by W. Robert Pearson
The Creation of Türkiye
Modern Türkiye (the official spelling of Turkey since 2021) sprang like a phoenix from the ashes in 1923, overcoming daunting odds. Its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, had foolishly joined the war with the Central Powers in 1914 and naively thought its Arab subjects would remain loyal, only to have been utterly defeated and then dismembered. A rebellion led by the empire’s most famous war hero and leader, Kemal Ataturk, overthrew the last sultan, rejected an unjust treaty to divide up the country and repelled the occupying Allies. He established a contemporary republic based on popular will and modern law to begin a new history for the Turkish people. Born from the wreckage of war and national chaos, Türkiye now, one hundred years on, has become a formidable player on the global stage.
World War One witnessed four empires – the German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and Ottoman – disappear from history. Of the four, the Turks were the most severely treated by the European victors. Little of Germany and none of the Austro-Hungarian states were occupied. Türkiye was. The country also was originally forecast to become a League of Nations mandate, losing its sovereignty, a punishment not assessed against any other Central Power.
Türkiye’s victory at the negotiating table in the early 1920’s over the European Allied Powers and on the battlefield principally against the Greeks, who were encouraged by the British to invade Türkiye to recover territories, was a singular achievement. The final agreement – the Treaty of Lausanne – gave Türkiye its complete independence on October 29, 1923, with Mustafa Kemal as its first president. It was the only such treaty negotiated by a WWI Central Power state with the Allies.
The power of this fact – that Türkiye had shaped itself, rather than being subject to Allied diktat – allowed Turks to believe in their destiny and avoid the political storms of the inter-war period. Germany became fascist, Russia solidified into communism, and fascism was rampant in the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Only Türkiye among the defeated nations of WWI escaped these dangers.
The results of the Armenian genocide during WWI and the mass exodus of Greek citizens of the former Empire after the defeat of the Greek invasion left a population in Anatolia almost entirely Muslim. The multiculturalism of the Empire vanished, and Turkish nationalism became the watchword of the new Republic.
Victory in Türkiye’s War of Independence created a new nation whole and free, but still insecure and unformed economically, politically, and militarily. Thus, in addition to creating a new state on the international stage, Ataturk had to create a new nation of one people to replace the separate community identities that characterized life under the Empire. This he did with an ingenious decision to make the derisive term “Turk” a badge of honor instead. Thus, the inhabitants of the Republic lost their individual ethnic identifications to become by linguistic fiat one people, one large tribe, all sharing the same destiny.
With a state and a nation of one people, Ataturk over the following 15 years transformed the old Empire’s social, cultural, economic, and legal structure to create the institutional pillars of a modern member of the global order. He drew on the legacy of Ottoman constitutional and legal reform from the late 19th century.
The provisional and revolutionary Grand National Assembly (Meclis) abolished the Sultanate in 1922. The following year, the Meclis abolished the Caliphate, freeing the Republic of all religious authority over the Muslim faith worldwide. The result was a secular state with democratic institutions, and a commitment to a modern legal system of rule of law and equality of citizenship. Moving the capital to Ankara symbolized the rejection of the Ottoman legacy. Most importantly, these reforms gave Türkiye a structure it designed itself to be modern, but separate and not dependent on Western countries.
What followed was a tsunami of stunning changes: in dress, in culture, in use of the Western dating system, the 24-hour clock, the alphabet, the economy, secularization of law, adoption of a new civil and criminal code, education, the emancipation of women, and others that fill a separate volume if detailed. There was some open resistance to the reforms, and many in rural areas just continued practices that fit their cultural and legal traditions. Nonetheless, by 1935, Türkiye was a profoundly different place.
Unresolved Questions of the Republic
Despite the astonishing transformation in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Ataturk’s death in 1938 left major questions unresolved. The first was the future of Türkiye’s commitment to democracy given continuing one-party rule. Second was the fear that determined secularization had separated a Western elite ruling class from a rural population loyal to faith and tradition. Third was that the focus on nationalism and the rejection of ethnicity as an element of political power deprived Kurds in Türkiye of a recognized political identity and role. All of these questions continue to trouble the Republic today.
Despite the creation in 1923 of democratic institutions and the embrace of democratic principles, Türkiye has been and is today characterized by one party rule. The three most influential strong men in Turkish politics since independence – Kemal Ataturk, Turgut Ozal, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – have all governed through de facto one-party rule. Periods of multi-party coalitions have too often been characterized by factional in-fighting, sharp disputes between parties and anemic economic growth. The numerous coups and attempted coups during Türkiye’s political evolution have also weakened confidence in democratic rule.
Türkiye’s current government has a partner – a rigidly right-wing group – but operates as a one-party system. The partnership ensures a parliamentary majority for the government and a hard right political agenda. Written descriptions of the current presidential governing system in Türkiye show a division of powers and independence of action among the executive, legislative, and judicial bodies. In truth, the executive controls the legislature, uses the judicial system to punish its enemies, and dominates the press and media. Democracy for Türkiye is not yet in sight.
