The Origins of Western Political Identity in Turkey

Sadly, terrorist attacks in Turkey become increasingly common, and all the more painful. The June 28 attack at the Ataturk Airport is yet another heinous crime against the civilian population of a true city of dreams. Having studied at METU University in Ankara (’07-’08), I got a chance to experience Turkey and its mesmerizing culture. The slaughter of peace loving Turkish people strikes close to home. In spite of all these challenges, Turkey remains a truly resilient modern European nation. Despite Turkey’s model of secular democracy coming under increased pressure in the last decade, the country still holds a strong western political identity, so much despised by terrorists of all stripes.


There is a near consensus that Turkey’s membership in NATO has been a major symbol of the country’s genuine western identity. Nevertheless, the origins of Turkey’s westernization date back to the 19th century. Turkey has come a long way from a feudal oriental Empire to a modern western democracy, albeit with its shortcomings, an influential regional power with a strong economy deeply integrated into the western economic, political and military structures. The current status has its origins in the mid nineteenth century, when Tanzimat (reorganization) era began, embarking the ‘Sick Man of Europe’ on the path to modernization that would result, despite all odds, in a strong independent Republic of Turkey. The article aims at pointing out the political developments that paved the way for Turkey’s accession to the North Atlantic Alliance.

Transition from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic

The transition from the Ottoman Empire to the New Turkish Republic was a difficult process, as powers like Britain, France and Russia were struggling to maintain the balance of power at the expense of ‘the Eternal State’.  The High Porte was lagging behind the much more technologically advanced Britain and France. It was the superiority of the West that was putting so much pressure upon the Ottoman elites to undertake a series of reforms that would help preserve the Empire. The Sick Man of Europe was facing serious challenges as military defeat and territorial losses; increased European economic and political influence and economic downfall, all leading to the spread of revolutionary ideas and nationalism in the territories.

The Ottoman Empire had limited potential to engage in a rapid modernization and westernization process, for it was still mainly an autarchic, conservative entity of great proportions. Consequently, the goal of the first attempt to reform the Empire was to avoid any further partition. Nonetheless, Sultan Selim III (1789-1806) introduced a standing army trained by Europeans, yet the staunch opposition from the janissaries undermined those efforts. Later, Mahmud II (1808- 1839) disbanded the janissaries, increased control of religious endowment and adopted new civil and commercial codes, in order to undermine the power of the clergy. This created the feeling of acceptance of Western pre-eminence, which, according to the reformists made it vital for Turkey to catch up. The reforms in civil and military bureaucracy as well as the opening of new European/secular schools lead to a period of reform called Tanzimat (reorganization) which lasted from 1839 to 1876. It introduced liberal initiatives to reform the administration, standardize conscription and give equal rights to all the Sultan’s subjects, regardless of their religion. This was a significant step towards establishing a western outlook based on progressive values and ideas.  The Anglo-Ottoman Commercial Convention of 1838 and the Capitulations opened up the economy, but also increased outside interference into its internal affairs. However, zealous reformation brought about a deep sense of duality in the empire. It was difficult to reconcile the promise of a better life with the shaking of cultural traditions, which formed the backbone of the system and in many ways the struggle has been ongoing ever since.

In the course of this debate, a group of young bureaucrats emerged and suggested a compromise solution to the issue of duality. Young Ottomans advocated a selective approach to the Westernization process, by rejecting to render powerless the traditional foundation of the Ottoman Empire. Young Ottomans supported the establishment of a constitutional monarchy and a controlled economic liberalism. This led to the adoption of the 1876 Constitution, which continued the struggle between democratization and maintaining the supreme authority of the Sultan.

