Turkey’s Foreign Relations from 1923-1939

The end of the First World War brought the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Defeated by the Allied Powers, it was divided into smaller pieces. The title Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was abolished in 1922; two years later, the title of (Ottoman) Caliph was abolished, in 1924. With the Treaty of Lausanne, the Republic of Turkey rises on the 29th of October, 1923. Along the beginning of the early Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became its first president, from 1923 to his death in 1938.

During his presidential mandate, a lot changes have seen the day, in this essay we’ll talk about the period that was necessary to solve all the problems the treaty of Lausanne left unsolved and in a second we’ll talk about the foreign relations in an international scope. Turkish foreign policy between the two World Wars was greatly influenced by Ataturk’s vision and his personality. Most writers called this era ‘The Turkey of Ataturk. According to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Turkey’s foreign policy objectives were to seek recognition as a sovereign entity, and to seek to enjoy the full benefits of peace.

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When the Republic of Turkey was established, the new Turkish state had some goals. The National Pact of 1920, which mainly aimed to create a national Turkish state, also stated the political and military goals of the War of National Liberation. Among them, the complete independence was naturally the second goal of Ataturk’s foreign policy. There was no way that a protectorate would be accepted. The third goal was the modernization of the country. Ataturk identified modernization with westernization and used both words synonymously.

Turkey’s western-inclined foreign policy began in Ataturk’s time in conjunction with efforts at modernization in the cultural sphere. Turkish statesmen had formulated some principles that were the major foundations of the attempts to achieve these goals. The first principle was realism. Ataturk always kept this in mind when dealing with national and international issues. Because of this realistic policy, Turkey was able to win and preserve its independence. The second principle was allegiance to international law.

Here there are several examples which will be given later in details: The solution of the Mosul Question Membership of the League of Nations The Montreux Convention of 1936 “Peace at home, Peace in the World” was the third principle which was greatly illustrated by the Balkan Entente of 1934 and the Saadabad Pact of 1937. As previously stated above, the Western-inclined direction is the fourth principle. Since 1923, this direction will remain the same. This will remain primordial for Turkey not only from a political view, but also from an economical one.

For example Turkey is a member of NATO and is also currently trying to become member of the European Council. The Turkish Grand National Assembly endorsed the Treaty of Lausanne which was signed on July 24, 1923. “Turkey was the only defeated nation of the First World War to be able to negotiate peace on its own terms and won almost all its demands from the Entente. Also, The Lausanne Treaty was the only post-war agreement which depended on mutual negotiations”. The most important point is that the laic Turkish state was acknowledged by the international community.

Nevertheless, the Treaty of Lausanne left several problems between Turkey and the Entente Powers; the Mosul question, the problem of the Straits, the Hatay question, to mention a few. The strategic importance of Turkey began to increase because of its borders created after the Lausanne Treaty. Before being able to establish normal relations with the powerful nations, Turkey needed to solve problems in foreign policy, and so almost all the institutions of the Ottoman Empire were abolished during the five years following Lausanne; the Sultanate and Caliphate, the Islamic Law and educational system, and the Arabic alphabet.

Afterwards they started to apply a very realistic foreign policy. Wa can notice some evidences of this “realism” in Turkish foreign policy. First, the period from 1923 to 1932 has been the period where the issues left unresolved by the Lausanne treaty were elucidated. One example would be the relation Turkey and Greece maintained. After signing the treaty, the Allied forces left Istanbul. And with this came a massive emigration of Christians out of Istanbul to Greece. The real problem started when the Greek minority wished to stay in Istanbul.

Approximately one and a half million Greeks were obliged to leave Turkey for Greece and about half a million Turks had to leave Greece for Turkey (it is important to keep in mind that the population exchange was based on religious grounds, thus the exchange was officially that of Christians for Muslims). There was some exceptions to this exchange, including areas such as Istanbul (named Constantinople at the time), Gokceada’s islands (Imbros) and Bozcaada’s islands (Tenedos), where the Greek minority was allowed to stay, and Western Thrace, whose Muslim minority was also allowed to stay.

Additionally, there was a great attention given to the Mosul Question by Turkish Foreign Policy makers from 1923 to 1926. The Mosul Question was a territorial conflict between Turkey and the United Kingdom ( this area will, later on, become part of Iraq) over the proprietary rights of the bygone Ottoman Mosul Vilayet. To be more accurate, the issue rested upon oil resources available in that region. At the time, neither Turkey nor Britain wanted to give up on Mosul. Britain decided to take the problem to a wider range of spectators, making the League of Nations aware of this quarrel.

