Aryeh Shmuelevitz

Much has been written about Turkish foreign policy between the two world wars. However, the source materials available is still limited, for three main reasons: (a) the Turkish archives are still closed; (b) foreign policy from 1922 until at least 1945 was the exclusive responsibility of the president, the prime minister, the foreign minister, and a small group of foreign ministry officials, with a minimum discussion in parliament or the press; (c) the three men who formulated foreign policy in those years-President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Prime Minister Ismet Inonu, and the Foreign Minister Tevfik Rustu Aras-dealt with foreign policy only on a limited scale, and usually in general terms. Scholars working on the relations between Turkey and the Great Powers hence often rely on non-Turkish documents and mention Turkish views and attitudes in general terms only. Others -Turkish scholars in particular- when trying to emphasize Turkish angle rely heavily on Turkish official material, the press, and the like. This paper is intended to redress the overall picture by concentrating on the major principles adopted by the Turkish foreign policy makers, and the ways these principles were implemented.

Atatürk may be considered the mastermind of Turkish foreign policy, especially in major issues, which undoubtedly included relations with the Great Powers. Although his speeches and interviews concentrated mainly on domestic affairs, he also referred from time to time to foreign relations, which he saw intimately connected with the former. This is clearly defined in his historic speech of October 1927, in which he said: “What particularly interests foreign policy, and what it is founded upon, is the internal organization of the state. Thus it is necessary that foreign policy should agree with internal organization”. 1 This dictum raises the question of whether Atatürk did establish a master plan for the foreign policy of the Turkish Republic, as he did for its domestic policy. One may assume from his references to foreign policy, and from his foreign relations, that he did at least prepare an outline of guidelines for the foreign ministry, leaving the latter to cope with developments on the international scene.

The most important principle among these guidelines was the priority of peace, sovereignty and national development over all expansionist and revisionist objectives; or, expressed differently, the preservation of national independence and territorial integrity, as defined in the National Pact of 1920, and of modernization made possible by keeping “peace at home peace abroad”-to use Atatürk’s words. Independence, sovereignty, and integrity, and devotion to defense are foreign policy objectives common to all countries; for Turkey, which was at that time emerging as a national state following the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and a struggle for survival against foreign invaders, these objectives became particularly significant. Already in the early 1920s Mustafa Kemal defined the term “full independence” and the principle concerning the use of force to defend it:

By full independence, political, financial, economic, judicial, military and cultural freedoms in their absolute sense are naturally implied. If the country lacks one of the above requirements it cannot enjoy the benefit of a genuine independence.2

Referring to this definition, Mustafa Kemal accorded legitimacy to war only when this “full independence” was jeopardized: a nation should fight only for national independence; so long as national existence was not endangered, war was a crime.3 This principle was used as a guideline during the Turkish War of Independence and during the negotiations with the powers, both at that time and subsequently. Atatürk refused to compromise on issues, which he considered vital to Turkey’s national integrity, but the moment he reached an agreement on those issues, he was ready to adopt a status quo policy and become an ardent supporter of peace, which he so badly needed for carrying out modernization. “Turkey does not desire an inch of foreign territory,” he stated, “but will not give up an inch of what she holds.”4

Relations with Great Britain and France in connection with the vilayet of Mosul and the sanjak of Alexandretta are examples of the implementation of the above-mentioned principles. Relations with Britain, at least until the question of Mosul was solved, were maintained according to the principle of defending territorial integrity and national independence. According to the National Pact, the Mosul area was included within the borders of Turkey; following the agreement of 1926 in which Turkey accepted the inclusion of the vilayet of Mosul in Iraq, peace was established with Britain and relations between the two countries developed gradually into an alliance. France, on the other hand, was held in high esteem during the War of Independence, chiefly for breaking Entente solidarity and signing a separate agreement with the Kemalist regime. Soon after the end of the War of Independence, however, France lost its favorable status in Turkey because of its policy during the Lausanne Conference on the abolition of the capitulations. The Turks felt that in raising objections during the discussions on abolition, France was contravening the spirit of the Franklin-Bouillon Agreement of 1921 and was returning to Entente solidarity at the expense of full Turkish independence and sovereignty. Furthermore, the fact that the sanjak of Alexandretta , which according to the Turkish National Pact should have been included within Turkish national borders, remained under French control also contributed to the tension between the two countries. However, as long as France maintained the status quo in Syria, relations between Turkey and France were maintained on a friendly, if limited, basis. In the mid-1930s, however, when France started negotiations with the Syrians on their independence, including a change in the status of Alexandretta, Turkey immediately put pressure on France to implement the Turkish National Pact clause concerning the inclusion of the sanjak within the national borders of Turkey. The moment that this demand was accepted by France, freeing Turkey to annex Alexandretta, Turkey was ready to enter into a defense alliance with France.

