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The legacy of the Ottoman Empire on Turkish Foreign Policy

Legacy is the selective cluster of events, incidents, memories, structures that have profound impact on the contemporary behavior of an entity.[1] Ottoman Empire – in this regards – has produced myriads of such elements, which have direct or indirect contributions to Turkish Foreign Policy formulation. Contrary to that, many variables has either been updated or replaced over the course of history. It is an arduous task to pinpoint the legacy of the Ottoman past on the Turkish foreign policy, but there are certain issue areas or structural variables like geographical position, historical experiences and cultural background, national stereotypes, images of other nations, long term economic necessities and so on, follow the trajectory set during the Imperial times.[2] Before tracing those issues areas, it is necessary to underline the fact that Turkish Republic as a modern and secular nation state has a different nature and policy objectives than – now – outdated Ottoman Empire. In some cases, modern Turkey has acted as an alter ego of the Ottoman Empire!


            The most significant legacy of the Ottoman Empire is the present day geography of the modern Turkey. Though the territory retained by Turkey is far less than the one Ottoman Empire had historically maintained, it is the heartland of the Empire that allows Turkey to play a far greater role than its size, population or economic strength.[3] Somehow this territorial situation of Turkey has urged the global powers to retain the Eastern Question of maintaining Turkey as a pawn of the balance of power and frontline against the expansionist dreams of states like Russia/USSR, during the WWII and Cold War.[4] This legacy further extends into two dimensions: an unbaiting urge to be listed among the European nations and an incessant phobia of the West – Sevres Syndrome.[5] Turkish ruling elites have yet to reconcile with the idea that vast portion of their territory lies in the Asia and culturally they belong to the Muslim, Asiatic communities. Moreover, the geography also contains some elements that hinder the homogeneity dreams of the founding fathers of Turkey. The South-East that has been inhabited by Kurds who are a huge minority group to be assimilated has been domestic challenge that shaped foreign policy since the inception of the Turkish Republic. Thus, the geography inherited by the Republic from the Empire continuously shape the domestic and foreign policy of the modern Turkey.


            Turkish foreign policy followed a very constructive path after the fall of Ottoman Empire, in which certain political elites played pivotal role thought the Republican history. Though the foreign policy often followed a realist road, but even that realism was the product of conscious experience of those elites. Most of the Republican elites and their progeny seemed fascinated by and fixated on the West. They were educated in the West – or at least received Western education – that produced an urge to be ‘civilized’ as the European Nations were.[6] [7] Moreover, the tragedy of the fall of the Ottoman Empire never vanished from the minds of the Turkish policy makers. In some cases, the military background of the founding fathers of Turkey made them think in more strategic than rational terms.[8] Atatürk, in this context, is seen as the ideologue of the Turkish foreign policy as he single handedly dictated the foreign relations of the Republic and set an ideological framework that would remain unchanged for decades to come.[9] Since his time, the foreign policy was developed under a paranoia of occupation by the global powers –Sèvres Syndrome. The things appear to change during the past decade, but the Ottoman nostalgia has appear to make a rather strong come back. Neo-Ottomanism of the present time and anti-Ottomanism of the past are the two faces of the same coin.

Confusion of Identity:

            Ottoman legacy continues to exert its influence is the identity of Turkish Republic despite of the utmost efforts of the founding fathers to alter it. The discourse of a Turkish identity that represented a clear diversion from the Ottoman one is represented in radical and revisionist steps taken by Turkish political elites. Scholars perceive this alteration of identity as a crucial step in Turkish national self-realization. It is truth that Ottoman past never allowed the secular and ethnic identity of Turkey to fully flourish and takeover. There is a nostalgia about peaceful coexistence – particularly in the modern discourse. As a step ahead in nation state building at the time, the nascent Turkey developed its identity vis-à-vis a secular West and against a Muslim Ottoman Empire. Contrary to the apparent rhetoric of a secular Republic, Islam kept serving as the corner stone of Turkish National identity as well as a justification of modernization against the West.[10] In its race with West, Turkey could not actualize its desires to become a Western society – alternatively reach the civilization level of those communities. Instead it got caught in the limbo between East and West: a bit ahead of the former and a bit behind the later. On a different line of argument, the repression, deprivation and finally deportation of the non-Muslim minorities over the early years of the Republic is yet another dimension of this legacy.[11] The Republican elites not only secularized but also unconsciously Islamized the country through population exchange and related policies. This confusion of identity, repression of religion and disenchantment with East also created the earliest domestic insurgency problems – Kurdish rebellions – that keep influencing the foreign policy even today.

