The Nonsense of “Neo-Ottomanism”
On May 29th, Turkey celebrates the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 — complete with fake mustaches, costume parades, and flattering comparisons between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the sultans. The holiday has become a high-profile symbol of Turkey’s enthusiasm for its Ottoman past, which makes it a good day to reflect on whether any of this matters as much as some observers and analysts think it does.
For over a decade, discussions of contemporary Turkey have often made reference to the idea of “neo-Ottomanism.” Left undefined, it often serves as a convenient short-hand for anything aggressive, authoritarian, irredentist, overly Islamic, or anti-Western about Erdogan’s actions. Looking back, the issue is not just that the term makes no sense, but that it is deeply misleading nonsense that undermines Washington’s ability to predict and respond to Turkish policies. Abandoning the term once and for all will make it easier to think clearly about the challenges U.S. policymakers face in dealing with Turkey today.
Neo-Ottomanism Doesn’t Explain Modern Turkey
Neo-Ottomanism, and the imprecise way it is often invoked, created two particularly problematic misunderstandings related to Turkish domestic and foreign policy. First, the term suggests a tension between religion and nationalism, two forces that have become increasingly fused in contemporary Turkish politics. Second, when used in the international realm to refer to any foreign policy the West doesn’t like, neo-Ottomanism makes it more difficult to understand the evolution of Turkish strategy and intentions.
As a result, overusing neo-Ottomanism leaves American observers unprepared for the potential power of religious nationalism in Turkish electoral politics. At the same time, it obscures the way nationalist, Islamist, and anti-Western currents could come together in Turkey’s foreign policy to make U.S.-Turkish tensions even more intractable than they already are.
In the realm of domestic politics, the term neo-Ottoman always implied an exaggerated contradiction between religion and nationalism in Turkey. It implied that neo-Ottomanists like Erdogan wanted to replace the nationalism of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s republic with an alternative Islamic identity rooted in the empire out of which it emerged.
There is indeed a real and important tension between the Islamist worldview of many of Erdogan’s followers and the secular nationalism of Ataturk. But these tensions always existed on more of a spectrum than discussions of neo-Ottomanism suggested. There was a long history of religious nationalism in Turkey, most famously associated with the Turkish military’s promotion of the aptly named “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” Moreover, in countries around the world that lacked Turkey’s unique history of secular nationalism, religion and nationalism have always been a formidable pairing.
As a result, a long-standing fascination with neo-Ottomanism provided little warning of Erdogan’s nationalist turn following Turkey’s June 2015 elections. Moreover, it has led observers to see the Erdogan’s current relationship with the actively nationalist, Nationalist Action Party as a marriage of convenience, or a tactical alliance to win elections, rather than a robust ideological fusion with the potential to outlast the current leadership of either party. Indeed, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Action Party have already developed a striking symbolic vocabulary to unite traditional religious and nationalist history and iconography.
Misreading Turkish Foreign Policy
But it is in the realm of foreign policy that the term neo-Ottoman has created the greatest confusion. Here, paradoxically, commentators have used it somewhat interchangeably as a synonym for Islamism, nationalism, and virtually anything anti-Western. In short, whatever Turkey does that Washington doesn’t like — be it buying Russian anti-aircraft missiles or shooting down a Russian plane — can be casually attributed to neo-Ottomanism. The result is a misunderstanding of how Turkey’s anti-Westernism has evolved, and the risks posed by the deepening fusion of Islamist and nationalist policies, particularly amidst a series of interlocking conflicts across the Eastern Mediterranean in Libya, Syria and Cyprus.
Consider Syria. Since coming to power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party government has followed a number of different polices toward its southern neighbor. First, in the 2000s, Erdogan befriended President Bashar al-Assad. Then, after 2010, he tried to overthrow him. Finally, since 2016, Erdogan has worked uneasily with Russia in order to occupy parts of Assad’s country, in order to fight Kurdish nationalist forces.
All of these strategies were, at one time, described as neo-Ottoman, which masks both the important points of continuity and change in Turkey’s approach to its region.
First, there is something ridiculous about calling any of the policies neo-Ottoman in any meaningful historic sense. Assad’s Arab nationalism did not traditionally hold the Ottoman Empire in high esteem. But then, the radical Islamists that Turkey came to support in trying to overthrow Assad weren’t necessarily more enthusiastic about the Ottomans either. While Turkish Islamists see the Ottoman caliphs as a high point of Islamic power and piety, non-Turkish Islamists have more mixed feelings. The Wahabbi movement itself emerged in opposition to, and was eventually suppressed by, the Ottoman government. ISIL, in turn, has denounced the Ottoman sultans as “perverts” and “polytheists.” This is not a popular view in Turkey. Finally, cooperating with Russia and Iran is also distinctly un-Ottoman, as both countries fought bitterly with the Ottoman Empire for centuries. Moreover, Turkey’s current policy is driven by the government’s conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) — itself a product of 20th-century Turkish nationalism. Even the irredentist maps that provocative Turkish commentators sometimes cite to claim Syrian territory are depictions not of the Ottoman borders, but of Mustafa Kemal’s 20th-century National Pact.
