Today marks the 80th year since the death of Atatürk, the founding father of The Republic of Turkey. But while Atatürk’s most specific legacy was insuring the survival, revival and uplifting of the Turkish nation, the lessons his legacy provides for the rest of the world continue to be as relevant as they were during his lifetime. After literally fighting against the criminal clauses of the Treaty of Sèvres which threatened the integrity of the Turkish nation, Atatürk released that the real battle had only begun. Yet Atatürk’s longest and most important battle would be fought not with guns and bullets but with law, politics and social revitalisation.
Crucially, Atatürk understood that in order to modernise the nation, it would take more than simply replacing an outdated monarchy with a modern republican system. Atatürk realised that this republican system must be one whose social and economic reforms each compliment one another in terms of elevating the condition of the people. In many ways though, Atatürk’s most lasting legacy was authoring a form of geopolitical relations that in the 21st century is generally referred to as multipolarity or multilateralism.
Looking at Atatürk’s foreign policy, it was not a western nation that first established relations with the Government of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey but the young Soviet Union which like Turkey was still in the midst of its own civil crisis when Lenin and Atatürk signed an historic Friendship Treaty in Moscow which put to rest centuries of Russo-Turkish antagonism. Indeed, so friendly was Atatürk’s relationship with the USSR that when former World War era triumvir Enver Pasha attempted to lead a Turkic revolt against the USSR in central Asia, the so-called Basmachi movement, Atatürk continued to renounce Enver Pasha and maintained good ties with Moscow.
The 1921 Treaty of Moscow saw the two sides work amicably to settle territorial disputes arising from the aftermath of the First World War while Atatürk also refused to allow Britain and France to do what they did to his Ottoman predecessors and exploit Turkey in order to barricade Russian ships in the Black Sea as the west did after the signing of the anti-Russian London Straits Convention of 1841 – a treaty which prohibited Russian ships from free navigation in the Turkish Straits in wartime.
Instead, Atatürk convinced the major powers of Europe and western Eurasia to agree to the 1936 Montreux convention which rejected the stance of the victors of the First World War’s to internationalise the Turkish Straits. Instead, Turkey assumed full control of the Straits while granting all nations with Black Sea fleets full navigation rights in both peace and war time.
But it was not just the eastern Soviet power that Atatürk was quick to engage in fruitful relations with. Shortly before his death, Atatürk signed the Treaty of Saadabad with Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq – an inviolable non-aggression pact which sought to ease historic tensions between the great powers of south-western Eurasia as a bulwark against European imperialism.
Of course when it came to literally looking west, while Atatürk worked to normalise post-war relations with Britain and France, what was more important was Atatürk’s desire to retain friendly Turkish relations in the Balkans while paving the way for a new era of post-Ottoman equality between national partners. It was in this spirit that Atatürk was able to reconcile with The Hellenic Republic shortly after a bitterly fought war which Turkey won and moreover, it was this spirit which led Atatürk to sign the Balkan Pact of 1934 with Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Romania.
Atatürk clearly knew that the future of healthy Turkish geopolitical relations was in having as few enemies and as many partners as possible, all the while avoiding the entangling alliances which were the proximate cause for the ballooning of the crises which led to the First World War.
Furthermore, Atatürk knew that only a strong relationship with fellow Eurasian powers including the USSR, Iran and Afghanistan could prevent imperial Europe from exploiting ancient hostilities in the region. He also knew that creating harmony where there once was discord both in the Balkans and in central and western Europe was the key to a more harmonious development for a Turkish state let down by decades of poor leadership.
Yet Atatürk was not one to suffer fools gladly. In 1923 he said,
“Today the Soviet Union is a friend and an ally. We need this friendship. However, no one can know what will happen tomorrow. Just like the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires it may tear itself apart or shrink in size. Those peoples that it holds so tightly in its grip may one day slip away. The world may see a new balance of power. It is then that Turkey must know what to do. Ally Soviets have under their control our brothers with whom we share language, beliefs and roots. We must be prepared to embrace them. Being ready does not mean that we will sit quietly and wait. We must get ready. How does a people get prepared for such an endeavour? By strengthening the natural bridges that exist between us. Language is a bridge… Religion is a bridge… History is a bridge… We must delve into our roots and reconstruct what history has divided. We can’t wait for them to approach us. We must reach out to them”.
Here one sees that Atatürk realised that geopolitical partnerships have a fluid element to them and that relations must be compartmentalised in terms of disagreement, made the most of in areas where there is harmony and overall foreign relations must be viewed with scientific scepticism rather than fanatical devotion. Atatürk’s foreign policy helped to pacify long standing rivalries both to the east, north and west of Turkey that threatened to make lingering conflicts sources of consternation for the Turkish Republic. It is this attitude of being friends with all whenever possible and enemies only with those who threaten Turkey that continues to be the guiding force behind Turkey’s geopolitical revival in the 21st century.
In 1965 when Lee Kuan Yew assumed his position as the political leader of an independent Singapore whose birth was in many ways as remarkable as that of the Republic of Turkey, Lee understood that like Atatürk, his country needed economic and sociological modernisation in equal measures and that by courting the respect of all foreign powers, in so doing he would also court the friendship of many if not most of them. It was within this spirit that Atatürk said,
“Our object now is to strengthen the ties that bind us to other nations. There may be a great many countries in the world, but there is only one civilisation, and if a nation is to achieve progress, she must be a part of this civilisation. The Ottoman Empire began to decline the day when, proud of her success against the West, she cut the ties that bound her to the European nations”.
Geopolitical multilateralism is just one example of how Atatürk’s political theory has in many ways become the road-map for modernisation in both the 20th and 21st century.
Atatürk was the soldier who became a leader of a republican movement to revive the nation and in so doing, he became not only a master of political theory and statecraft but a man whose name is globally synonymous with pragmatic economic thinking, rational policy making and patriotic wisdom.
Yet Atatürk was ultimately a man who had the quality of humility that remains lost on many of the more bombastic and outwardly hostile leaders of the contemporary era. When Atatürk said “As they have come, so they will go“, this statement applies to all men who do not realise that while an iron fist can guarantee temporary power, it is only the golden idea that can sustain a nation long after the iron fist has grown limp.
Atatürk’s legacy is a profound one but it is as profoundly meaningful in respect of the major issues of 2018 as it is in terms of its historical value to Turkey and other nations that have learned from his example.