Foreign Affairs Foreign Affairs

Kemalism to the 21st Century

The conclusion of Turkey’s war against Greece after the First World War saw the transfer of ethnic minority populations between the two nations, creating more monoethnic states. Mustafa Kemal, known later as Ataturk, assumed leadership of the new Turkish Republic. Kemal wanted to transform Turkey’s culture and politics, modeling his vision along Western lines. Toward that end, the power and property of religious institutions was significantly curtailed. The traditional fez head covering was banned. Later, the veil was discouraged for women. Ergil writes that “The difference between the fez and the hat for Kemal and his Nationalist followers was the difference between the Eastern decadence and the progressive West.”[1] 

Kemal and the Nationalists borrowed the Swiss civil code and Italian penal code for new Western oriented laws. Women gained legal rights, and eventually the right to vote in local elections (1931) and national elections (1934). The old Arabic alphabet was thrown out for a new Turkish/Latin alphabet. Kemal blamed the old Arabic script for the high illiteracy rate in Turkey in the 1920s. A Western style capital economy was formed.[2]

In the inter-war years, Turkey was a middling power. Shorn of her past empire, the new Republic focused on consolidating security, not expansion. The Montreux Convention of 1936 gave Turkey specific strategic advantages regarding the Black Sea straights, limiting access of certain warships, and prescribing the manner in which permitted warships were allowed to transit. This provided Turkey an important level of security, and was agreed on upon by several major powers.

In 1939, Kemal’s successor as president, Mustafa İsmet İnönü, knew Turkey was ill-equipped for the impending war in Europe. Turkey signed a treaty of mutual assistance with the United Kingdom and France, but through strict interpretation managed to avoid being pulled into the war early on. Still, Germany was a major trade partner with Turkey, and a potentially aggressive Soviet Union was always lurking nearby. Turkish leaders feared Soviet expansion at their expense. The Allies tried to cajole Turkey into the war on the Allied side, and finally succeeded in convincing Turkey to cease economic and diplomatic relations with Germany in August 1944. To assure a place at the postwar table, Turkey joined the war in February 1945 and signed the Declaration of the United Nations.[3]

Having identified with the West after the First World War, Turkey chose the security of the Atlantic alliance after the Second World War, becoming a key southern bulwark of NATO. In the 1960s however, growing tension with fellow NATO member Greece over the control of Cyprus forced Turkey to develop foreign policy positions independent of NATO. This independence involved a bold turn with the Cyprus intervention in 1974. The island of Cyprus was an independent republic ethnically split between Greeks and Turks. The Greek military government in Athens planned to integrate Cyprus into Greece proper. When steps began toward that end, Turkey launched an amphibious and airborne invasion of Cyprus, and seized one third of the island. Large numbers of Greek Cypriots were ejected from the Turkish held area. Thousands of ethnic Turks were expelled from the Greek areas of Cyprus. Thirty-thousand Turkish troops remain deployed in Cyprus.[4] The Turkish territory was declared independent from the rest of the island in 1983 as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (“TRNC”). The TRNC is considered a de facto regime as it is only recognized by Turkey.

In 1975, Ergil noted that without a strong ideological underpinning, Kemalist reforms were limited to the governmental and legal realms, and Kemalism failed as a lasting, sustainable movement.[5] This foresight was well aimed. With the end of the Cold War, rather than seeing the world through a NATO vs. Warsaw Pact or West vs. East lens, Turkey was free to see itself in the myriad different things it actually was: European, but Asian, Balkan, but Middle Eastern, Caucasian, but Mediterranean.[6] Turkey’s unique position as a geographic hinge of multiple regions created what appears to outsiders as a frenetic identity. This is the understandable result of an imperial history wherein Turkey did what empires do: absorb and meld with subject cultures as well as neighbors. 

In 2002 the Justice and Development Party (AKP) won power in a blockbuster election. Former AKP member (now leading a rival party) and Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, wrote that Turkey faces three main interaction zones:  The Middle East, Balkans, and Caucasus.[7] The waterways adjacent to Turkey have prime geopolitical importance.[8] The last two decades have seen Turkey develop influence across her bordering interaction zones, while facing conflict with Kurdish peoples in and adjacent to Turkey. 

[1] Ergil, D. (1975). Turkish reform movement and beyond (1923-1938). Islamic Studies, 14(4), 249-260.

[2] Ergil, 1975.

[3] VanderLippe, J. M. (2001). A cautious balance: The question of Turkey in World War II. The Historian, 64(1), 63-80.

[4] Wrießnig, T. (2016). Cyprus: Is one of the oldest conflicts about to be resolved? Federal Academy for Security Policy. Retrieved from

[5] Ergil, 1975.

[6] Altunişik, M. B. (2011). Turkey as a “mediterranean power.” German Marshall Fund of the United States. Retrieved from

[7] Altunişik, 2011.

[8] Tocci, N. (2011). German Marshall Fund of the United States. Retrieved from

Author: Chris Crawford