One reason is that opposition parties have proven ineffective. In the presidential election in May 2023, despite government failures responding to a massive earthquake, high inflation, and widespread unemployment, the government prevailed with a campaign based on fear and nationalism. While externally opposition parties profess to have programs that will help the country, internally they often behave like little sultanates with patronage and financial power solely in the hands of the party leadership. This prevents reform within the parties and cooperation with other parties, as each faction acts on its own narrow interests. Leadership itself has ossified, leaving Turks to fight over the same old issues with the same array of political personalities. For the last twenty years, the priority of the opposition parties seems to have been to survive rather than to put aside their differences and improve their opportunity to turn the country towards democracy.
Ataturk’s secularizing reforms were perhaps the most visible and contentious of his changes. They overshadowed but never eliminated the traditional faithfulness of millions of middle class and rural Turks to Islam. Deeply rooted in custom and in the core life events of birth, circumcision, marriage, and death, Islam was a haven from or even response to the rapid changes of Turkish life from 1920 to 1950.
From 1950 on, the presence of Islamic oriented policies and politics gradually reappeared and by the 1980’s had created a divide in Türkiye’s governance principles. Religious education became compulsory in primary and secondary schools in the early 1980’s. Islam was used as a buffer against leftist ideals. Islam continued to spread through new mosques, religious schools, books, newspapers, child-care centers, youth hostels, financial institutions, consumer cooperatives and finally radio stations and, in 1994, the first Islamic television station. Islam had become inseparable from politics and power in Türkiye.
From the 1980’s, a movement combining science and Islam, led by an Islamic scholar, Fethullah Gulen, gained significant influence in Türkiye. He became a partner in Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s first government in 2002. He broke with Erdogan in 2013 over widespread corruption in Erdogan’s party. In 2016, after an attempted coup blamed on Gulen, Erdogan had some 100,000 of the Gulen followers in Türkiye’s government and institutions purged.
Erdogan in his political career has sought the support of faithful Muslims but curtailed their direct institutional influence in government choices. He has combined today the traditional faith of Islam with the nationalist pride of Turks into a powerful political combination. Notwithstanding, 25 million Turks in May 2023 voted for democracy. Devotion to a democratic future remains strong in Türkiye.
Its Kurdish inhabitants were among the most conservative adherents of Islam when Türkiye achieved independence. Comprising about 15 to 20 percent of the population and living mainly in the east and southeast of the country, they have often opposed secular Turkish laws and resent being stripped of the separate legal identity and role they enjoyed under the Empire. Today, the Kurdish language is prohibited for instruction in public and private schools. A conflict against a radical Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, has raged off and on since 1983, with thousands dead. The current government’s right-wing partner is especially hostile to the Kurds. According to reports, a large majority of Turks believe the Kurds want a separate country. A significant majority of Kurds say they do not. With this conflict now in its 40th year, neither side is attempting to achieve a ceasefire or start negotiations.
A recent attack in Ankara by the PKK, followed by a series of Turkish attacks on Kurdish targets in Syria, illustrates the inability or unwillingness of both sides to seek an accommodation. The US works with Kurdish Self Defense Forces in Iraq to confront ISIS as evidence mounts of these terrorists’ increasing strength. At this point, neither the US nor Türkiye has made any headway in dealing with their split on this issue.
Türkiye’s economy is mired in the upper middle-income ranks, listed today at 19 from a ranking of 16 two decades ago. Delays in needed economic reforms, high inflation and unemployment, high private sector debt, persistent current account deficits and the devastating earthquake in February 2023 are a sea anchor on healthy growth. Demographic trends are not favorable: over time, Türkiye’s population will grow more slowly and age more quickly.
In 2023, the government recruited two recognized global Turkish experts to address the problems. The government seems at last to understand the issue and be willing to do something about it. This will not be easy. The present inflation rate is 61.5 percent. Türkiye’s three-year economic program projects inflation of 65 percent for end of 2023, 33 percent for 2024, 15.2 percent for 2025, and 8.5 percent by the end of 2026. The government’s current interest rate is 30 percent, a good start but far from actually controlling the value of the lira, Turkish purchasing power, and repayment of dollar-denominated debt.
The Impact of Geography on Turkish Foreign Policy
Türkiye is surrounded by large and small immediate and near neighbor states: European, Central Asian, Middle Eastern and African. The Turks arrived in Anatolia as the last major foreign migration, millennia after the establishment of other peoples of the region, including Arabs, Armenians, Kurds and Europeans. Long before the Republic was formed, the Ottomans balanced relations in every direction and with multiple cultures. This legacy has led Türkiye to see itself as surrounded and potentially threatened, while simultaneously also of unique importance simply because of its location. The resultant sense of pride and importance grounded in the country’s location has fostered a strong nationalism in Turkish leaders. They tend to expect concessions simply because they speak for Türkiye; this state of mind can cause them to overplay their hand. While Türkiye is powerful enough that it cannot be ignored, its policy of blocking progress in order to achieve its goals has led to deadlocked positions lasting decades, for example in dealing with Armenia, in addressing Aegean issues with Greece, and in pursuing its energy ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.
