A Sultan’s Shadow: The Truth About Neo-Ottomanism – Analysis


Neo-Ottomanism was initially born out of a desire to elevate Turkey’s international standing and transform the nation from a medium-scale state into a regional and even global power. The policy has yielded mixed results at best. Turkey has experienced an economic, cultural, and demographic decline despite limited military and diplomatic benefits.

By Ali Omar Forozish and Halil Avni Güzelyurt

The latter half of the 19th century witnessed the birth of a concept — Ottomanism. At the time, the Ottoman Empire, with its base of power in Turkey, ruled a vast domain stretching from Southeast Europe to North Africa, Arabia and the Caucasus. Ottomanist intellectuals envisioned a unified Ottoman nation transcending the diverse ethnicities, religions and languages within the empire’s vast borders. The ideology of Ottomanism aimed to foster a sense of shared identity and belonging that superseded these traditional divisions.

However, Ottomanism’s journey has gone through detours and complexities. Under Sultan Abdulhamid II, the ideology took on a more pronounced Islamic character. The main point was the sultan’s role as Caliph of the Islamic world. This new approach aimed to unite the empire’s Muslim population under a shared faith.

Administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire in 1899 (year 1317 Hijri). Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Administrative divisions of the Ottoman Empire in 1899 (year 1317 Hijri). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Ottomanism could not save the empire, which succumbed to internal dissent and external pressures. With the abolition of the Sultanate on November 1, 1922, and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, the Ottoman state became a historical relic. The once-hopeful vision of unity faded alongside the civilization it sought to preserve.

Emerging in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Neo-Ottomanismrevived ideas from the original empire within the context of the Republic of Turkey. Current proponents of Neo-Ottomanism advocate for a more active Turkish foreign policy in regions that once belonged to the Ottoman Empire. They emphasize Turkey’s potential role as a leader and mediator in the Middle East and surrounding regions.

However, Neo-Ottomanism has resulted in a downgrade of Turkey’s position, both politically and economically. Its emphasis on past glories and a more interventionist foreign policy has strained relations with key countries and diverted resources from addressing crucial internal challenges.

The rise of Neo-Ottomanism

The term “Neo-Ottomanism” first emerged in the 1970s in Greece as a response to concerns about Turkey’s interventions in Cyprus. However, until the late 1980s, Turkey’s foreign policy remained largely focused on the West. This was evident in its close relationship with the United States and its pursuit of membership in the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor to the European Union.

The military coup of 1980 marked a turning point that led to significant changes in Turkey’s political landscape. Turgut Özal, who became prime minister in 1983, played a pivotal role in this transformation. He implemented a neo-liberal economic model that aimed to integrate Turkey more deeply with the global market. He also recognized the growing economic importance of regions beyond Europe and the US.

Özal shifted the focus towards fostering good relations and economic ties with countries like Iraq, Iran and Libya. While maintaining connections with Europe and the US remained an important aspect of his foreign policy, Özal emphasized Turkey’s historical and cultural connections with the Turkic world and the broader Islamic world. This newfound emphasis on these historical ties marked the incorporation of elements of Neo-Ottomanism into Turkish foreign policy. Özal strategically used concepts like Islam, Turkism and Ottoman history to build bridges with countries in the Middle East, Balkans and Central Asia.

Özal’s death in 1993 marked the end of the first era of Neo-Ottomanism. The following years were characterized by internal political instability and economic problems, leading to a temporary halt in the development of this foreign policy doctrine.

A shift towards assertive regionalism

The 2002 elections marked a turning point in Turkish foreign policy with the rise of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The AKP, rooted in a center-right Islamist ideology, promised a fresh approach to foreign policy that would depart from the previous era of coalition governments’ focus on Western alignment. This new vision drew heavily from the doctrine of “Strategic Depth” developed by political scientist Ahmet Davutoğlu. Strategic Depth emphasized Turkey’s unique geopolitical position at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. It argued that Turkey could leverage its historical and cultural legacy, particularly its Ottoman past, to become a pivotal player in a multipolar world order.

