Ottoman Revival?

During a war in which most countries have either taken sides or remained silent, Turkey has positioned itself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine – seeking to negotiate with both Putin and Zelensky, and playing an important role in the semi-restitution of grain trade last summer. It has opposed Western sanctions on Russia, yet it has also limited Russian warships in the Black Sea. Such geopolitical manoeuvring – treading a fine line between Great Powers – is not confined to the current crisis, nor to Turkey’s bilateral relations with the two warring states. Rather, it is a reflection of Erdoğan’s broader foreign policy direction.  

Ever since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been reimagining the country as an independent actor: not simply a ‘bridge’ between the West and the rest, but a force that both the declining American empire and its emergent competitors must reckon with. This, however, is more an expression of fantasy than fact. As we shall see, the material basis for an autonomous Turkish foreign policy is weak, and domestic class dynamics are unfavourable. No matter how much Islamist media outlets try to promote their thin and mostly antisemitic version of ‘anti-imperialism’, it does not amount to a coherent overseas strategy. In the absence of such material and social anchors, the AKP’s search for independence ultimately amounts to a haphazard series of short-termist adventures.

This is in marked contrast to the country’s experience during the mid- to late-twentieth century. The Republic of Turkey’s first two decades were an early harbinger of Third Worldism, with all its merits and demerits. The Republican People’s Party (CHP, which ruled from 1923 to 1950) was dominated by Mustafa Kemal and his allies in the political centre, but it also had a left wing that sympathized with the Soviet Union and a right wing that drew on the European traditions of corporatism and fascism. Kemal revered most aspects of Western civilization, but he believed that the best way to catch up with the developed world was for Turkey to retain its independence. He also viewed individualism and class struggle as undesirable aspects of Western capitalist culture, which he sought to banish from the Turkish body politic. This campaign for substantive autonomy largely succeeded, but at the cost of a stagnant illiberalism which left Turkey devoid of both entrepreneurialism and civic anti-capitalism.

A principled alliance with the Soviet Union of the 1920s could have put Turkey on a steadier anti-imperialist path. Yet there was no proper class basis for such an alliance, since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire had decimated the bourgeoisie along with nascent labour movements, rendering the civic and military bureaucracy the most dynamic sector in this fledgling nation. As such, the onset of the Cold War quickly marginalized Turkey’s fragile anti-imperialist forces, while fear of Stalin drove the Kemalists into the arms of the West. This shift was not as abrupt as it appeared, though, since Kemal had himself always been hostile to Bolshevism – nipping left-wing organizing in the bud and restricting the space for trade union militancy.

The fruits of the CHP’s alliance with the West were NATO membership in 1952 and a prolonged (and ultimately unrealized) process of European integration. But it had other manifestations as well, such as Turkey’s vote against Algerian independence at the United Nations in 1955. With the rise of the Democrat Party – a liberal-conservative coalition opposed to the Kemalists’ top-down modernization programme, which governed between 1950 and 1960 – a militant Atlanticism replaced the CHP’s more cautious embrace of Western interests. Meanwhile, the 1940s and 50s witnessed the emergence of civic organizations of anti-communist militants, whose influence peaked over the following two decades. By then, Third Worldism had become an oppositional force, which the Turkish right lumped in with the ‘communist threat’.

Long before their fateful splits, the Islamists and proto-fascist Grey Wolves banded together in violent anti-communist gangs, which fought with leftists and anti-imperialists on the streets of the major cities. In 1969, when thousands of students turned out to protest against the American navy’s 6th Fleet, these gangs assisted the police in suppressing the demonstration, killing two and injuring many more. Until the Turkish and Kurdish Islamists themselves took a quasi-Third Worldist turn towards the end of the 1970s, such armed groups served as the main ‘popular’ bulwark against challenges to this alliance with the West.

Turkey’s default centre-right rulers of the last 75 years – the Democrat Party in the 1950s, Justice Party in the 60s and 70s, the Motherland Party in the 80s – mainstreamed this popular-reactionary anxiety concerning any kind of independence from the US empire. The most resonant political slogan of those decades, Ortanın Sol’u, Moskova’nın Yolu (which roughly translates as ‘left of center, the path to Moscow’), captured the mood – implying that even a vote for the CHP would inevitably lead to Turkey’s accession to the Eastern Bloc. The political establishment thus gave a blank check to Grey Wolf militants in their campaign to violently eradicate the anti-imperialist left. They attacked coffee houses, bus stations and homes, assassinating union leaders and socialist organizers throughout the 1970s. Towards the end of the decade, this terror campaign expanded to the provinces and countryside, culminating in ethnic and religious pogroms including the massacre of more than 100 Alevis in two days in the provincial town of Maraş. Left-wing militants began to defend themselves, and their small armed units rapidly turned into undisciplined mass organizations.

