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From “Hariciye” to “Dışişleri”: Brief History of Turkish Foreign Affairs

Updated: Nov 16, 2023

After the Turkish Republic had been founded on the 29th of October 1923, there were desperate requirements for change and reform all across the political system, during the transformation from the old Sultan-Caliph-led Ottoman Empire to the more modern and secular Turkish Republic.


The foreign affairs of the country, which had been dominated by the strict scrutiny of the Sultan and faced with great inexperience and disorder following the defeat in the First World War, had to be restructed from top to bottom. Our nation’s founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and his skilled crew of founding fathers, sought to revitalize and restructure the foreign affairs of Türkiye through the ideals of “Devrimcilik”, meaning “revolution, reformation”, and Turkish republicanism.


The Ministry: From Konstantiniye to Ankara

The principal area where change was dire to occur was the Ministry itself, which officially had existed in the late Ottoman Empire as the “Hariciye Nezareti”, fulfilling the roles of a foreign affairs department. During the Turkish War of Independence, the Turkish Grand National Assembly that was the leading force of the Ankara government, led by Atatürk, announced the creation of a Foreign Affairs Department on 2 May 1920, with the first minister being Bekir Sami Kunduh, a politician and diplomat who was the son of a Pasha in the Ottoman Military, a graduate of Lycée de Galatasaray and Sciences Po.


After the victorious end of the great war and signing of the Treaty of Lausanne, Atatürk solidified his aspirations for reform by asserting the need for “Peace at home, peace in the world”. Beginning from the early 1930’s, Türkiye began to approach foreign nations with a peaceful and active stance, which protected the newly-formed state from being dragged into the Second World War, and neither to the Axis or Allied Powers during the Atatürk and İnönü eras.


The former Ministry of Foreign Affairs building, 1930’s.

United Kingdom: Dealing with the Empire

As the British Empire was at war against the Ottoman Empire, the UK was prompted to combat the birth of a new nation at Ankara, but without directly engaging in armed warfare with Mustafa Kemal’s government, rather relying on political and economic methods to pressure change catering to imperial interests.

Following the triumph at the First Battle of İnönü, London finally agreed on holding a conference relating to changes in the Treaty of Sevres, with the Ottoman government in Istanbul being the primary decision maker instead of Ankara. This infuriated the parliamentary government and swiftly declined the conference. Thus the Allied nations, with the assistance of Italy, called in for a new conference in London, with a direct invitation to the Grand National Assembly. Led by the first minister of foreign affairs, Bekir Sami Kunduh, the Ankara delegation pledged to deny the Treaty of Sevres and favored the “Misak-ı Milli”; new borders for a brand new Turkish state.

At the end of the conference, it was declared that the Allied Nations, led by the United Kingdom, would recognize the National Assembly government in Ankara, and it became completely clear that the Treaty of Sevres was not seen with open hands, rather strict refusal and opposal.


United States: Across the Great Atlantic

During the period of national struggle for Turkish independence, and the signing of the Treaty of Sevres that broke the empire apart into pieces, the United States played an observatory role in the Turkish War of Independence. Some Turkish critics, who had pledged to fight for salvation, declared that the American mandate would be the most beneficial outcome for the people of new Türkiye, pointing to Wilson’s 12th of the Fourteen Points that called for “the administration of lands comprised mostly of Turks by none other than Turks themselves”.

Atatürk, however, rejected the claims of any and all mandates, and prompted that the fight for struggle is for the nation and the Turkish people. As the war came to a close with a Turkish victory, the US, despite efforts by British and Italian officials, was not given a seat during the Conference of Lausanne, merely acting as an observer without having any right to interfere.

Relations with the United States, which during the 1920s was slowly taking a “superpower” role in global affairs, were reinstated in February 1927. Although an American schools’ conflict ensued after the Treaty of Lausanne, which directed for all foreign schools in Türkiye to be nationalized, relations with the US continued in a modus vivendi style, then slowly turned into a fully-formed ally through the future acceptance of the Marshall Plan and, following the support given to Korea during their war, our entrance into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Atatürk, his adopted daughter & sociologist Afet İnan and the former Ambassador of the United States to Türkiye, Joseph Grew

Europe: Finding Peace During Calls for War

As the triumphant battle for independence, the Treaty of Lausanne and the Montreux Convention came to a close, Türkiye found itself dealing with the rising threat of fascism, which had become the dominant form of government in Germany and Italy, and also the consolidated power of the Soviet Union, which had supported Ankara’s cause for national sovereignty.


