Nearly wiped out in the aftermath of World War I, refounded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and finally revived by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, over the course of a century the Anatolian country has risen as an influential regional power

Last update: 2023-12-14 12:41:40

Founded out of the remnants and the legacy of six centuries of Ottoman Empire, Turkey celebrated its 100th anniversary. On 29 October 1923, Mustafa Kemal, later called Atatürk, proclaimed the Turkish Republic after a long war of liberation to drive out the occupying forces. Starting from ruins—some would say from nothing—Atatürk’s country would, over the course of a century, become a leading actor on the regional and even the global stage. The following is a summary of the factors in and the outcome of that transformation.


Isolationism dictated by the need to build a nation


To understand contemporary Turkey, it is important to consider its experience in the context of its Ottoman history. The Ottoman Empire was, for a long time, a world power straddling Europe, Asia and North Africa, and reached its zenith in the 16th century. Its subsequent slow decline and eventual death took place over the course of several centuries. Reforms followed, but with no results. Those introduced in 1876 as part of the modernisation process known as the Tanzimat did not achieve the reformers’ aim of turning the state into a constitutional monarchy. Allied with Germany during World War I, the empire was subjected to the same fate as all the vanquished. The punishment was particularly severe, and the country was effectively annihilated. It ceased to exist. Its territory was partitioned into zones of influence, which were divided up among several European countries. Of this vast, multi-ethnic empire, only the Anatolian plateau was assigned to the Turks, the majority ethnic group, and it was here that Mustafa Kemal would build a new country, Turkey. Enthused with the revolutionary ideas circulating in Europe and his country at that time, this influential military officer of the declining empire was to become a liberator and a politician, one who opposed the hallmarks of the empire, especially the sultanate and the caliphate and, above all, Islam’s place within the state. This visionary man embraced the progressive, republican spirit arriving from Europe and devoted his life to establishing a republic founded on the principle of the nation-state. With the punishment inflicted by the victors of the 1914–1918 conflict, the empire lost the Christian provinces in the Balkans, and the eastern Arabian territories. The Anatolia assigned to the Turks was in fact less multi-ethnic and less multi-confessional: thus, the republic would be Turkish and modern. Between the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 and the death of its founder in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of the World War II, the internal and external situation of the new state was as follows.


In domestic politics, Mustafa Kemal’s regime worked on building a Western-inspired nation-state and making a clean break with the imperial regime. A long list of reforms was implemented in all areas. In the economy, the country became self-sufficient in agriculture and able to feed the population. Over the course of a decade, the development of a national industry and a transport network connected large towns and cities, but left rural areas isolated. In the social sphere, 1934 was the year women were granted active and passive voting rights, the dress code underwent a top-down revolution, and the Civil Code ceased to be Islamic and instead drew inspiration from European models. In political affairs, the sultanate was abolished, along with the caliphate and the Islamic courts.


In foreign policy, the early years of the republic saw a certain degree of continuity with the Ottoman regime. Although the republic contested the imperial institutions, it was nevertheless important to safeguard the nation’s interests. Atatürk later implemented a policy of balance. He took an isolationist stance for the time needed to consolidate the republican regime, keeping Turkey at a distance, while taking advantage of the antagonism between the world powers of the era. This meant that Ankara not only cooperated with the Soviet Union, which had supported the country’s war of liberation, but was also committed to cultivating harmonious relations with the Western powers, France, Germany and the United States.


As World War II approached, the tactical objective was to maintain a certain neutrality, so that the country could continue the nation-building process after the many years of war that had preceded its foundation. After Atatürk’s death in 1938, his vision was carried forward by Ismet Inönü, another hero in the war of liberation and a comrade of Mustafa Kemal. Inönü did all he could to shield Turkey from World War II, by holding firm to the policy of neutrality. Amidst the global turmoil, he managed to spare the still fragile Turkey. However, in 1945, when the entire world was cast into the bipolar system of the Cold War, with the USSR and its allies on one side and the Western bloc on the other, he was forced to choose. Without hesitation he took side with the West. The expansionist policy pursued by the USSR, especially towards the southern seas, was in fact the sequel to the actions of the Tsars. Thus, Turkey found salvation in its affiliation to the Western bloc, which, at least in theory, continues to this day.