After the Congress of Berlin, Sultan Abdul Hamid II (1876-1909) embarked on a rather conservative rule in reaction to the legitimacy crisis and the danger of imminent collapse of the Empire. Westernization efforts were curtailed, still, it was during this period that a new, more radical, group emerged that was a product of the earlier reforms in education – the Young Turks, who were not merely looking to save the state, but were up to drastically reforming it. They were greatly inspired by the power of the people to bring about change that was revealed by the French Revolution.  The Young Turks movement was not one to be neglected. When the students from the Military Medical Academy merged with the exiled opposition and formed the Community of Union and Progress (CUP), they became powerful enough to openly challenge Abdul Hamid’s rule. Thus, with the Army’s support, the Young Turk Revolution of 1908 reinstated the constitution and reopened Parliament. Consequently, the inheritance of military interference into civilian affairs in times of crisis has taken strong roots.

The First World War was the turning point in the development of Turkish western identity. The population was not eager to fight in an imposed war that had little relevance to them. Nonetheless, the remarkable victory at Galliopoli had a great importance for Turkey and to the outcome of the war. Not only did it make Mustafa Kemal a national hero, it also cut the supply line for Russia, paving the way for the communist takeover, which in turn led to the Brest-Litovsk treaty pulling Russia out of the war that had already been lost by the Central Powers.  So, the Treaty of Sevres took a harsh toll, leaving the Istanbul government with just a small area around Anatolia, from what had been an immense Empire, but this was unacceptable to the newly formed Turkish Grand National Assembly, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal. The resistance movement took swing because it was as relevant as it had never been before, leading to a series of remarkable victories that culminated with the Treaty of Lausanne recognizing the independence of the new Turkish Republic.

From the Early Days of the Republic to Modern Turkey

After taking on the name of Atatürk, Mustafa Kemal galvanized the nation around his personality. Foreign affairs were guided by his principle, ‘Peace at Home, Peace abroad’, which is currently one of the goals of the Euro-Atlantic community. The abolishing of the Arabic alphabet and adoption of the Latin script signified a desired link with modern Europe rather than traditional East, further anchoring the new republic into the western civilization. Secularization of the legal system, by adopting the Swiss Civil Code, the Italian Penal Code and the secularization of education, formally westernized the society. However, the major legacy of Atatürk is not just the state that he built by winning the war of independence, but, more so, the conceptual governmental framework that has endured so many challenges, proving resilient to this day.

A great goal gives rise to even greater efforts. This would apply to the process of change that Turkey has been put through before, but especially after, becoming independent. The project to remodel the Turkish state and to refurbish the Turks’ identity was a uniquely challenging responsibility. The political change was deep as never before. It transformed the system from a monarchy to a Republic with Parliament becoming a central authority. The Grand National Assembly’s influence became vivid when it decided to abolish the caliphate, thus, undoubtedly putting an end to the ancien regime. The party system was a major institutional change as well.  All these efforts laid the groundwork for democratic transformation that is a precondition for NATO membership.

In the case of Turkey, transition from a single party regime, dominated by the Republican People’s Party (CHP), to a multi-party system took place at a relatively early stage of its political history, giving it an upper hand in contrast to the vast majority of countries of the broader Middle East. Thus, to this day Turkey serves as a model for the turbulent Middle East region. Therefore, despite some weaknesses, political parties in Turkey have proven a relatively high degree of organizational strength, complexity and continuity. According to Jacob Landau, transition to multiparty politics signified as perhaps the most momentous decision affecting Turkish domestic politics in the post-Ataturk period. As any major decision has both internal and external causes, the introduction of democratic politics was an outcome of internal developments as well as Western pressure.  Poor public policy resulted and intra party disagreements undermined the influence of the Republican People’s Party. On the other side, faced with the Soviet threat to take control of the straits, Turkey’s only alternative was to make friends with the West. Despite the more conservative opposition, President Inonu called for open democratic elections in 1946, in which more than 20 new parties appealed to the electorate.  Yet, it was the elections of 1950, won by Democratic Party (DP) that truly ended the single-party regime and brought the counter-elite into power.  This proved Turkey’s commitment to western values and formally allowed for its membership in NATO. Moreover, Turkey assumed responsibility for international peace even before joining the Alliance, contributing about 6000 personnel to UN forces in the Korean War (1950-1953).  This was a vivid commitment on the party of Turkey to the safeguarding of international peace and security.

