Ataturk’s western orientation was partly about cementing Turkey’s place in the richer and more technologically advanced west; it was also about sealing Turkey off from the divisive conflicts in the east. Frustration with the west is understandably leading some Turks to look east; the results are more likely to vindicate Ataturk’s view of Turkish national strategy than to refute it. ~Walter Russell Mead
This description is incomplete in a couple important ways that help Mead to exaggerate the current Turkish government’s divergence from “Ataturk’s view.” When Atatürk was head of state, Turkey was involved in “eastern” disputes as it quarreled over control of the vilayet of Mosul, which remained an unresolved issue for years after the establishment of Iraq. Turkey later annexed the short-lived Republic of Hatay on its southern frontier. More recently, the struggle with the PKK brought Turkey to the brink of war with Syria in 1998 when the latter was harboring Ocalan. After Karabakh broke away from Azerbaijan with support from Armenia, Turkey aligned itself with the Azeris and closed the border with Armenia, which remains closed to this day. Of necessity, there has always been an “eastern” dimension to Turkish policy.
What Atatürk most wanted to avoid in the east was the temptation of Pan-Turkish nationalism that could have led Turkey into the sort of self-destructive adventurism that resulted from the Greek Megali Idea. Atatürk was certainly a Turkish nationalist, but he envisioned a Turkish nation rooted in and limited to Anatolia. The Pan-Turkish delusions that led Enver off on his hopeless mission in exile to rally the Turkic peoples of Central Asia were never supposed to guide Turkish foreign policy, and aside from the occasional visit to Urumqi while in China Erdogan has not shown any interest in this. Instead, Atatürk believed Turkey was supposed to pursue strict neutrality and peace with all of Turkey’s neighbors.
Obviously, Turkey abandoned neutrality when it joined NATO, but it is important to understand that that was a far more significant departure from Atatürk‘s legacy than anything Erdogan and the AKP have ever proposed doing. We should avoid the easy conflation of what later Kemalists did with what Atatürk recommended that they do. In some respects, the AKP’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy is much more in line with the original foreign policy pursued by Atatürk and initially by Inönü than the anti-Soviet and later anti-Hussein policies of their Kemalist successors. Now that the Soviet threat has disappeared, Turkey’s departure from its original foreign policy stance understandably makes less and less sense.
After all, why should Turkey effectively continue to operate as a front-line state when the old Soviet threat is gone? Why should Turkey function as a staging area for U.S. military operations against its neighbors, especially when many Turks do not see their neighbors as being particularly threatening to them? What is remarkable in the last few years is not that Turkey is trying to improve relations with its neighbors, including governments Washington views as threats, but that Turkey remains integrated in Western security structures when the U.S. insists on making its membership conflict with its own national interests and the Turkish republic’s original foreign policy tradition. If Turkey adopted strict neutrality again, that would be much more in keeping with the legacy of Atatürk. As the U.S. continues to benefit from the Turkish alliance, Americans should be pleased that Turkey’s current government is willing to preserve the post-WWII shift in its foreign policy even though it directly contradicts what Atatürk wanted for his country. Then again, perhaps both Americans and Turks would stand to benefit if we both embraced our founders’ neutralist convictions.