First and foremost, before Lausanne, a foundational treaty was signed with USSR delegates, known as the Treaty of Moscow, in 1921. By this treaty, the Turkish-Soviet border had formed, with Batumi being left to the Georgian SSR, Artvin and Kars to Türkiye and Nakhchivan being transformed into an autonomous oblast. By dealing with the issue of Batumi beforehand, Atatürk had protected a possible reason for Türkiye’s entrance into an upcoming world war.


On the other side of both Eurasia and the political spectrum laid Nazi Germany, officially known as the “German Reich”, and the Kingdom of Italy, ruled by the fascist “Duce”, Benito Mussolini. Germany and Italy aspired the newly-founded state of Türkiye to join forces for their cause and, in the future, fight with the Axis alliance. During the Atatürk period, affairs with Germany were not crucial for the Turkish state, as the reconstruction of the country was a far more important dealing. After Atatürk’s death and the accession of İsmet İnönü as president, Nazi Germany began their efforts to establish a positive relationship with Türkiye.


Although Türkiye’s admittance to the Anti-Comintern Pact against the Soviet Union as an observer, the signing of the Turkish-German Friendship Treaty and prominent statesmen, such as Şükrü Saraçoğlu and Numan Menemencioğlu being proponents of positive Turkish-German relations, İnönü and recently-passed Atatürk’s ideals of peace and prosperity overrode further contact with a combatting side of the Second World War. In the end, Türkiye would enter the War in Europe during the last few months in order to be a founding member of the United Nations.


Pacts in the Balkans and the Middle East

In the 1930’s, Atatürk began the initiative to form alliances with neutral nations who’d been overshadowed by the influence and power of larger states.

On the 9th of February 1934, a treaty was signed with the Balkan kingdoms of Romania, Greece and Yugoslavia, thus forming the Balkan Entente. This alliance solidified positive Balkan relations and the treaty itself promised that member states would be “respectful and protective” of each other. Nevertheless, the Balkans’ formidable situation in the face of the upcoming war caused the alliance to slowly lose its importance, collapsing in 1941 with Yugoslavia’s entrance into WW2.


Atatürk’s second prominent alliance was formed with the neutral Middle Eastern-West Asian states aspiring for secular reforms. Named the “Sadabad Pact”, it was signed on 8 July 1937, at the Imperial Sadabad Palace in the Iranian capital of Tehran. With the formation of this alliance, border issues were ultimately dealt with and each nation promised to protect the values of independence, national sovereignty and the ideals of anti-imperialism. As with the Balkan Entente, the pact slowly lost its importance as the increasingly powerful states of the USSR and the British Empire reigned their influence on the Middle East and Iran.


Atatürk with the former Shah of Iran and reformist counterpart, Reza Pahlavi. (It is important to note that since Reza Shah knew Azerbaijani Turkish, both leaders conversed in Turkish during meetings)

The founder of the Republic of Türkiye and its Great Revolutionary, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, shifted the ministry from a crumbling and underperforming foreign affairs staff that was one of the key reasons of Ottoman entrance and defeat in the First World War, to a peacemaking, solidified and idealistic institution that became an envy for former enemies. As wars came to a close in the future, especially in the case of WW2, we always remind ourselves of Atatürk’s oathful words to the world; “Peace at home, peace in the world.”

May the Republic of Türkiye stand tall in the face of war for further centuries to come.


Works Cited

  1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Türkiye), Türkiye Cumhuriyeti Dışişleri Bakanlığı Tarihçesi

  2. Atatürk Araştırma Merkezi Başkanlığı, Atatürk Döneminde Türk-Amerikan İlişkileri, Prof. Dr. Fahir Armaoğlu

  3. Türkiyat Araştırmaları Dergisi, 1920’li Yıllarda Türk-Sovyet İlişkileri: Kronolojik Bir Çalışma, Çağatay Benhür

  4. Türkiye Siyaset Bilimi Dergisi, II. Dünya Savaşı Yıllarında Almanya’nın Türkiye’ye Baskısı ve Savaşa Çekme Çabaları, Osman Akandere,

  5. Atatürk Ansiklopedisi, Balkan Antantı

  6. Atatürk Ansiklopedisi, Sadabat Paktı

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