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Turkish Diplomacy in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Opportunities and Limits for Middle-Power Activism in the 1930s

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Turkish Diplomacy in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. Opportunities and Limits for Middle-Power Activism in the 1930s
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   Turkish Diplomacy in the Balkans and the Mediterranean:Opportunities and Limits for Middle-Power Activism in the 1930sABSTRACTIn the interwar years, Turkey attempted to pursue activist diplomacy in the Balkansand in the Mediterranean. Of the two regions, Turkish diplomacy was more successfulin promoting regional initiatives to preserve the status quo in the Balkans than in theMediterranean. The regional cooperation efforts in the Balkans culminated in theBalkan Pact. A similar pact was also proposed for the Mediterranean by France.Ankara enthusiastically pursued and promoted this French idea, which never materialized. While the presence of like-minded states of comparable size andstrength in the Balkans facilitated Turkish activism, the great power rivalry in theMediterranean severely limited the extent of Turkish involvement particularly in thelate 1930s. The Turkish diplomacy in these two different operating environments inthe interwar years offers a case study of the limits and possibilities for middle power activism.   IntroductionDuring the last decade, several works on Turkish foreign policy have focused on therole of Turkey as a middle power in international politics. To start with, William Hale writesthat the Turkish example may offer some interesting pointers as to how medium-sized stateshave reacted towards the changing international environments during the past 200 years. 1  Moreover, Turkey is seen as a middle power in the context of the 20 th century internationaldevelopments by a Turkish scholar, Bask  ı n Oran, who recently edited a two-volume work onTurkish foreign policy. 2  Both Hale and Oran base their argument on the traditional definition of middle powersand calculation of power by using indicators such as population, economic resources andmilitary strength. In a similar frame of mind, middle powers were characterized by their opposition to undue great power control, their growing tendency to act together and theinfluence they have individually come to exert. 3 They measure the power of middle countriesin relation to the power of greater ones. Middle powers stand somewhere between the twoextremes of the scale. To put it differently, they have some ability to resist pressure from more powerful states, and may sometimes be able to influence the policies of weaker ones,especially if they are geographically contiguous. 4  In contrast to the works of Hale and Oran, this article specifically focuses on Turkey’srole in international politics in the 1930s. The special emphasis on this decade derives from thefact that during the interwar period, more than in any other phase in its history, that Turkey can be classified as a middle power. Although the “middle power” is a relatively recently coinedterm, the diplomats of the 1930s were aware of Turkey’s distinct status in the international1   power hierarchy. For instance, the British diplomats identified Turkey as a “small great power”. 5 In the interwar years, unlike the situation at present, the number of middle powerswas limited. The international system was multipolar in the sense that, while on the one handthere were several great powers such as Britain, France, Italy, and Germany, on the other handmany countries had not become independent states yet: They were still colonies.Therefore, the interwar period was a distinctive era during which a country like Turkeywith limited capabilities was able to command its power and to resist greater states. The aim of the present study is to analyze to what extent Turkey during the 1930s was able to develop anautonomous diplomatic strategy in the Balkans and the Mediterranean. In other words, thisstudy focuses on how Turkey defined its priorities at the diplomatic level and to what extent itwas able to realize such priorities at that time independently from the decision-making of thegreat powers.  6  In fact, Turkey offers an unusual case for middle powers on two major accounts: First,Turkey was undisputable heir to a great power, the Ottoman Empire. Unlike most other middle powers, it had transformed from being a great power to becoming a middle power, not from being a colony to becoming a middle power. Second, in the 1930s, Turkey may be qualified asa middle power mainly at the diplomatic level. Even though Turkey was not an economic power, in the 1930s, it was able to play a geopolitical role at the international level indeveloping a regional policy independent of the great powers due to its diplomatic efforts.In the interwar era, Ankara was quite successful at developing a regional strategy in theBalkans as discussed in the first part of the article. However, in the Mediterranean, at thediplomatic level Turkish political leadership was not as influential as in the Balkans. Unlike theBalkans where Turkey interacted with minor powers, in the Mediterranean it had to deal as amiddle power with great powers. The second part of the article offers a discussion on the limitsof the middle-power activism in the Mediterranean during the same period.2   Turkey’s Diplomatic Strategy in the BalkansPeriods following general wars prompt secondary powers to fight for their causestogether with their peers and this strategy makes them separate from great and minor powers.Turkey’s role in the Balkans in the first half of the 1930s illustrates quite well the position of middle powers soon after periods of general war. Turkish efforts in this period were gearedtowards the construction of coalitions of “like-minded” states in the Balkan Peninsula. 7  The operating environment in the Balkans made coalition building among thesecountries easier. First, they were geographically contagious. This factor alone facilitatedcollaboration of like-minded states. Turkey, Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania andRomania had frontiers (continental or coastal) with each other. Second, in the Balkans, with theexception of Albania, power was more or less evenly distributed among geographically andeconomically minor states of comparable strength. Turkey was the only Balkan country with asizeable territory. Thirdly, no specific great power exerted decisive influence in the region inthe first half of the 1930s. In fact, immediately after the First World War a power vacuumoccurred in the peninsula, which the World Economic Crisis of 1929 served only to deepen. 8  Compared to other Balkan states, Turkey had the greatest potential to act as a middle power in the region, not merely because of the size of its territory but mainly as a result of itsdiplomatic capacity in the Balkans. Turkey could tap its middle power capacity more indiplomatic terms than in physical and military terms. At the time, Turkey already had in placea highly developed diplomatic tradition and establishment. In functional terms, the Ottomanheritage added an element of creativity to the new Republic’s diplomacy. The Turkish rulingclass in the interwar period inherited the administrative experience of the Ottoman Empire.3  They used the knowledge, the skill and the know-how that they had gained from the Ottomanexperience to promote their diplomatic goals. 9  While the Ottoman heritage provided a functional advantage for Turkey to assume ahigh profile diplomatic role, the same heritage could have militated against Turkey’s efforts.In other words, Turkey inherited in the Balkans the public image of the Ottoman Empire thathad resulted from nearly four centuries of Ottoman rule. Probably, in no other Balkan countryexcept Greece, this image decisively shaped the public and official view of the new TurkishRepublic well into the early 1930s. The subsequent resolution of Turkish-Greek problems thathad defied solution since the Treaty of Lausanne generated an equally strong impact, this timein a positive direction. Ankara’s mending fences with Athens helped Turkey drastically changeits international image as a pro-status quo power that rejected cross-border expansionism or irredentism so that the new Turkey began to be perceived as a potential partner rather than asource of threat in the Peninsula.Moreover, the new rulers of Turkey themselves were jealous guardians of their legaland formal equality with other states. Rather than seeking a  primus inter pares status as theheir to the former imperial ruler, their persistent emphasis on the equality of states most probably improved their image in the Balkans. Therefore, when Turkey embarked ondiplomatic initiatives in the Balkans, it was able to convince other nations that it was workingtowards creating a coalition of like-minded states in the Balkans rather than reviving Ottomandomination.The Balkan cooperation took root initially as a reaction to the emergence of revisionist powers, in particular Italy. Soon after the First World War, Italy was engaged in a series of aggressive moves in the region. Italian forces first bombarded Corfu in Greece and took over Fiume from the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Thus, Rome’s direct involvement inthe Balkans prompted Turkey to seek ways of forming a Balkan entente. The idea was aired for 4
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