Initially, the AKP adopted a “zero problems with neighbors” policy, prioritizing soft power tools. Turkey significantly increased its foreign aid contributions and became a major donor in the region. Cultural programs attempted to foster closer ties with neighboring countries by promoting Turkish language, music and cuisine. This approach resonated with many regional actors, particularly those wary of Western dominance.

Simultaneously, the AKP pursued EU membership with renewed vigor. They introduced domestic reforms to align with European standards, and Turkey actively participated in regional initiatives to showcase its commitment to stability and cooperation. A key example was the significant improvement in relations with Syria, a former adversary. Diplomatic ties, increased economic cooperation and energy partnerships between the two countries flourished.

However, the EU accession process proved to be a slow and frustrating experience. The EU’s internal resistance to Turkish membership fueled a growing sense of disillusionment in Ankara. Turks perceived the whole process as foot-dragging.

Ahmet Davutoğlu amplified this sentiment when he became Foreign Minister in 2009. A strong proponent of Neo-Ottomanism, Davutoğlu envisioned a more assertive role for Turkey on the world stage. He argued that his country’s future lay not solely in aligning with the West, but in re-establishing its influence as a regional leader.

Several events served as catalysts for this shift. In 2009, Erdoğan delivered a scathing critique of Israel’s actions in Gaza in his One Minute speech at the World Economic Forum. Erdoğan highlighted his growing sense of divergence from traditional Western foreign policy positions. The following year, the deadly Mavi Marmaraflotilla attack, where Israeli forces raided a Turkish humanitarian aid convoy headed for Gaza, further strained relations with the West. These incidents resonated deeply with Turkish public opinion, strengthening the appeal of Neo-Ottoman ideals that emphasized a more independent and assertive foreign policy.

The Arab Spring uprisings of 2010 presented a golden opportunityfor Turkey to advance its Neo-Ottoman ambitions. Embracing a pro-Arab stance, Turkey actively supported rebellions against established governments in Egypt and Libya. Ankara hoped to cultivate close ties with these new governments, fostering economic partnerships and establishing itself as a champion of democratic reform in the region. This approach aligned with Neo-Ottomanism emphasis on fostering regional leadership and projecting Turkish influence beyond its borders.

However, the Arab Spring’s aftermath proved to be far more complex than anticipated. The rise of Islamist movements to power in Egypt and Libya initially bolstered Turkey’s foreign policy ambitions. However, the subsequent descent into instability and violence in these countries exposed the limitations of the Neo-Ottoman approach. Turkey’s ability to influence events on the ground proved to be limited, and its regional standing became entangled with the ideological struggles within Arab societies.

The 21st century descent into instability

Turkey openly supported the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt. When a military coup overthrew it in 2013, Turkey’s regional ties with Egypt became strained. Turkey’s condemnation of the coup and its staunch backing of the Brotherhood led to a diplomatic riftwith Egypt and its allies in the Gulf, leaving Turkey increasingly isolated in the Middle East. This isolation had significant economic consequences. Trade and investment between Turkey and the Arab states declined sharply.

Internally, Neo-Ottomanism’s emphasis on the ummah (Muslim community) fostered a sense of pan-Islamism that challenged the core tenets of the Turkish Republic’s secular identity. The concept of ummah fueled the rise of Islamist tendencies within Turkish society, particularly among conservative segments of the population. Educational reforms introduced under the AKP placed a greater emphasis on Islamic history and culture, eroding secular values in the public sphere. These social tensions manifested in increased polarization and a decline in religious tolerance towards minority groups.

The year 2013 marked a turning point for Turkey on multiple fronts. The Gezi Park protests erupted in response to a government development project that threatened a beloved public space in Istanbul. The protests morphed into a broader movement against the AKP government’s perceived authoritarian tendencies. The government propagated further emphasis on Ottoman history and identity. Grandiose infrastructure projects like the replica Ottoman barracks on the banks of the Bosphorus deliberately attempted to romanticize the Ottoman past and distract from present-day challenges.

