Notes on a Turkish Conspiracy
How the looming end of a 100-year-old treaty exposes the existential paranoia at the heart of Erdogan’s foreign policy.
While American commentators debate whether Turkey will join U.S. President Barack Obama’s coalition against the Islamic State, some Turkish pundits are looking ahead to more serious foreign-policy challenges — like what will happen in 2023 when the Treaty of Lausanne expires and Turkey’s modern borders become obsolete. In keeping with secret articles signed by Turkish and British diplomats at a Swiss lakefront resort almost a century ago, British troops will reoccupy forts along the Bosphorus, and the Greek Orthodox patriarch will resurrect a Byzantine ministate within Istanbul’s city walls. On the plus side for Turkey, the country will finally be allowed to tap its vast, previously off-limits oil reserves and perhaps regain Western Thrace. So there’s that.
Of course, none of this will actually happen. The Treaty of Lausanne has no secret expiration clause. But it’s instructive to consider what these conspiracy theories, trafficked on semi-obscure websites and second-rate news shows, reveal about the deeper realities of Turkish foreign policy, especially under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s pro-Islam Justice and Development Party (AKP).
After defeating the Ottoman Empire in World War I, Britain, France, Italy, and Greece divided Anatolia, colonizing the territory that is now Turkey. However, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk reorganized the remnants of the Ottoman army and thwarted this attempted division through shrewd diplomacy and several years of war. Subsequently, the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne recognized Ataturk’s victory and established the borders of modern Turkey. Lausanne then became part of the country’s foundational myth. For a time it even had its own holiday, Lausanne Day, when children dressed in costumes representing contested regions of Anatolia for elementary school plays.
With the Treaty of Lausanne so embedded in the Turkish state’s ideology, it is no surprise that conspiracies about it are ideologically loaded and vary according to the partisan affiliation of the individual conspiracy-monger. Erdogan’s critics tend to be more focused on the risks Turkey faces when Lausanne expires. Conspiracy-minded secularists have always worried that Erdogan is working with the European Union to establish an independent Kurdistan or perhaps dig a new Bosphorus to secure American ships’ access to the Black Sea, or really doing anything else possible to undermine the sovereignty Ataturk secured for Turkey. Some of Erdogan’s supporters, by contrast, are more optimistic about Lausanne’s expiration, in part based on a strain of recent historical revisionism suggesting that Ataturk actually could have gotten a much better deal during the negotiations had he not been in league with the Europeans — not preserved the whole Ottoman Empire, necessarily, but at least held on to a bit more of Greek Thrace and maybe the oil fields of Mosul. Where Ataturk once criticized the Ottoman sultan for failing to defend Turkish territory in the face of Western aggression, Islamists have now borrowed this charge for use against Ataturk.
In the realm of Turkish domestic politics, talk about “the end of Lausanne” reflects the fears of some and the hopes of others that with former prime minister, now president, Erdogan’s consolidation of power over the last decade, Turkey has embarked on a second republic — what Erdogan calls “New Turkey.” Supporters believe this new incarnation of the Turkish state will be free of the authoritarianism that defined Ataturk’s republic; critics worry it will be bereft of Ataturk’s secularism.
Still, the persistence of the end-of-Lausanne myth shows the extent to which New Turkey will be indebted to the ideology of the old one. Turkish Islamists have certainly inherited the conspiratorial nationalism found among many secularists, complete with the suspicion of Euro-American invasions and Christian-Zionist plots. (Is it any coincidence Lausanne is in Switzerland, a center of world Zionism?) While the secularist fringe speculated that Erdogan was a secret Jew using moderate Islam to weaken Turkey on Israel’s orders, many in the AKP’s camp now imagine that all Erdogan’s problems are caused by various international conspiracies seeking to block Turkey’s meteoric rise.
In the realm of foreign policy, though, these conspiracies belie a deeper truth: Despite the current violence to Turkey’s south, the borders enshrined in the Treaty of Lausanne are more secure than they have ever been. And the AKP was the first government to fully realize this. While Erdogan has often stoked nationalist paranoia for political gain, as when he claimed foreign powers were behind popular anti-government protests, the AKP’s foreign policy was the first to reflect a serious awareness of Turkey’s newfound political and economic power, not to mention the security that comes with it. Beneath all the bizarre rhetoric and paranoia, the AKP realized that Turkey has finally moved beyond an era in its foreign policy defined by the need to defend what was won at Lausanne.
