Testing the Trajectory of Turkish Militarism


With the initiation of Azerbaijan’s self-declared “anti-terrorist” campaign against Nagorno-Karabakh on Sept. 19, discussion of war yet again echoed across Turkey’s media landscape. As was the case in 2020, when Azeri forces crushed Armenian defenses within the disputed region, commentators and officials were decidedly joyous at the news. Baku’s long awaited offensive was widely touted as the completion of a struggle dating back years, if not many decades. Azerbaijan’s success, for large numbers of Turks, is not simply one enjoyed by a friend or ally. The close historical and cultural ties that bind Turkey and Azerbaijan, it is widely believed, make the fall of Nagorno-Karabakh a victory shared by “one nation with two flags.” The dogmas of Turkish nationalism are not the only source of Ankara’s interests in these events. As in 2020, pundits on Turkish television delighted in the use of Turkish-made weaponry by the Azeri armed forces. Defeating Armenian defenders in the Karabakh, in this sense, is greeted as still another triumph of the Turkish defense industry. 

The bellicose tone of events on Turkey’s eastern periphery stands in stark contrast to Ankara’s posture towards its neighbors to the west. Relations between Ankara and Athens have improved considerably over the last six months. Turkish and Western press agencies have applauded President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s new national security team as a sign that Ankara aims to build a better rapport with Europe and the United States. This dramatic shift in the tenor of political affairs has reignited a certain amount of optimism regarding Turkey’s future. With Erdogan ensconced in office for another five years, an inkling of hope endures that Ankara may make one last pivot westward towards NATO and Washington. 



Ankara’s current attitude toward events in the south Caucasus may be a more telling bellwether of Turkey’s long-term trajectory. As Selim Koru recently observed, nothing appears to have changed in Ankara’s general posture or strategic outlook. The bedrock of Turkey’s foreign policy remains a version of nationalism that is, as Koru put it, “existentially and ferociously opposed to Western geopolitical dominance.” But there is a discrete aspect of this nationalism that is worth further consideration. Now, perhaps more than ever, strong militarist tendencies lie at the heart of Turkish domestic and foreign policy. A growing fervor surrounding the country’s defense industry increasingly impacts Turkey’s perceptions of affairs abroad. Popular media, much of it guided by Erdogan’s offices, channel this excitement in promoting the belief that the country stands on the cusp of independence and martial dominance. In the long run, the cultivation of these acute militarist tendencies may lead Turkey to follow through on more destabilizing behavior in both the Caucasus and the Aegean.

Born a Soldier: The Long Shadow of History

The Turkish nation,” Erdogan insisted some years ago, “has continued to exist throughout history as the best military power of its region and the world.” For many Turks, there is nothing idle or unserious about these sentiments. The bedrock of Turkey’s historical greatness, as told by many of its most esteemed scholars, is associated with the military prowess of the Ottoman Empire. The full territorial expanse claimed by the sultans stands as obvious testament to the success the Ottomans enjoyed in war. Today, high school students are taught that the Ottoman army was the most powerful force in the world up until the 17th century, a fact that allowed the empire to “play a role in determining the politics of Asia, Europe and the Middle East.” 

The obvious conceit of this lesson lies in the fact that the Ottomans lost this status late into the empire’s development. Failures on the battlefield, more than anything, ensured the collapse of the Ottoman state. The importance of military might, as Erdogan sees it, is not simply a matter of national survival. The “bravery of our ancestors,” he told a crowd in 2016, grew the Ottoman principality from a community comprising 400 tents into a “world state.” “In other words,” he concluded, “countries that have ‘soft power’ elements as well as ‘hard power’ elements have been able to leave permanent traces in history.”

What is decidedly absent from this reading of history is any sense of guilt when it comes to the legacies of war and war-making. Erdogan is not alone in his belief that Ottoman expansionism brought peace and civility with each act of conquest. Imperialism, as he and others would have it, is a Western form of exploitation and not something to be confused with Ottoman rule. This stubborn sense of blamelessness is most vividly displayed in the ways in which scholars, politicians and the public deal with the legacies of World War I. As seen during the 2018 commemoration of the end of the war, Western leaders and commentators have tended to depict the conflict as folly, one brought on by the fetishization of military might, intolerant nationalism, and hyper-masculinity. From the perspective of Turkish popular media, as well as school textbooks, the cautionary lessons to be learned from World War I are few. It was a noble and glorious war for Turks, even in defeat. As a conflict waged against Europe’s greatest imperialist powers, the war is construed as a righteous struggle that, in some ways, continues to this day. 

Married to this sense of historical innocence is the common conviction that Turks, by their very nature, are a warrior people. Evidence of this dogma can be found in the last names of large numbers of Turks. When the government mandated in 1934 that each citizen adopt a proper “Turkish” patronym, many chose or were assigned names inspired by military virtues (Erdogan, for example, means “one who is born a soldier”). With the country now celebrating its centennial, the notion of Turks constituting an inherently “martial race” remains as strong as ever. The fact that Europeans tend to eschew its militarist past, as one noted scholar and commentator put it, is not something Turks should admire. While Europeans distinguished themselves in the past as painters, musicians, and philosophers, Turks could still stand proud that their “undying art and quality was militarism.”