Skepticism in Foreign Policy:

            Ottoman legacy is manifested in Turkey’s skepticism in foreign policy, which ultimately led to a long self-imposed isolation. Ottoman Empire was a long standing threat for the European Imperial powers. Despite of their desire to rip Ottoman Empire to shreds, the global powers of the era retained Turkey as a necessary evil, but wounded the psyches of the Republican elites by imposing harsh treaties during the decline of the Ottoman Empires and then after the fall. As a result, the Republican elites sought self-dependence and formulated an isolationist and skeptical foreign policy during the initial years. This policy continued for several decades. The long wars with neighbors spanning centuries, betrayal of their own subjects, inability to protect their territorial integrity also generated a negative attitude which resulted in incessant desire to be self-reliant, ready to fight and lone wolf nation. This fixation with self-reliance is visible in recent political discourses.

            In addition to that, Russia had been the most significant threat to Ottoman territorial integrity and the survival of Empire.[12] [13] The mighty neighbor that was able to modernize relatively earlier than the Ottomans did, gradually engulfed its European provinces and threatened the integrity of Ottoman heartland.[14] Their closet attempt was on Istanbul where Ottomans were rescued by the British who wanted to maintain Ottoman Empire as a part of European balance of power.[15] Though the early Republican government was able to maintain good working relations with the Bolsheviks, USSR kept haunting the integrity of Turkey. Latter would join the ‘Free World’ and finally NATO to counter this threat. [16] Threat of Russia still overpowers the policy makers in Ankara even today – something that has been manifested by the latest confrontation with Russia in Syrian context.

Minority Question:

            The ethnic, lingual and religious diversity of Ottoman Empire has no parallel in history. However, this was a thing that was a source of confusion for the ruling elites of Turkish Republic. The multitude of identities present in the current geography of Turkey made the nation building process really tough for them. Harmonizing the people of Turkey and molding them into a loyal citizen of state has always been a problem for Turkey. I count it as a negative legacy of the Ottoman Empire from a nation building point of view. As mentioned in the literature, Republicans elites utilized a long and untiring process to remove the non-Muslim minorities and several sophisticated tools for Turkification to produce loyal citizens of the state. If the minorities were wholeheartedly accepted, they could have been an asset, but the tide of time determined the concerns that led to their unjust treatment by the ruling elites. Continuation of that policies over decades, however, is another question mark. Even today, Turkish foreign policy is highly influenced and fixated on the issues relating to minorities like the Kurdish issues or Armenian tragedy.

            There are indeed more issue areas where the legacy of Ottoman affects Turkish foreign policy. However, these are the ones I find more significant than others.

References & Footnotes


[1] (Inalcik, 1996, p. 17)

[2] (Aydin, 1999, p. 155)

[3] (Aydin, 1999, p. 165)

[4] (Inalcik, 1996, p. 22) (Aydin, 1999, p. 168) (Ahmad, 1996, pp. 9, 11)

[5] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 9) (Inalcik, 1996, p. 3) (Kösebalaban, 2011, p. 53)

[6] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 242)

[7] (Kösebalaban, 2011, pp. 31, 32)

[8] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 242)

[9] (Aydin, 1999, p. 170)

[10] (Aydin, 1999, pp. 26,35) (Kösebalaban, Ottoman Origins of Turkish Identity Discourses, 2011, p. 35)

[11] (Kösebalaban, Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950), 2011, p. 49) (Aydin, 1999, pp. 172, 173)

[12] (Kösebalaban, 2011, p. 25)

[13] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 10)

[14] (Kösebalaban, 2011, p. 27)

[15] (Inalcik, 1996, p. 22)

[16] (Ahmad, 1996, p. 24)


Ahmad, F. (1996). The Historical Background of Turkey’s Foreign Policy. Middle Eastern Studies, 2(4), 302-329.

Aydin, M. (1999). Determinants of Turkish foreign policy: Historical framework and traditional inputs. Middle Eastern Studies, 35(4), 152-186.

Hale, W. (2002). Turkish foreign policy, 1774-2000. New York: Taylor & Francis.

Inalcik, H. (1996). The Meaning of Legacy: The Ottoman Case. In Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.

Kösebalaban, H. (2011). Kemalist Nationalism and Foreign Policy Isolationism (1923–1950). Turkish Foreign Policy, 47-68.

Kösebalaban, H. (2011). Ottoman Origins of Turkish Identity Discourses. Turkish Foreign Policy, 25-46.

Millman, B. (1995). Turkish foreign and strategic policy 1934–42. Middle Eastern Studies, 31(3), 483-508.


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