The Syrian Civil War, which began in the same year, added another layer of complexity to Turkey’s foreign policy. While Turkey initially supported the rebels fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the emergence of extremist groups like ISIS and the Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), backed by the US, posed a significant security threat on its borders. ISIS carried out a series of deadly terrorist attacks within Turkey, targeting tourist destinations and civilian populations. The YPG (affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Kurdish separatist group designated internationally as a terrorist group) clashed with Turkish security forces along the border and further destabilized the region.

Additionally, Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government forced Turkey into a precarious geopolitical balancing act. Turkey’s attempts to contain the Syrian conflict within its borders and prevent a mass refugee influx strained its economic resources and humanitarian capacity. Ummah-oriented propaganda aimed at Muslim countries encouraged uncontrolled migration towards Turkey. Millions of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War poured into Turkey, straining its social services, economy and infrastructure. The influx of refugees also contributed to rising social tensions and xenophobia within Turkish society.

Turkey’s political landscape was particularly tumultuous between 2015 and 2016. Internal power struggles within the AKP and a surge in terrorist attacks by ISIS and Kurdish separatists exposed the potential dangers of an expansive foreign policy. The controversial downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military, which resulted in the crew’s deaths, strained Russia–Turkish relations further. This put heavy pressure on bilateral trade and tourism.

Turkey critically needed to evaluate Neo-Ottomanism costs and benefits. The pursuit of an ambitious foreign policy had diverted resources away from addressing pressing domestic issues like poverty, unemployment and social inequality.

In 2016, after a failed military coup attempt against Erdoğan, Turkey declared a state of emergency and subsequent purge against the alleged plotters. Erdoğan began the transition to a presidential system which allotted him significant power. Interestingly, Neo-Ottomanism played a role in legitimizing his new system. Supporters of the president appealed to Islamic pride sentiments within a segment of the population by portraying him as a strong leader akin to an Ottoman sultan.

Concerns have arisen among citizens regarding the Turkish government’s commitment to democratic principles. In response, the government cracked down on popular dissent. It arrested thousands of protesters, purged its civil service and military, and tightened its control on the media and the courts.These actions attracted criticismfor stifling free speech and weakening the system of checks and balances that underpins a well-functioning democracy.

Moreover, the government’s pursuit of a more conservative and religious agenda deviates from the secular foundations of the Turkish Republic as established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This and its attempts to augment presidential power through constitutional amendments have lost the new government the trust of a large portion of Turkish society. Secularists apprehend a reversal of Atatürk’s reforms, liberals express anxieties about curtailed freedoms, and many nationalists harbor reservations concerning the foreign policy ramifications of Neo-Ottomanism.

Neo Ottomanism is a challenge to NATO’s cohesion 

Turkey’s growing emphasis on Neo-Ottomanism presents a potential challenge to its critical role within NATO. Established in the aftermath of World War II to deter Soviet aggression, NATO functions on the principle of collective defense by requiring member states to come to each other’s aid in the event of an attack. Neo-Ottomanism’s prioritization of regional issues works against the principle of collective defense, potentially weakening the alliance’s ability to respond effectively to external threats.

Thus, Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war and its support for the Libyan government have strained relations with allies like the US, whose interests in these conflicts diverge significantly from Turkey’s.

Furthermore, Neo-Ottomanism focuses on reviving Islamic influence and potentially Islamic state structures that could be fundamentally at odds with NATO’s commitment to secular and democratic values. Ambitions associated with Neo-Ottomanism, such as aiming to reclaim former Ottoman lands, could lead to disputes and border conflicts with neighbors, some of whom are also NATO members or partners. This raises concerns about internal strains within the alliance and the erosion of a unified front.