The 1980 coup, led by Kenan Evren, the commander of a US-backed anti-communist guerrilla force, sealed Turkey’s marriage to the West. Its explicit aim was to end ‘left–right clashes’ (the official euphemism for the Grey Wolves’ killing spree and the left’s retaliation); but its real purpose was the implementation of a Chilean-style neoliberal policy package. To consolidate their power, the generals hanged and tortured several right-wing militants and leaders, but the left bore the brunt of their repression. Evren’s coup was largely modelled on Pinochet’s. Yet, thanks to the strong civic traditions of the Turkish right, the military ultimately agreed to govern alongside civilians from 1983, except in Turkish Kurdistan. At this point, military officers trained and funded by the US allied with burgeoning warlords and gained de facto control over the east and southeast of the country, deploying some of the most brutal counter-insurgency techniques of the Cold War against leftists and Kurdish insurgents. By the mid-1990s, this campaign had evolved into a full scale civil war. The civilian government changed hands several times, but the elected administrations were either unable or unwilling to de-escalate the conflict. 

After the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the military’s counter-insurgency campaign was rendered largely redundant in most of the country, as there was no longer an organized socialist movement to suppress. But the growing popularity of the Kurdish guerilla forces extended its shelf life in the east. The Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) became the most powerful player in the Kurdish resistance, once all its competitors – armed or peaceful – were eradicated; and it remains locked in an ongoing conflict with the central government. All in all, the violence has left around 40,000 dead and created an ethnic rift between Turks and Kurds which remains unhealed today. It also served to marginalize the country’s democratic forces. A brief upsurge of student, feminist, environmentalist and labour movements, roughly spanning 1987-95, proved unable to sustain itself amid these harsh conditions, and failed to offer a unifying vision for the country.

The civil war thus unravelled any political bloc capable of questioning Turkey’s submission to the West. Like Black or Hispanic kids in white American schools, Turkey came to play the role of ‘token minority’ in Fortress Europe and NATO. Its proximity to these institutions was held up as proof that liberal imperialism was more tolerant of religious, ethnic and racial differences than it appeared. Turkey provided troops for the occupation of Afghanistan and played an auxiliary role in the conquest of Iraq – making it more difficult for critics to frame these wars as anti-Muslim crusades.

As the country’s pro-Western consensus calcified in the new millenium, it became almost impossible to mount a progressive opposition to EU membership, viewed by both liberals and sections of the left as the most realistic hope for democratizing the Turkish political system. Criticism of the EU was mostly relegated to far right nationalists and ultra-Kemalists, while NATO membership was considered non-negotiable. Thousands turned out to protest against the wars in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, but most shied away from demanding Turkish withdrawal from Western-led military and security organizations.

At this juncture, Turkish Islamists began to outflank the pro-Westernism of the secular political class. From the 70s to the 90s, quasi-Third Worldist Islamists had organized under the banner of the National Salvation Party (MSP) and Welfare Party (RP), whereas pro-NATO Islamic communities had predominantly voted for the mainstream parties. Yet the integration of the small merchant base of the MSP-RP into world markets initiated a process of political and cultural liberalization, paving the way for the unabashedly pro-Western policies of the AKP.

Founded in 2001, the AKP managed to unite these two factions of the Muslim vote, bringing them together in a Western-oriented bloc. Whereas the previous Islamic establishment had given elaborate theological justifications for supporting NATO, the increasingly bourgeois AKP had less need for scriptural exegesis. Its ideology – more neo-Ottoman than Islamist – was a blend of pragmatic, conservative and imperial discourses. Ahmet Davutoğlu became the main ideologue of this new Islamism. A former professor of political science and international relations, he served as an advisor to Erdoğan in the 2000s, then as foreign minister between 2009 and 2014, and finally as prime minister until 2016.

However, two developments would alter the AKP’s geopolitical calculus in the early 2010s. The first was the global financial crisis. After 2008, the government could no longer count on the flow of hot cash from abroad, and increasingly resorted to state capitalist tools, which almost always went hand-in-hand with the expansion of the military apparatus. This state-capitalist turn began to undermine Davutoğlu’s liberal imperialism, if imperceptibly at first. Political-military control of industry eroded the formal independence of the pious bourgeoisie, on which Davutoğlu’s pro-Western policy depended. Gradually, Turkey’s overseas outlook began to shift with these domestic realignments.