The principle of territorial integrity and sovereignty also played an important role in Turkish policy toward Italy and Germany. Mussolini’s hints of his intentions to revive the Roman Empire in Asia and Africa, followed by the conquest of Abyssinia, caused alarm in Turkey and turned Italy into the country Turkey feared most. No guarantees could remove this anxiety and Turkey prepared for the defense of its integrity and independence against Italy, taking into account the fact that the Italians were ruling the Dedocanese Islands off the southwestern shores of Anatolia. A similar situation arose with Nazi Germany, which already by 1936 had become dominant in Turkey’s foreign trade, and in the industrial development projects stipulated by the Turkish Five Year Plans. The Turks feared that Germany might turn its economic preponderance into political control, as had happened on the eve of World War I. These fears were strengthened by German opposition to the Montreux Convention in 1937, especially to the clauses forbidding the passage of warships of belligerent powers in case of war in which Turkey would remain neutral. They were also strengthened by German diplomacy in the Balkans, which indicated the German intention to destroy the existing political structure there, contrary to the Turkish policy of keeping the status quo in that area, and by the cooperation between Germany and Italy over the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean area. The Turks made every effort to prevent the Germans from using trade relations as a lever for political pressures and as a means of limiting Turkey’s sovereignty and independence.

However, it was the Soviet Union that, according to Atatürk, represented the main threat to the security and integrity of Turkey. Atatürk and the other Turkish leaders remained suspicious of the Soviet Union’s policy on Turkey and did not see any difference between the territorial ambitions of the tsarist regime and that of the Bolsheviks — in spite of the return of Kars and Ardahan to Turkey. Nevertheless, as long as it seemed possible to maintain cordial relations with this power, Turkey tried its utmost to do so. Indeed, Turkish foreign policy makers during the period under review went out of their way to provide the Soviets with the feeling of security in the Black Sea and the Caucasus and on other issues in order to avoid any pretext for complaints. The Turks hardly made a move without prior consultation with the Soviets. In consequence, Turkey and the Soviet Union enjoyed nearly twenty years of mutual goodwill. This situation suited both sides because both were primarily engaged in consolidating their domestic power, but it did not diminish the intensity of the traditional Turkish image of the Russians and their expansionist designs.

Turkish suspicions were illustrated on various occasions, such as the presentation made by Prime Minister Inonu following his visit to the Soviet Union in 1930, in which he reiterated that once the Soviets ceased to be threatened by the Western Powers, they could become more aggressive in the East and, possibly, toward Turkey as well. According to his analysis, the Russians felt isolated, particularly in the West, and as a result were obsessed by what they believed to be the insecurity of their western borders. They desired, and would continue to seek, friendly relations with Turkey, provided the Turks refrained from actions that seemed calculated to put pressure upon Russia from the west. The Russians wanted their southern front to be quiet, in order to gain time to secure their borders in the west. As soon as they came to regard their western boundaries as safe, he added, “they will no longer care to be friends with us.”5 Turkey’s attitude to the Russians was also illustrated in a conversation between Atatürk and the American general Douglas MacArthur in 1934, in which the Turkish leader said:

We Turks, as Russia’s close neighbors and the nation that has fought more wars against her than any other country, are following closely the course of events there and see the danger stripped of all camouflage….The Bolsheviks have now reached a point at which they constitute a threat, not only to Europe but to all Asia.6