Military interoperability — the ability of allied forces to work together seamlessly — is essential for NATO’s effectiveness. However, Turkey’s acquisition of military equipment incompatible with NATO systems, such as the S-400 missile system from Russia, disrupts this seamlessness. The S-400 system’s incompatibility with NATO air defense architecture could endanger the ability to distinguish between friendly and hostile aircraft. This incompatibility not only hinders joint military exercises and operations but also casts doubt on Turkey’s commitment to the alliance’s collective defense strategy. The United States’ suspension of Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program due to the S-400 deal further exemplifies this strain.

Neo-Ottomanism appeal to Turkish nationalists across the political spectrum could create divisions and factions within the Turkish military, potentially fracturing internal cohesion and undermining Turkey’s readiness to cooperate effectively with NATO allies.

Neo-Ottoman rhetoric, often critical of Western powers and their actions in the region, creates tension with some NATO members, particularly those with whom Turkey has historical or ongoing political disagreements. Tensions with Greece, a fellow NATO member, over control of the Eastern Mediterranean could escalate due to Neo-Ottoman pronouncements. These tensions hinder cooperation and trust within the alliance.

Furthermore, the emphasis on anti-Western orientation and aspirations to free Turkey from dependence on the United States could create a perception of Turkey as a rival or competitor rather than a partner among some NATO members. This erosion of trust and the perception of divergent goals significantly complicate efforts to maintain regional stability.

The current state of Turkey’s EU membership

EU membership is contingent upon fulfilling a set of core principles enshrined in the Copenhagen criteria. These include robust democratic institutions, an independent judiciary and an unwavering respect for human rights. Furthermore, the EU emphasizes peaceful resolutions to international conflicts and close cooperation with member states, principles outlined in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP).

Herein lies the crux of the tension between Turkey’s aspirations under Neo-Ottomanism and EU membership. Turkey’s assertive actions and territorial disputes in the Eastern Mediterranean, particularly with Greece and Cyprus, raise concerns among EU members about its commitment to peaceful conflict resolution and regional cooperation. Additionally, Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan Civil War has further strained relations with EU countries. These escalating tensions threaten the stability and security of the Eastern Mediterranean region.

Internal developments within Turkey further complicate the picture. Growing concerns about weakening democratic institutions, notably the independence of the judiciary and freedom of the press, cast doubt on Turkey’s adherence to the Copenhagen criteria. Criticism from the EU and international organizations regarding crackdowns on dissent, erosion of the rule of law, and human rights violations have intensified scrutiny. Indicators rank Turkey low in terms of judicial independence and press freedom.

Furthermore, Turkey’s economic and social policies increasingly diverge from EU norms. Protectionist trade policies clash with the EU’s focus on free trade while a perceived shift towards a more conservative social agenda creates friction with the EU’s emphasis on social liberalism. Turkey’s recent economic policies, characterized by increased state intervention, nationalist rhetoric and rising public spending, further distance it from the EU’s economic model. Accusations of a growing conservatism in Turkish society raise questions about Turkey’s compatibility with the EU’s social values. Environmental and social welfare concerns may also diverge from the EU’s established approach, creating additional obstacles to full integration.

The economic fallout of Neo-Ottomanism

The initial period of robust economic growth under the AKP party in Turkey (2002–2011) witnessed a remarkable 5.6% annual average GDP growth. However, this progress has subsequently been overshadowed by a series of economic woes. The execution of Neo-Ottomanism has contributed to a period of economic downturn. 

A cornerstone of a healthy economy is trust in its central institutions. However, the politicization of key economic institutions under Neo-Ottomanism, such as the central bank, severely damaged domestic and international confidence. Investors and citizens alike questioned the independence and competence of these institutions in managing economic policy, particularly regarding interest rates and inflation control. Trust in the Turkish lira’s stability has eroded, discouraging foreign investment and hindering long-term economic planning. For instance, the abrupt 2021 dismissal of Naci Agbal, the Central Bank governor by Erdogan, who advocates for low interest rates despite high inflation, sparked a sharp currency decline and raised concerns about central bank autonomy.

