind his early successes still command wide support across the Turkish electorate. Specifically, his government’s sympathetic interest in Turkey’s Muslim and Arab neighbors, often a source of conflict with the United States, fits within a long-standing pattern of nationalist anti-imperialism that predates—and may well outlive—the AKP.


Before last week’s elections, Selahattin Demirtas, the Kurdish politician whose progressive, liberal campaign unexpectedly shook up Turkish politics, publicly challenged Erdogan: “Let’s go to Egypt together and stay there until they lift Morsi’s death sentence.” “Come on,” he continued, “Let’s go to Gaza together.” If Erdogan was serious about his rhetoric of Muslim solidarity and not just trying to win votes, Demirtas implied, they could join together to be “leaders of the resistance” in Gaza and Egypt. Earlier, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of Turkey’s main secular opposition party, had set out his own foreign policy vision. He called for better relations with the United States and Israel, but, in the same breath, also spoke of improving ties with Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. If anything, his statements recalled the “zero-problems-with neighbors” policy that Erdogan’s foreign policy guru turned Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, pursued from 2003 up until his party’s policy took a more divisive tack in response to the Arab Spring.

There are many potential explanations for the AKP’s foreign policy. Some focus on ideological factors unique to the party—Islamism, various incarnations of neo-Ottomanism, and Davutoglu’s academic theories. Others invoke more pragmatic factors that suggest continuity across the political spectrum—Turkey’s growing economy, power, sense of security, and self-confidence more broadly. But there is also a deeper source of historical continuity behind Turkey’s regional policy: the effects of the country’s long-standing anti-imperialism on how it views the Arab world. From World War I to today, Turkish public opinion has been remarkably sympathetic when Arabs appear as long-suffering victims of imperial powers but hostile, in turn, when Arabs appear to be collaborating with Turkey’s imperial foes. As a result, Arabs themselves often seemed to matter only in relation to more powerful outsiders: first the United Kingdom, then the Soviet Union, and now the United States.

Osman Orsal / Reuters

A Turkish soldier in historical uniform stands at a ceremony marking the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Canakkale, part of the Gallipoli campaign, March 18, 2015.

The recent celebrations of the anniversary of Gallipoli served as a reminder that modern Turkey was born out of a struggle against the European colonial powers that threatened to swallow up the Ottoman Empire. That Ataturk was able to thwart the West militarily where the Ottomans had failed helps explain the public support, such as it was, for his subsequent Westernizing reforms. Although Ataturk and his fellow Ottoman officers eventually succeeded in driving the British and French out of Anatolia and forming a new state, they quickly realized that there was no reversing the European conquest of the Arabic-speaking Middle East.

At one level, many Turks thought the Arabs deserved it. Turkey’s leaders emerged from World War I feeling bitterly betrayed that some Arabs had cooperated with the United Kingdom in revolting against Ottoman rule. But when these same leaders watched Arabs in Iraq and Syria rise up unsuccessfully against the British and French (sometimes led by Arab officers who had served loyally in the Ottoman army) their sympathy was equally sincere. With Turkey still weak and European powers firmly in control of the Middle East, though, the question of a Turkish policy toward the region—motivated by anger, sympathy, or anything else—was essentially moot. Instead, Ankara focused its interwar diplomatic efforts on the European great powers whose actions would determine the world’s fate in the turbulent decades leading up to World War II. In fact, Turkey’s one formal diplomatic commitment in the Middle East during this period was a 1937 treaty with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran partly intended, after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, as “a signal to the rest of the world that the four independent Middle Eastern states would oppose any attempts by one of the European powers to pick them off individually.”


In the early years of the Cold War, the United States struggled to manage tensions between its European allies and the Arab world in order to forge a united front against Soviet influence in the Middle East. After World War II, the decline of British and French power and a newfound degree of Arab independence quickly forced Turkey to develop a more comprehensive policy for the region. By this point, the passage of time had softened some of the anger over Arab betrayal, allowing a distinctly anti-British and pro-Arab sentiment to come to the fore. The Turkish political elite, both before and after the country’s 1950 elections, remained dominated by men who had fought in World War I, and some of the camaraderie it had engendered was still evident. It was only later in 1950s, as Arab-nationalism took a pro-Soviet turn, that anti-Arab prejudices were once again felt in Turkish political discourse.

In the early years of the Cold War, the United States struggled to manage tensions between its European allies and the Arab world in order to forge a united front against Soviet influence in the Middle East. Turkey fully supported this effort, but Turkish sympathies often conflicted with Washington’s approach. The possibility of a British general, for example, commanding Arab, American, and Turkish troops in battle against the Soviets met with stiff resistance. The Arabs would never agree to it, Turkish diplomats said, nor would the Turkish people. George Wadsworth, the U.S. ambassador drew up a handwritten memo outlining why Turks “disliked” the British. British behavior in World War I was “not forgotten,” he wrote, while Turks believed the British “still have imperialist ambitions in the Middle East” and think of Turkey and others as “colonials.”  Meanwhile, Turkish cartoonists in the popular magazine Akbaba continued to portray Arabs as silent and suffering victims of European imperial violence. At times, the Arabs simply disappeared as the focus shifted toward European hypocrisy, elegantly illustrated in a drawing of France urinating on a document labeled human rights.