It is important to not that at the time Turkey wasn’t a member of the League. It was decided that Mosul should be a part of Iraq, some argue that this decision has been taken because of Britain influential place in the League of Nations. And in the year of 1926, an agreement was signed, Turkey gave up on her policy over Mosul. Two main reasons led to the signature of it, one was the conflicts going on in Eastern Turkey but the second one was Ataturk’s unwillingness to start a war against the United Kingdom since Turkey was getting out a freshly lost war of eleven years and thus was very weak.

Following this decision, Turkey became a member of the League of Nations in 1932. This decision was in some sense problematic because of Turkey’s diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, Turkey did not wish to deteriorate her relations with the latter one and feared that by joining the League, it “betrayed” her ally. But in 1934, when the USSR joined the League of Nations, this was no longer an issue. But when faced with the Japanese, German and Italian aggressions and being unable to counter them, the UN proved to be inefficient in maintaining peace, Turkey decided it needed to widen its relations with the world to keep peace.

After that, in the 30’s the international arena was becoming more dangerous, and tensions were raising, Turkey judged it was time to be part of an alliance to insure peace. Turkey had priorities at the time, which were to revise Lausanne Treaty to make the best out of it for Turkey ( especially concerning straits and Eastern Thrace issues) but also about modernizing the army, and constituting an alliance with Britain and France without staining relations with the Soviet Union.

Based on William Hale’s words, Turkey biggest concern was to make sure the same mistake of 1914 wasn’t reproduced, “by siding with Germany” because Turkey was aware that the allied powers would have the upper hand and thus Turkey wanted to be on the victorious side of the table. Turkish foreign policy makers’ timing when bringing the issue to the agenda couldn’t be better. Turkish army was limited in Eastern Thrace, and left it with lack of security against Italy, thus Turkey’s sovereignty was limited.

Afterwards, Britain realized that Turkish interests about straits and Eastern Thrace were also beneficial to the UK. In 1936, part states (Australia, Bulgaria, Greece, France, Japan, Romania, Yugoslavia, Turkey, UK and USSR) signed Monteux Treaty which revised the strait settlement previously mentioned in the Lausanne treaty. This treaty stated various conditions, for example, in war or at peace, Turkey would implement the rules concerning the straits. The take away message here is that Turkey obtained what she desired concerning the straits while using the opportunity of a worsening international environment.

Then, after 1933, Turkey became more interested in the developments occurring in Europe. Italian and German aggression let other powers to establish an alliance. As stated before, Turkey wanted to be on the allied powers’ side. Yet, Britain wasn’t pleased nor willing to undertake any decisions at the time. This was until German aggressions increased in 1939. Britain had no choice but to become willing to form an alliance between Turkey, France and Britain. At that point, Turkey was not to attack Germany, but to actually stay neutral in this conflict.

Based on the agreement between Turkey and Britain, both were responsible for aid and assistance if either member of the alliance were to be attacked by an outsider. After the declaration, Turkey’s biggest targets were to bring France into the alliance and integrate the Soviet Union’s wishes. Nevertheless, Turkish foreign policy makers had to solve the issue of Hatay with France to get her into the alliance. After Lausanne treaty, Hatay was a province left inside of the French-ruled Syria.

When Syria became independent, Turkey decided to assert her objectives about Hatay, that it did not want to be a part of an independent state. In 1938, Hatay was declared as an independent state and in 1939 Hatay was annexed to Turkey. This let Turkish-Franco relations better but however, it led to bad Turkish-Syrian relations. In 1939 Turkey, Britain and France entered into negotiation in politics, military and economical fronts. Germany wanted Turkey as an ally, but aggressive attitudes of Italy hindered this.

Turkey’s other goal was to sign a non aggression pact with the Soviet Union. But, when Germany and the USSR signed a non aggression pact, it was a rude awakening for Turkey, because Turkey always wanted the Soviet Union to be on the side of the Allied powers. Alsoe, Turkey was afraid of tensions with the Soviet Union which was something to be avoided greatly. In conclusion, Lausanne treaty had a great impact on Turkish Foreign policy. On most sides Turkey was satisfied with the agreements, except Mosul, straits and Hatay issues.

The remained unresolved problems, mostly on an international level, were solved by peaceful means during this period of 1923-1939. In this period, one can say with no doubt that Turkey was finally accepted as a part of the European state system. Secondly, Turkey was looking after good relations with its neighbors and preserving peace in Balkans states, with the Balkan Pact for example, and in the Middle East with Saadabad Pact. Finally, Turkey always carried her foreign policy out according to Ataturk’s famous rhetoric “peace at home peace at world”.