A valuable member of the Western bloc


Throughout the Cold War, Turkey’s political situation was marked by great instability domestically and, in the international arena, loyalty to the Western bloc. Between 1945 and 1991, Turkey experienced the turbulent repercussions of the Cold War, with several leftist, pro-Soviet groups opposing more nationalist or pro-Western currents. This high degree of political instability was accompanied by several coups—in 1961, 1971 and especially in 1980—that transformed the country profoundly.


Internationally, Turkey was one of the founding pillars and a valuable member of NATO. The country’s loyalty to the Western bloc was essentially driven by an interest in staving off the serious Soviet threat in the East. The Soviet Union continued to lay claim to the provinces of Kars and Ardahan and secretly backed several left-wing groups, as well as the subversive activities of the Kurdish separatist left. However, Turkey’s membership of the Western bloc was not limited to NATO, given that it has been aspiring to join the great European family of nations since 1964. In 1987, the country formally applied to join the EEC and then the European Union. As a prisoner of the Cold War mindset, which it depended on for its security, Turkey had no influence of its own on the global stage. In fact, Turkey did not exist as an entity in its own right, but rather as a NATO member country and a military base where important resources were deployed to dissuade the USSR from attacking the free world. The end of the Cold War in 1990 disrupted this state of affairs and led to Turkey presenting itself on the international stage with a confidence and a desire for strategic independence that worried its traditional allies.


Disentanglement from the logic of bipolarity


Like any change, the end of the Cold War generated anxieties, but also opportunities, which Turkey was able to grasp to free itself and make its mark on the international stage. The end of the Soviet threat in the East made defending the eastern flank of the free world almost superfluous. Now free of this pressure, Turkey became just another country, with no geostrategic value. Yet, at the same time, this reality opened up new opportunities for Turkey, especially economic ones, in parts of the world that were historically close but had become inaccessible once the Iron Curtain was drawn.


Ankara first looked towards the Balkans, a former province of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey was now able to deploy a policy of influence there in several areas, including culture, economics and even politics. Despite their negative historiography of the Ottoman past, these countries continued to seek cooperation and development. In the East, Turkey’s eyes were turned towards the Caucasus. Geographical proximity enabled Ankara to cultivate ties with new partners who were now free from the yoke of Soviet rule. Turkey thus found itself competing with Russia and Iran, two regional powers with an imperial past that had always had their eyes on Caucasian resources.


But it was in Central Asia, and more particularly in the Turanian world, that post-Cold War Turkey managed to broaden its policy of influence. Together with the five newly independent states in Central Asia and Azerbaijan in the Caucasus, Turkey managed to establish itself as an important actor in the post-Soviet space, by playing the cards both of its Turkish identity and of Islam.


Major actor


The rise to government in 2002 of a party from political Islam, headed by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has played a crucial role in the way Turkey has changed, and paved the way for the country’s increased influence in the international arena. By combining Islam with secularity, the new governing team embodied the expectations of a Turkish society that, although traditionally Muslim and Turkish, also aspired to a certain degree of modernity. This allowed the elites in the AKP to give the country unprecedented political stability and economic prosperity. Erdoğan and his team won all regional, legislative and presidential elections between November 2002 and May 2023, not to mention the 2017 constitutional referendum. This longevity and political stabiity have helped the country to make considerable economic strides and gain standing on the international stage. Indeed, in 2010 Turkey became the world’s seventeenth largest economy. A middle class has emerged and the country has, to use the expression coined by Kemal Kirisçi, become a “trading state” that is able to operate on all the world’s markets. Building on this economic prosperity, the country has also established itself as a generous state, being one of the largest donors to developing countries, which has contributed to its prestige in Africa and Asia.


These spectacular transformations and this global influence owe much to the personality of Erdoğan himself, who has been a central figure of Turkish political life since he became mayor of Istanbul in 1994. In a country where the leader of the historical imperial capital and the economic capital is the de facto head of state, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with his charisma, his visionary politics and, paradoxically, his iron grip and obstinacy, has played a fundamental role in the way Turkey has changed. This is difficult to grasp in the West, where authoritarian figures receive bad press. Elsewhere, particularly in Asia, the Muslim world and Africa, where Turkey is increasingly active, Erdoğan’s style, eloquence, temperament, and even his uninhibited machismo, work very well and serve the country’s interests.