Throughout this period, U.S. diplomats also took Turkey’s support for Palestine for granted. As early as 1948, for example, the embassy even expressed concern over unconfirmed reports that Turkish military officers were resigning to go fight as volunteers with the Arabs. Turkey’s foreign minister at the time later told the U.S. ambassador that Israel’s creation had been a “mistake.” And in contrast to their sympathetic depictions of Arabs, many Turkish cartoonists were happy to use the war as an opportunity to recycle anti-Semitic jokes: a Zionist officer, say, nailing a coin to a bulls-eye to encourage recruits during target practice.

Even so, in the 1950s and beyond, American and Turkish diplomats loved to talk about Turkey’s role as a bridge between East and West. But there were differences in the way each invoked the cliché. When Anglo-Arab tensions emerged, such as in the years before the Suez crisis, the United States (which had its own anti-imperial tradition) and Turkey both, to some extent, found themselves caught in the middle, eager to smooth things over and focus on the Soviets again. Turkish diplomats felt they could bridge the gap by pushing the United States toward accommodating Arab concerns, whereas the United States hoped Ankara would instead help Arabs see the regrettable necessity of cooperating with the United Kingdom. From the U.S. perspective, Turkey sometimes seemed to be building its bridge from the wrong side. Much like Washington dismissed Ankara’s 2010 effort to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran as too accommodating, Ankara failed in trying to convince Washington to accommodate Mohammad Mossedegh during the 1952 Anglo-Persian oil dispute.

The difference, of course, was that in the 1950s Turkey usually proved willing to eventually close ranks behind the United States and United Kingdom. Describing Turkey’s position on the Anglo-Persian dispute, for example, a U.S. diplomat wrote that if Russia appeared ready to seize Iran’s oil, Western intervention would “be accepted” by the Turks. Then, reconsidering, he crossed out “accepted” and wrote instead that Western intervention would be “palatable.” In short, during the Cold War, Turkey’s anti-Soviet fears could often make Western intervention just that: “palatable.”  Soviet imperialism had replaced British imperialism as Turkey’s primary concern. As a result, Arab nationalism no longer appeared as anti-imperialist, but as a rather treacherous collaboration with Turkey’s imperial foe.

Once again, popular cartoons from the time illustrate this transformation dramatically. Instead of criticizing European hypocrisy, cartoonists began to invoke their full repertoire of crude anti-Arab prejudice, and they were never nastier than when depicting Arab leaders like Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as Soviet puppets. Arab countries and their leaders regularly appeared as horses, attack dogs covered wives, camels, caged birds, or wind-up dancing dolls belonging to Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev. In 1956, a particularly telling cartoon showed the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union sitting across the street from each other in the doorway of their respective brothels. The woman in the United Kingdom’s window is labeled Israel and the woman in Russia’s is Egypt. The Arabs now stood condemned for their relationship with the Soviet Union in much the same way they had once been for their WWI support of the United Kingdom. And Israel, with which Turkey was improving relations at the time, appeared suddenly to be on the right side. Not surprisingly, when Turkey and Israel again intensified their military cooperation during the 1980s, it was easy for the Turkish military, as fervently anti-communist as it was secular, to imagine that the PLO, like its own enemy the PKK, was an agent of Soviet domination. Ironically, opposition to the Assad regime in Syria throughout the 1990s also helped solidify the Turkish-Israeli relationship, earning the Assads a degree of sympathy on the  Turkish left that continues today.


Then came the fall of the Soviet Union and the onset of the United States’ moment of unilateral prominence in the Middle East. Turkish anti-imperialism, at long last, came to be directed at Israel and the United States. The view of Washington as an imperial power resonated with the anti-imperial nationalism of Turkey’s most outspoken leftists and Islamists alike. And this still shapes the way many Turkish voters view the region’s problems and politics. Legitimate critiques of U.S. policy and toxic anti-American conspiracies, vicious anti-Semitism and understandable anger at Israeli policies all contribute, in debatable proportions, to the perception of Arabs as victims.

The AKP’s early successes built on the party’s recognition that being on good terms with everyone in the region required everyone in the regions to be on good terms with each another as well. Had Ankara succeeded in facilitating a rapprochement between the United States and Iran or Israel and Syria, for example, it would have demonstrated its prowess as a regional mediator and also enhanced it. To the extent that these conflicts drove public opinion in Turkey, resolving them would have eased Ankara’s balancing act and facilitated future cooperation with the West. Unfortunately when these efforts failed, the AKP lost its interest in leading public opinion, and as regional divisions deepened following the Arab spring, abandoned its hopes of serving as a mediator.

Many people have drawn comparisons between Erdogan’s increasingly combative approach to domestic politics and Turkey’s increasing regional isolation. And the anti-Erdogan backlash, revealed by last week’s elections, extends to recent AKP policies particularly associated with him, like the high-profile backing of anti-Assad, Islamist rebels in Syria. But barring more dramatic geopolitical shifts, Turkish perceptions of the United States and the Arab world unlikely to change dramatically. The challenge for Washington and Ankara will remain cooperating to advance shared interests and values in the Middle East even when some of their views on the region may diverge.

Last year, Erdogan went on a tirade against modern day Lawrences of Arabia, whom he claimed were sowing chaos in Syria. Some American observers seemed surprised, even troubled, that Erdogan held such a negative view of a historic figure mostly famous for his success in killing Turkish soldiers. Hopefully there will be fewer of Erdogan’s paranoid, anti-Western tirades after his electoral setback. But no one in the United States should be pinning their hopes on Turkey electing a leader who loves Lawrence as much as they do.

Council on Foreign Relations



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