Nevertheless, these suspicions and precautions did not prevent Mustafa Kemal from including another principle within the guidelines for his policy on the Soviet Union: the establishment of close relations with the latter which could be used as a lever on the west to improve relations with Turkey. This occurred, for example, in 1925, following the League of Nations resolution supporting the British stand in the Mosul dispute with Turkey, when Turkey reacted by signing a treaty of neutrality and nonaggression with the Soviet Union. This treaty, among other factors, encouraged the British to come to terms with Turkey, and resulted in the tripartite agreement of 1926 between Turkey, Britain, and Iraq which solved the dispute over Mosul.

A principle that stemmed to a large extent from the fear of Soviet Union was that Turkey should rely on, or at least enlist the support of a western power, yet not totally submerge itself in the policy of that power and thereby risk jeopardizing relations with the other powers, especially the Soviet Union. The power preferred was Great Britain. As early as 1922, when Britain was still considered the enemy of the Kemalist regime, Mustafa Kemal said, “I am certain that we shall eventually return to the old traditional friendship” with Britain.7 Again in 1925, when the conflict with Britain over the future of the vilayet of Mosul was at its height, he stated: “No, the English are not and cannot be our greatest enemies. England’s only concern is that the victory we have gained may lead Islamic nations to demand their independence.”8

Why a western ally, and why Britain? Turkey’s geographical position in controlling the Turkish Straits was the main reason for the need of a western ally in the Mediterranean to counterbalance Soviet pressure concerning passage through the straits, and even disputing Turkish sovereignty over them. The only naval power in the Mediterranean that could act as a counterweight to the Soviet Union was, at that time, Britain. The British had successfully counterbalanced the Russians in the nineteenth century, and Atatürk considered them capable of doing so again. It was to a large extent symbolic that the first major step in the rapprochement between Turkey and Britain in 1929 was the official visit to Istanbul of a British naval squadron. It was less the Russian, however, than the Italian and German threats that brought about the alliance between Turkey and Great Britain on the eve of World War II. The Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement of August 1939 served to merge two major threats into one, pushing the Turks to full reliance on British sea power.

A principle of foreign policy that served to establish counterweights to the Great Powers was the desirability of regional alliances and international agreements. The Balkan Entente with Greece, Yugoslavia, and Rumania and the Saadabad Pact with Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan were the result. The Montreux Agreement aimed, among other things, at reestablishing full Turkish sovereignty over the Straits and preventing the powers from using the Straits against Turkey’s will or establishing any stronghold in the Straits area.

A negative principle was the abstention from using Islam in foreign relations — but this fitted naturally into the overall concept of Turkey as a secular state.

The principles defined by Atatürk and his colleagues during the period between the two world wars also served as guidelines during, and to a large extent after, World War II. Turkey maintained strict neutrality during critical stages of the war, mainly in accordance with the principle that a nation should fight only in case of real danger to its national independence and territorial integrity — the more so since in this case any involvement in war could truly be a danger in both these respects. However, following World War II, the Turkish leaders evidently felt there was no other choice but to return to that principle of Atatürk which viewed the Soviet Union as the primary threat to Turkey’s security, and to look for an ally in the West — this time the United States, together with the Western European powers.


1. Mustafa Kemal, The Speech of October 1927 (Leipzig 1929), pp. 377-78.
2. M. Erendil,The Turkish Revolution and Kemalist Principles (RIHM 50 1981), p. 188.
3. R.H.Tulga, The Doctrinal Basis of Atatürk’s Military Strategy: National Independence (RIHM 50 1981), p. 142.
4. Lord Kinross, Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation (London 1964), p. 458.
5. E. Weisband, Turkish Foreign Policy 1943-1945 (Princeton 1973), p. 44.
6. Kinross, Atatürk, p.464.
7. G. Ellison, An Englishwoman in Angora (London 1923), p. 174.
8. R. Inan, Atatürk as a Teacher and Leader (RIHM 50 1981), p. 216.