Evolution of Turkish Foreign Policy
So beneath this misleading neo-Ottoman window-dressing (which to be clear, the Turkish government was often happy to use itself), how has Ankara’s actual foreign policy and view of the West evolved? First, Turkish policy always sought to increase the country’s influence, power and prestige in the region — something that appealed to a wide range of Islamist and nationalist worldviews alike. Moreover, it was always anti-Western, to the extent that it sought to increase Turkey’s status vis-a-vis the West, making it a regional power center in its own right. And toward this end, Ankara was always willing to endure Washington’s disapproval by working with actors that the U.S. found distasteful. This included both Assad and the extremists seeking to topple him, as well as Russia today.
As the Justice and Development Party’s foreign policy visionary during its first decade in power, Ahmet Davutoglu saw Turkey competing with the West, but not necessarily in conflict with it. While he certainly believed that Turkey had been historically wronged by Western powers, he also imagined that Turkey’s increased influence in the Middle East could actually make it a more compelling partner for America and the European Union. Moreover, Davutoglu’s vision for the Middle East fit with the West’s liberal internationalist vision for the world. At times, his regional proposals even sounded a bit like a Middle Eastern European Union, with Turkey playing the role of Germany as the economic and political powerhouse in a region integrated through historic ties, trade deals, and visa-free travel. Ankara might work with anti-Western partners, but it ultimately hoped to incorporate them into a regional order which Washington could appreciate.
And yet a number of regional and global factors ultimately pushed Turkey’s anti-Westernism in a much more hostile direction. The 2013 coup in Egypt, as well as Turkey’s own 2016 coup and U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, left Erdogan and many around him convinced that Washington was seeking their destruction. As a result, Turkey began to see its competition with the West in increasingly zero-sum terms. Moreover, the world itself became more conflict-riven. The dream of political and economic integration faltered not just in the Middle East, but now is facing strain in Europe itself. In this context, Ankara sees its multiple interventions in Syria, as well as military deployments in Qatar and Libya, as part of a hard-power campaign to push back against a hostile axis of American-backed regional rivals, stretching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf.
The risk today lies in the way deepening regional tensions could fuse together nationalism, Islamism, and anti-Westernism in Turkey in a manner that would prove deeply difficult to untangle. Turkey’s provocative policy in the Eastern Mediterranean — challenging Greece’s maritime borders and exploring for gas in contested areas — is now bringing together Greece, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE into an unofficial anti-Turkish axis. As a result, Turkey’s longstanding conflict with Greece and Cyprus, a cause with real strategic implications and one dear to many traditional nationalists, has become ever more intertwined with Turkey’s conflicts with Egypt, driven by Erdogan’s commitment to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as its conflict with Israel, driven by Erdogan’s enthusiastic support for Hamas and the Palestinian cause. The more these conflicts intertwine, the more difficult it will be for the current or future Turkish government to repair relations with Egypt, or withdraw from Libya, without compromising the country’s interests or perceived honor. And as long as Turkey finds itself locked in a conflict with half a dozen countries — all of which are America’s allies or partners — it will be equally difficult for Ankara to reset its relations with Washington.
It may well be too late for U.S. policy to help diffuse the brewing crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean. But anything Washington can do today to help mediate or mitigate the Cyprus dispute or the Libyan civil war will make restoring ties with Turkey down the road that much easier. Moreover, while Washington has every reason to encourage improved cooperation between its regional partners, it should discourage the impression that this represents an anti-Turkish axis.
The End of Neo-Ottomanism
History is versatile. When it serves their purposes, Turkey’s leaders will undoubtedly continue to dress their foreign policies in neo-Ottoman garb. But there’s no reason for analysts to go along with it. The impulses often called neo-Ottoman — aggressive nationalism, religious chauvinism, and anti-Western hostility — are very real in Turkey, just as they are in countries that don’t have an Ottoman past. Also real are the various pragmatic geopolitical and economic factors driving Turkish decision-making that neo-Ottomanism ignores.
The day Erdogan leads his army on a campaign to capture Vienna, by all means call it neo-Ottoman. Until then, describing contemporary Turkish politics in contemporary terms will make for better analysis — and hopefully, better policy.
Nicholas Danforth is a George F. Kennan fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He completed a PhD in Turkish history at Georgetown University and has written widely on Middle Eastern politics.