Turkey’s New Techno-Militarism

Erdogan is not the first Turkish leader to instrumentalize the glorification of war and military service. During the height of Ankara’s war against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the 1980s and 1990s, schools and public rituals furiously promoted the notion of Turkey as a “military nation” in order to combat resistance to conscription and legitimize its fight against Kurdish separatism. 

Under the rule of Justice and Development Party, both government rhetoric and mass culture have grown distinctly more militaristic as time has progressed. Symptomatic of this drift is the synergy that exists between Turkey’s entertainment industry and state messaging. Much has been said of the thriving popularity of Turkish soap operas and adventure series featuring notable conquerors found in Turkey’s past. The vogueishness of these programs often bleeds into the public relations campaigns and boosterism manufactured by government. State-sponsored spectacles, campaign advertisements, and social media posts often draw upon the imagery found in historical military dramas produced for television. 

Anchoring this trend, of course, is Erdogan himself. He has never been shy of voicing his support or criticism for programs based on historical events and characters. He has an especially consistent habit of referencing the Battle of Malazgirt, which marked the Turkish conquest of Anatolia at the expense of the Greek Byzantines. This 11th-century victory encapsulates a variety of tropes critical to his world view. Malazgirt, for Erdogan, represents the humbling of Greek ambitions and the smashing of Western imperialist crusaders. It embodies the sacredness of Turkish territory and the oneness of the Turkish nation. Malazgirt, in Erdogan’s terms, crystalized the superiority of the Turkish warrior and his time-honored fealty to Islam. Citing this historic victory in war, in other words, is not simply meant to elicit feelings of pride. It instead serves as a source of inspiration in Turkey’s pursuit of goals here in the present day.

The much-heralded rise of the Turkish defense industry has created a new dynamic within this lionization of the Turkish military and its past. The origins of this growth, as commentators often note, is rooted in comparatively recent events. While there is no question that U.S. and European restrictions on arms sales have played a role in stimulating Turkish technological advances, Erdogan has framed defense sector’s maturation as the product of a much longer struggle. Turks, he has claimed, were pioneers in the military science before ceding this advantage to Europeans. The Ottoman Empire exacerbated this weakness by borrowing Western technology as opposed to manufacturing weapons for themselves. This was a critical mistake, according to Erdogan, especially since “students we sent to the West to learn engineering mostly returned home with their minds seduced by ideas foreign to us.” Becoming more technologically competitive in the present, however, is not simply about reversing the tide of history. Erdogan has emphasized that defense innovation is critical to raising future generations to defend both the country and its “civilizational values.” 

This marriage of nationalism, militarism, and material innovation is now the focus of a yearly spectacle called Teknofest. Since 2018, organizers have staged this carnival-cum-convention multiple times a year in each of the country’s major cities, thus accommodating immense crowds of sightseers (this year’s iteration in Istanbul purportedly welcomed over 2.5 million visitors). The main activities hosted by the fair comprise a series of competitions aimed to attract the participation of children, schools, and professionals. Virtually all of the contests center on the design, construction, and use of robotics and drone technology. While coordinators tout Teknofest as a celebration of the country’s youth and ingenuity, displays of Turkey’s most modern weaponry often steal the show. Models and demonstrations of new missiles, rockets, aircraft, and drones produced by Turkish-run industries provide much of the entertainment for visiting crowds. Erdogan has seized upon each of these events as forums to articulate his vision of Turkey’s past, present and future. He personally dubbed the conclusion of this summer’s Teknofest “Victory Month” in honor of a slew of anniversaries marking historic Turkish victories from the distant past. The technology and strength premiered this summer, he explained, was an homage to such military feats as the Ottoman conquests of Hungary, Belgrade, and Cyprus. 

Amid this year’s iteration of Teknofest, Turkish pundits and officials struck a generally more soothing tone in addressing foreign audiences. Ankara now intends, as one columnist put it, to open “a new page specifically with the Western Bloc, while continuing its autonomous foreign policy and security strategy.” Striving for “total independence,” as another presidential advisor put it, is not at odds with what he called the country’s “new and solution-oriented multilateralism.” Evidence of the kind of peace made possible by this approach could be found in Turkish support for Azerbaijan’s seizure of Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan expressed his own confidence that by making war on the “looters in Karabakh,” and not the Armenian state, Baku was working toward normalizing relations with Yerevan. A similar confidence is conveyed with respect to Iraq, Syria, and Greece as well. Upon becoming Turkey’s new foreign minister, Hakan Fidan has taken great pains to assure audiences that Ankara remains committed to the territorial integrity of its neighbors.

Militarism, But to What End?