Neo-Ottomanism strained ties with the European Union, a major trading bloc, and the United States, a significant source of foreign direct investment. Decreased trade volumes ensued. Additionally, tensions with regional neighbors like IsraelSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have disrupted tourism revenue and potential regional economic cooperation. Turkey’s involvement in the 2020 conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, alongside its exploration for natural gas in the Eastern Mediterranean, provoked diplomatic disputes with several European and Middle Eastern countries. These disputes negatively impacted Turkey’s trade and tourism sectors, which contribute approximately 25% of its GDP.

The Turkish economy has become heavily reliant on foreign capital to finance growth, exposing it to external shocks. The lira’s value fluctuates significantly in global currency markets can lead to significant, disrupting commerce. Import costs have increased and inflation is a growing predicament. Additionally, a high dependence on energy imports makes Turkey susceptible to global energy price fluctuations. Furthermore, a lack of sufficient domestic savings and foreign exchange reserves weakens Turkey’s ability to weather these external economic storms. The 2018 diplomatic row with the US over the detention of an American pastor serves as a case in point. It triggered a currency crisis that saw the lira lose 40% of its value against the US dollar. This crisis also exposed Turkey’s large current account deficit, which reached 6.5% of GDP in 2017.

Turkey’s focus on foreign policy under Neo-Ottomanism has diverted attention away from crucial domestic economic reforms. A lack of investment in infrastructure, education and technological innovation still hinders long-term economic growth and competitiveness. The economy remains reliant on low-value-added sectors such as construction, agriculture and tourism. This lack of diversification makes the Turkish economy less resilient and hinders its ability to compete in the global marketplace. In 2019, the Global Competitiveness Index ranked Turkey poorly on indicators such as innovation capability, quality of education and macroeconomic stability, placing it 59th out of 141 countries.

Despite the economic downturn, Turkey achieved a notable recovery in 2021, with an 11% growth rate to become the fastest-growing G20 economy. This was driven by the easing of COVID-19 restrictions and expansionary fiscal and monetary policies. However, Turkey’s 2021 growth came with challenges like high inflation(reaching 21.3% in November 2021) and a widening current account deficit (reaching 7.1% of GDP in the third quarter of 2021). Moreover, devastating February 2023 earthquakes caused significant human and material losses, further pressuring the already fragile macro-financial situation. Turkey’s current inflation stands at 67.07%.

The government’s new Medium-Term Program for 2023–2025 aims to achieve an average GDP growth of 5.3%. However, the success of the program will depend on the implementation of structural reforms, the diversification of trading partners and the restoration of credibility and stability in the economic environment.

Originally, Neo-Ottomanism aimed to boost Turkey’s global influence and transform it into a major regional and possibly even international player. However, Turkey has suffered in the economic, cultural and political arenas under Neo-Ottomanism.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

About the authors:

  • Ali Omar Forozish is an economics student at Anadolu University in Turkey. He is a commissioning editor and author for Fair Observer. A World Literacy Foundation Ambassador, he writes on international affairs, political philosophy, and geopolitics. Ali previously participated in an exchange program in Kassel, Germany and earned diplomas in modern politics at HSE University, Russia and academic Turkish language at Osmangazi University, Turkey. Ali possesses certifications in project management, marketing analysis, game theory, and sustainable development. His previous work experience includes roles as a program manager,  development officer, director of administrative affairs, and IELTS instructor. He is multilingual and speaks Persian, English, Turkish, and German.
  • Halil Avni Güzelyurt is a Turkish lawyer who served as a member of the board of directors at the Hukuk Akademisi Institution. He graduated from Anadolu University Faculty of Law, Eskişehir, Turkey and has interests in 20th Century Political History, Modernist Philosophy, Turkish Foreign Policy, Sociology, and Philosophy of Law. He is proficient in Turkish and English.

Source: This article was published by Fair Observer

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