Türkiye’s Strategic View
True to its centuries-old perspective Türkiye will continue to balance its relations in multiple directions for advantage. President Erdogan’s aim is to make Türkiye the most powerful state in the Middle East region. Today, Türkiye has a military base or installation on every water way into the Middle East region – the Black Sea, the Aegean, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf and even west of the Middle East in Libya. It is the only country in the region with a security reach this extensive.
Türkiye has the longest coastline in the eastern Mediterranean and the least access to the energy resources of the region. Ankara pursues an aggressive policy of seeking allies to work with while threatening states such as Greece, Cyprus and Egypt to gain greater access to seabed energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean. In working to expand its influence, Türkiye is not only asserting its own national interests but attempting to respond to regional Arab concerns about Iran, Russia, and China as US influence has waned.
Formerly widely admired for its emphasis on cooperation and mediation, Türkiye has more recently preferred military intervention and coercive diplomacy to fill security gaps and advance its foreign policy objectives.
Türkiye’s robust defense program aims to eliminate reliance on foreign technology and equipment, especially from the US and Germany. Among its achievements are a long-range anti-ship cruise missile, world-class drones, a standard issue rifle, an attack helicopter, a new Turkish tank, a domestic program to upgrade German Leopard 2 tanks, a new class of corvettes, new frigates, and an amphibious assault ship that can function as a light aircraft carrier with a platform for drones. In addition, Türkiye has begun mass production of an unmanned combat aircraft, is building German-designed submarines with anti-ship and cruise missile capability and has in service an air-launched cruise missile. Türkiye has an active space program, has launched satellites, and plans a multinational moon landing in 2023 and an independent moon landing in 2028. Türkiye is not a partner of the United States in the Artemis Accords of 30 countries cooperating on space issues. Türkiye’s defense imports have steadily declined, and its rapidly growing military exports saw a 26% increase in 2022.
Türkiye at 100 Years
Türkiye’s global power and influence continue to rise. Today, Türkiye is a non-aligned country drawing away from the West and NATO strategically and focusing on its regional role. NATO is a convenience for Türkiye, useful when needed, and used regularly and visibly by Ankara to separate itself from Alliance goals. No matter how the Russian invasion of Ukraine ends, Türkiye plans to maintain positive ties with Russia. Erdogan has said that he trusts Russia as much as he trusts the United States. It seems clear that Türkiye will not be confronting Russia in the foreseeable future.
Türkiye’s independent approach will carry over to its ambitions in the Middle East as well. How the US and Türkiye deal with security issues in the region has potential for cooperation but probably not for convergence. Türkiye’s interesting offer to mediate in the Israel/Hamas war on October 9 provided a possibility for Ankara to expand its role and possibly provide common ground for the US and Israel to work with Türkiye if and when conditions make it possible. That offer has now been withdrawn.
Türkiye on the global stage has made no secret of its view that the global order is weakening, and the role of the US is diminishing. Ankara sees itself and other non-Western countries focused on regionally cooperative security and economic relations. According to Ankara these regional configurations carry the torch of the future and also emphasize the role of the global south in the coming decades. Türkiye will certainly take account of the strength of the US economically and militarily but will work to lower the profile of the US in world affairs when it seems opportune.
In conclusion, Türkiye has reached its goal of creating itself anew and working forward to a significant status in the global community. Ankara is not ideologically driven but impelled by its ambitions and growing power. Therefore, it is not likely to try to foment revolution in world order, but rather to encourage a shift to new arrangements of power that benefit middle ranking and global south countries.
At 100 years, Türkiye still has not solved the dilemmas of the Ataturk reforms. There is no democracy yet. The issue of Islam and governance remains divisive. The Kurdish role in Türkiye’s future is still undefined with no lasting solution in sight.
In modesty, however, we might look at the United States status at its own first centennial in 1876. Wealthy industrialists were violently suppressing labor organizers, white supremacists were lynching African Americans, fellow citizens in a one-party South, and we were in the last decades of eliminating any independent culture for Native Americans. Yet, even so, we were living on the promise of the Declaration of Independence of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, striving to shape our Constitution to create a better democracy, and preparing for a future as a global power.
It would be right, it seems to me, to give Türkiye as well the possibility one day of living up to its own creation promise: a democratic republic with power belonging to the people, realizing its full potential in a brighter future. That would be my wish in congratulating Türkiye on its first centennial.
Ambassador W. Robert Pearson is a retired professional Foreign Service Officer who was Director General of the U.S. Foreign Service from 2003 to 2006, repositioning the American Foreign Service to meet the new challenges of the 21st century and winning two national awards for his efforts. He was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003. Ambassador Pearson served as Executive Secretary of the State Department and on the National Security Council in addition to assignments in China and NATO and other overseas posts.