Ankara’s vocal insistence upon the novelty of its foreign policy posturing has yet to yield any real indication of substantive change in tactics. Both Damascus and Baghdad have made it clear that any improvement in relations is contingent on Turkey’s withdrawal from its territory. As recently as this summer, Erdogan has maintained that that Turkish troops will remain in Syria and Iraq as a part of a broader strategy of “destroying the terrorist threat at the source.” Meanwhile, Ankara’s recent pledge to pursue a diplomatic opening with Greece over various issues comes with the proviso that Athens negotiate independently of Brussels and the prerogatives afforded to it as an E.U. member. Though Erdogan has ceased issuing threats towards Athens since the spring, there is no sign that his government has had a change of heart when it comes to the sovereignty of Greece’s islands. As he told graduating cadets this summer, “Our stance against the aggressive actions against the Aegean is already known to all our interlocutors.”

So how should observers interpret these contradictory signals against the backdrop of Turkey’s enduring militarism? Perhaps Teknofest and Erdogan’s rhetoric are all purely designed for domestic consumption. After all, Turkey’s romantic attachment to war and soldiering predate Erdogan’s rule by many decades. Moreover, it is hard to divorce the pervasiveness of this culture from the constant air of electioneering that hangs over the country. Celebrating Turkey’s warlike traditions is in keeping with the intense nationalistic climate that has endured since Erdogan’s re-election. What’s more, Teknofest echoes the government’s materialistic standards of achievement. As seen in recent campaign ads, Turkish-produced drones are symbolic of an administration that also gave citizens a space program, a high-speed train system, electric cars, and other modern advances. Being able to successfully market and sell military technology abroad has added electoral advantages. 

Alternatively, Turkey’s militarism may prove to be a factor driving foreign policy in its own right. In this regard, the future of the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh could serve as a test case for whether Erdogan’s fascination with hard power remains confined to domestic politics. Negotiations are currently underway over the implementation of the so-called Zangezur corridor. Nikol Pashaniyan’s government in Yerevan continues to resist calls to cede Armenian any control over the southern territories of Zangezur. And any Azeri military action against Armenian territory proper would invite a firmer reaction from the European Union, United States, and Russia. More concretely, the stakes over any division of Zangezur have grown after Iranian officials and social media accounts intimated that Tehran would use force to oppose any partition of Armenian land. 

Despite all this, Erdogan, as well as members of the press, remain sanguine. Turkey’s president has announced that diplomatic discussions are underway to resolve Tehran’s objections. Erdogan’s advisors and supporters continue to harp upon the geopolitical rewards that will come as a result of Zangezur’s partition. The building of a road cutting across Armenia’s south, it is believed, would expand Ankara’s influence among Turkey’s ethnic kin in the Turkic states of Central Asia. The corridor, it is hoped, equally would transform Turkey into an energy and commercial giant. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, as well as official Turkish outlets, have also cast doubt on Armenia’s inherent claims to Zangezur as a whole. Like Russian President Vladimir Putin in his view of Ukraine, Aliyev contends that the Soviet government unfairly awarded Zangezur to Armenia despite its long history as a land inhabited by Turks. It is possible that Iran and Armenia may allow Turkey and Azerbaijan to the proceed with their plans in Zangezur, abandoning the threat to resist by force. Or it is possible that Ankara and Baku will push ahead regardless, seeking to create another fait accompli.

As Andrew Bacevich noted in his study on American militarism, technology can have a seductive influence on how both state leaders and everyday citizens understand and embrace the utility of war. By the start of the 21st century, “technology-as-panacea” grossly undermined the “blood-rust sullying” associated with armed conflict. As he argued in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, America’s superior military technology deluded many into thinking that war was more than just the natural response to the threat of terrorism. It became instead “a grand pageant” that affirmed Washington’s might and righteousness. A similar belief appears to be on the rise in Turkey. Erdogan has helped sustain the reigning dogma that Turkish technology is transforming the nature of modern war. 

This most recent episode of fighting in the south Caucasus constitutes, for many in Turkey, further proof of Turkey’s newfound status as 21st-century Goliath. If Erdogan is to be believed, technology has unlocked or amplified Turkey’s potential to resolve its national security concerns swiftly and decisively if it so chooses. In some cases, such as against Athens last year, Erdogan has only implied that he was willing to unleash his country’s arsenal. Should regional conditions change, or if Ankara’s rebranded foreign policy strategy fail to deliver, the militarist culture that Erdogan has helped to foment may convince him that war is the answer.



Ryan Gingeras is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and is an expert on Turkish, Balkan, and Middle East history. He is the author of six books, including the forthcoming The Last Days of the Ottoman Empire (to be released by Penguin in October 2022). His Sorrowful Shores: Violence, Ethnicity, and the End of the Ottoman Empire received short-list distinctions for the Rothschild Book Prize in Nationalism and Ethnic Studies and the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize. The views expressed here are not those of the Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: Wikimedia Commons