The second decisive factor was the Arab Spring. In 2011, there initially appeared to be an opening for Davutoğlu’s soft power approach, which aimed to peacefully export the Turkish model, first to Arab nations and then to the rest of the Muslim world. The AKP hoped that the uprisings would entrench its favorite binary opposition, between Islamic liberals and secular dictators. With this in mind, Erdoğan visited Egypt with an army of Turkish businessmen, hoping to gain greater access to Middle Eastern markets. Yet the sectarianization of the uprisings precluded this outcome. In Syria and Yemen, as elsewhere, civil unrest degenerated into wars between Sunni and Shia populations. This, in turn, prompted the AKP to abandon its dream of pan-Islamic influence and fall back on its default anti-Shiite position, arming murderous Sunni groups throughout the region. At the same time, the AKP responded to the growing movement for Kurdish regional autonomy by integrating the Grey Wolves – as well as some of the ultra-Kemalist soldiers it had purged in the late 2000s – into its governing coalition. These militarist forces proceeded to launch countless incursions into Iraqi and Syrian territory. In this new world, Davutoğlu’s liberal-democratic project was rendered obsolete. His relations with Erdoğan deteriorated, and he was forced to resign in 2016.

In contrast to the Davutoğlu era, the latest iteration of the AKP lacks a sound ideological basis for its foreign policy. Erdoğanists have been forced to adopt the quasi-Third Worldist themes of yesteryear’s Islamism, while attempting to reconcile them with the imperialist outlook of the Turkish right, which typically manifests in fantasies of reviving the Ottoman Empire, uniting Turkic nations of Asia with Turkey, or building pan-Islamist unity across the globe. In recent years, the AKP has drawn on these themes in an ad hoc and unsystematic manner. Turkey’s Islamist newspapers are full of analyses of Chinese, Russian, Iranian and Latin American alternatives to US hegemony, which haphazardly draw on World Systems Theory and other anti-imperialist schools of thought. None of these nations is glorified (indeed, Iran is viewed as Turkey’s Shiite arch-enemy), but they are nevertheless seen as important experiments that Turkey could learn from and build on. One concrete policy that has emerged from this disjointed ideological landscape is the so-called ‘Blue Homeland’ project, which seeks to redefine the Eastern Mediterranean (including the Black Sea and Azov Sea, and stretching all the way to Tunisia) as a Sunni-Turkic possession. The AKP’s current ambition is to bring the natural resources and trade routes of this region under its control.

It is through this hodgepodge of references that Turkey can view Russia as a legitimate partner, yet retain a strong suspicion of its foreign policy decisions. The AKP claims that it does not have to choose between Russia and the US; it can strike deals with Putin while simultaneously presenting itself as Ukraine’s saviour. Yet such bombast flies in the face of Turkey’s real geopolitical position. It remains militarily and economically dependent on the West – and, to a lesser extent, on the Russian energy sector and Arab oil wealth. The regime’s state-capitalist turn may have freed up some resources for independent manoeuvring; but the Turkish economy is still highly restricted by its existing trade routes and partnerships. It therefore lacks a reliable basis for imperial adventures. Without a sturdy state capitalism and a sound intellectual vision, the aspiring imperialists of the AKP cannot assert their control over the Eastern Mediterranean, nor over parts of the Middle East and Caucuses, into which they have made some brief and ineffective forays. When push comes to shove, Turkey’s most consequential policies are decided elsewhere. For instance, in late September 2022, Erdoğan was forced to tow Washington’s line and withdraw from a Russian-led payment system – despite the deleterious effects of this decision on the domestic economy.

However, the AKP’s disingenuous assertion of strategic independence still has obvious payoffs. Erdoğan’s pledge that Turkey will become an imperial power – bolstered by its operations in Syria and Iraq – helps to galvanize his right-wing base and disarm the opposition. The Kemalists (still represented primarily by the CHP), the secular offshoots of the Grey Wolves (İyi Parti), and the liberal Islamists (Babacan’s DEVA and Davutoğlu’s Gelecek Partisi), all line up behind the AKP whenever ‘national security’ is at stake. By failing to articulate an alternative foreign policy, these doggedly pro-NATO forces offer little more than a revival of the AKP’s early years, where liberal democracy, free markets and Atlanticism were articles of faith. Given how much the world has changed since 2002, it is doubtful whether this could constitute a governing vision fit for the 2020s.

Internationally, too, the major benefit of the AKP’s foreign policy is buying time while the US empire declines and its rivals advance at an unpredictable pace. Erdoğanists hope that the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative will provide new resources for Turkey and more freedom from the West. Some in Erdoğan’s coterie even think that Turkey could one day replicate the Chinese path to development. Yet the party has so far refrained from adopting any Chinese-style oversight of major industry. Here, too, postponing any reckoning with Turkey’s place in the shifting sands of world capitalism is the greatest strength of the AKP’s strategy. Where this will ultimately lead is still uncertain. But it’s clear that neither a principled anti-imperialism, nor an ability to intervene in inter-imperialist rivalry, will flow from Erdoğan’s confused worldview.

Read on: Cihan Tuğal, ‘Turkey at the Crossroads?’, NLR 127.