Relying on a booming economy and successful foreign policy, DP was re-elected with a landslide in 1954. However, it could not fulfill the promise of liberalization, while worsening of the economy in the late ‘50s, coupled with attacks on Kemalist principles brought DP to demise at the hands of the military in 1960.  The ban on political activity was soon lifted, but political turmoil stemming from a fierce left-right polarization led to major political and social unrest. Unstable coalitions, legitimacy crisis, 1973-1974 oil crisis and Cyprus intervention frame the background of the ‘70s. Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) came out as a galvanizing force and from the 1980s onwards it has been a constant issue in Turkish politics. Banned by Turkish authorities, PKK is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, European Union and NATO.  Despite internal instability, Turkey was continuously integrating into the western political, economic and military institutions, staying true to its Kemalist principles and western political discourse.

Turkey’s Integration into the Western Institutional Establishment

After the end of the WW2, Turkey embarked on a course of anchoring itself strongly in the Western institutional arrangements, joining the Council of Europe in 1949, followed by signing an Association Agreement with the European Economic Community in 1963, acknowledging the final goal of membership. European Union-Turkey Customs Union was formed in 1995. Four years later Turkey is offered a candidate status and accession negotiations began in 2005.  On a broader front, Turkey is a founding member of all major economic and financial institutions like World Bank, IMF, EBRD, WTO and OECD. Ankara further integrated into the European security architecture by becoming a founding member of OSCE an associate member of the Western European Union. However, it was the NATO accession that fully anchored Turkey into the Western political and military structure. Even in the post-cold war era NATO membership remains the cornerstone of Turkish security policy.

Taking into account Turkey’s geographical position, neighboring some of the most unstable areas, ranging from frozen conflicts to ongoing wars, all posing a perennial risk  to its national security, Turkey takes pride in not being a security consumer but rather a provider of security. The country has participated in all operations led by NATO in the Balkans since 1995. Turkey has been one of the main contributors to the Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean. It contributed substantially to the ISAF, taking control of the mission in 2002 and 2005, assuming responsibility for Kabul International Airport. Turkey also assumed the leadership of the Kabul Regional Command Capital. This responsibility was extended for another year until 1 November 2012 upon the request of the Allies. Turkey contributed 1.5 million EUR to the Afghan National Army (ANA) Trust Fund and 2 million USD to the Helicopter Initiative. Turkey’s personnel contribution to NATO operations and training missions was around 3200 as of October 2011. Turkey is becoming all the more strategically important with its participation in the Ballistic Missile Defense System, hosting an early warning radar in Malatya, boosting the country’s profile and strengthening its western identity.

In the words of Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, ever since Turkey’s NATO membership in 1952, the international environment has fundamentally changed. However, the strategic nature of Turkey’s membership to NATO did not change. NATO continues to be the milestone of Turkey’s defense and security policy. Being the alliance of countries sharing common values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law, NATO, which always preserve its fundamental aim of establishing a just and lasting environment of peace in Europe, is the most successful alliance of the modern era.

Thus, owing to its early reformers of the Tanzimat era, followed by the Young Ottomans and the Young Turks, culminating with Mustafa Kemal, Turkey was successful in its Westernization efforts that allowed it to join key international arrangements, placing the country at the forefront of major international developments that affect the wellbeing of the international community.

Note: The article was written back in 2012, part of a project run by NATO Center in Moldova, marking Turkey’s 60 years of NATO membership.


Moldovan President Nicolae Timofti offers his condolences to the Turkish people following the Ataturk Airport terrorist attack of June 28, 2016.

2 responses to “The Origins of Western Political Identity in Turkey

  1. 2012 is a long time ago, isn’t it?


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