After the Treaty of Lausanne was signed, Turkey’s main geopolitical aim was the preservation of its territorial integrity. In the 1920s and 1930s, the threat came from European powers like fascist Italy. In response, Turkish statesmen embraced a perilous neutrality, controversially staying out of World War II from fear that joining either side would invite a Russian or German invasion. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union emerged as a uniquely imminent threat, leading Turkey to abandon its neutrality and join NATO.
When the Cold War ended, a new threat to Turkey’s borders emerged: a guerrilla war launched by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This threat helped unite Turkey with Israel over a shared belief that comfortable Western liberals would never understand why, in a dangerous neighborhood, killing terrorists — be they Kurdish or Palestinian — took precedence over human rights. In fact, Turkey entered the 21st century much like Israel: a regional power with a self-perception based on the fear and insecurity that circumscribed its founding. Amid fevered criticism of the war in Gaza this summer, it was striking to see a few Turkish writers offer advice to Israel about the benefits Turkey has found in overcoming this self-perception.
American observers often forget that when the AKP came to power in 2003, almost all of Turkey’s borders, not just the Middle Eastern ones, were potential hot spots. War with Greece seemed like a real possibility, not to mention with Iran, Syria, Iraq, or Armenia. Ahmet Davutoglu — then foreign minister, now prime minister — set out to change this with his signature, if awkwardly translated “zero problems with neighbors” policy. With the Arab Spring and Syrian uprising having undermined many of Davutoglu’s accomplishments by creating a host of new problems, it has been easy to mock this policy for its naiveté. That response ignores the real benefits the policy delivered to Turkey, particularly on the heels of an era when Turkey’s fear-driven approach to regional issues sometimes seemed, instead, like one of “maximum problems with neighbors.”
Among other things, Davutoglu honed a more diplomatic language appropriate to Turkey’s new power and ambitions. For example, rather than responding with nationalistic brio to hostile questions about Turkish claims on the Aegean Sea from Greek sometimes-adversaries, he would, instead, gently defuse these Balkan bombs by gracefully suggesting the real question was “how do we make the Aegean a sea of peace?” Turkey, Davutoglu deftly suggested, had left such petty Balkan disputes behind and had moved on to more important things. Like making money.
Indeed, sometimes underneath all the ideological bluster, Erdogan’s government was accused of being a little too eager to capitalize on Turkey’s new position of economic strength. Ironically, during the recent war in Gaza, Erdogan’s opponents criticized his rhetoric toward Israel not as too harsh but as too hollow. Secular and Islamist critics alike took great joy in pointing out that while Erdogan has become an outspoken critic of Israel, Turkish-Israeli trade has nevertheless steadily increased during the AKP’s time in office, with Erdogan’s son playing a key role. It is a telling sign of the shift in Turkey that where once the Turkish military worked to maintain good Turkish-Israeli relations behind the scenes amid public spats, now that role had been assumed by the Turkish business community.
Ankara was reluctant to join the West’s anti-Qaddafi coalition in 2011, for example, in large part because Turkish businessmen had been doing brisk business in Libya to the tune of almost $10 billion during the previous year. When civil war broke out in Syria shortly after the uprising in Libya began, Erdogan and Davutoglu were eager to be on the right side of history from the beginning — and, likely, were also a little embarrassed that improved ties with Bashar al-Assad’s regime were one of the most prominent and profitable achievements of the “zero problems” policy.
Now, a stronger, wealthier Turkey has discovered some of the challenges that a strong, wealthy country can face. Americans might even recognize a few. The Arab Spring revealed that undemocratic regimes only make great business partners until they are overthrown. An exaggerated sense of confidence also led Turkey to take such an active role in supporting anti-Assad rebels in Syria without fully considering potential blowback. Turkish voters are now questioning their country’s role in this violent quagmire, especially after Islamic State militants, seemingly ungrateful for Turkey’s previous patronage, kidnapped and held dozens of Turkish citizens working in the country’s consulate in Mosul, Iraq.
Now, with the possibility of Islamic State attacks within Turkey or renewed conflict with the PKK, AKP foreign policy will be judged by whether it can continue to translate Turkey’s abstract geopolitical security — those Lausanne borders still aren’t going anywhere — into personal safety and stability for Turkish citizens. In short, Erdogan and Davutoglu will face plenty of challenges even without having to renegotiate the Treaty of Lausanne.