Drawing on the changes in its economy, its political stability and determined leadership, Turkey has, over two decades, become a power with international clout, particularly in Eurasia and Africa.


New alignments


It should, however, be noted that Turkey, like all emerging powers, benefits, in addition to its own efforts, from the new international order, where the influence of the traditional world powers is receding. The United States is no longer the master of the world, Russia no longer dominates the Soviet sphere, France and the UK are no longer the heirs of colonial Africa and their economic neo-colonialism is crumbling throughout the continent, which has been devastated by a series of coups targeting European interests. In other words, we also have to study the place that is occupied by Turkey and other actors on the international stage from the perspective of the decline of the traditional powers. But as Turkey is the subject of our study, let’s look at where it can claim a sphere of influence or a certain degree of political, economic and cultural sway.


In just thirty years, Turkey has managed to move ahead as one of the most important countries in the post-Soviet space, particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asia. It has not replaced Russia’s long-standing power of protection, but its influence, along with the influence exercised by new actors, by China, the United States and the European Union, is highly visible. At a political level, one Caucasian state—Azerbaijan—and four of the five Central Asian states—Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—are part of a political union founded and led by Turkey, the Organization of Turkic States, which has become an official actor on the international scene and recognised by the United Nations. Russia has traditionally set the agenda in the Caucasus, but the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has reshuffled the cards, giving Turkey a bigger role in the current geopolitical game. Its importance in the Azerbaijani-Armenian dispute, with the support it has given to Azerbaijan, has endowed the country with new expertise in political and even military influence throughout the post-Soviet space, the Caucasus, Central Asia and even in the war in Ukraine, a conflict that has seen Ankara play the role of international mediator.


Indeed, it is in the war in Ukraine that Turkey has shone most in recent years. Although distrustful and vulnerable when it comes to Russia, Ankara has not held back from providing support to Ukraine since the Donbas crisis in 2014 and this has been even more the case since February 2022. While the West has severed all links with Russia, Turkey continues to maintain ties with the two protagonists of a conflict that has triggered a new form of Cold War between the Western world and Russia. Turkey’s mediation, particularly in the wheat agreement signed between Russia and the United Nations guaranteeing access to Ukrainian cereals for many countries in the Middle East and Africa, has increased the country’s profile on the global stage.


In the Middle East, a region that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk completely ignored, if not despised, Turkey’s commitment has only grown since the 1990s, when Turgut Özal was president, and further still with Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as head of state. Although Turkey failed to represent a model of liberal, secular development for an Arab world thrown into chaos by the Arab Spring, it continues to be a source of inspiration for many political movements in the region.


But it is Turkey’s outreach to Africa that is most striking, because it is new, because of the pace at which it is unfolding and because of its exceptional potential for further development. Under the AKP government, and with Erdoğan’s personal commitment, Turkey’s economic and political influence and its soft power have spread beyond North Africa to the sub-Saharan region and the entire continent. Bolstered by this, Ankara is now pursuing military and security cooperation. It is involved in training local armies, such as in Somalia. It employs drone diplomacy, which countries in the region welcome with keen interest. Despite the anti-French protests, Turkey is still far from competing with France’s influence but, together with China, Brazil, India and other emerging countries, it enables African actors to diversify their partnerships and free themselves from the chains of neo-colonialism. Here too, Turkey’s success depends not only on the services it provides, but is also linked to a new state of affairs in Africa, where sovereignty and the contestation of neo-colonialism reduces the heft of traditional powers to the benefit of new ones, including Turkey.


Finally, and a little unexpectedly, over the last ten years, Turkey has cultivated relations with Latin America. Here, as in other contexts, these take place through Erdoğan’s Islamic policy, which involves building mosques and providing help and support to Muslims around the world. Mosques and Islamic foundations in several countries in South America and in Cuba are funded by Turkey.




Over the course of a century, a national, a secular and modern Turkish republic has emerged and flourished, asserting itself on the international scene. This achievement no doubt can be credited to the country’s founders and successive leaders, but it is also down to an adroit rehabilitation of the Ottoman legacy: a source of national pride, and the basis for the regime’s and the entire nation’s security. This success is also linked to the crumbling of the old international order, which has led to the rise of medium-sized powers, such as Turkey. The extent to which the country can hold onto and develop its new role will also depend on its ability to face with serenity the post-Erdoğan era, which, having lasted 21 years, will end in 2028.



The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation