In the wake of the Arab uprisings, and particularly the conflict in Syria, the Turkish government has appeared to disregard its affiliation with Western multilateral institutions, whether in its overtures to Russia, or its war on Syria’s Kurds. Meanwhile Egypt’s regional influence has markedly diminished, reflected in its deference to Saudi Arabia’s lead in particular, and its abstention from action in Syria. What has made both developments so controversial is their departure from longstanding foreign policy traditions in each country: Turkey’s prominent position in the Atlantic Pact, and Egypt’s recognised status as Arab leader. In my book, Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War, I explore the decade in which both these traditions were established, the 1950s, and uncover the origins of the current terms of debate in each country.

At that time, Cold War dynamics were intersecting with decolonisation processes in the Middle East, and superpowers, imperial powers, and newly independent states were all vying for influence. By 1955, Turkey’s Democrat Party government had secured NATO membership, and its leaders were encouraging their Arab neighbours to join the Western camp. Egypt’s Free Officers were promoting a pan-Arab alliance instead, within an Afro-Asian neutralist bloc. The book asks: given Turkey and Egypt’s shared historical and cultural experience, why did their foreign policy stances diverge so much in the 1950s?

Conventional wisdom around the foreign policies of the Democrats and Free Officers tends to downplay their agency vis-à-vis the superpowers. Turkey’s accession to NATO, and its promotion of NATO’s regional extension, the Baghdad Pact, are most often cast as a reaction to Soviet expansionism. Egypt’s advocacy of pan-Arabism is presented as pragmatic manoeuvring aimed to avoid superpower pressures, and yet doomed to fail in their shadow.

I challenge these ideas by rethinking foreign policy as an arena for nation making. I analyse the clashes of the 1950s not as realpolitik, but as a series of positions taken in a larger quest to fashion a modern – and sovereign – nation, by elites whose political formation occurred against the backdrop of war, imperialism, and underdevelopment. My analysis draws on largely untapped Turkish and Arabic primary sources from state and media archives, private collections, and politicians’ memoirs. This approach brings theories of international relations and nationalism into conversation. Any leadership’s claims about the nation presuppose interlocutors who recognise that nation’s sovereignty and its leaders’ narratives of national belonging, and who will enable – not obstruct – their pledges on national progress. Nation making thus involves engagement with the international, and should not be analysed as bound within a ‘domestic’ sphere.

In Turkey’s case, joining NATO reflected the Democrats’ westernising nation making project, which explicitly aimed to transform Turkey into a ‘little America’. Meanwhile Egyptian neutralism reflected the pursuit of decolonisation within a pan-Arab national framework. In both cases, political leaders negotiated dilemmas between their nation making objectives and their limited resources: it was this that drove the evolution of their foreign policy, rather than any superpower prerogative. These contrasting nation making projects are thus key to our understanding of Turkish and Egyptian foreign policies’ divergence.

This approach to foreign policy reveals new dimensions of each leadership’s nation making project in turn. First, despite the scholarly focus on anti-Kurdish/Armenian/Greek discourses in Turkish nationalism, I find new evidence for the equally significant role of the Ottoman state tradition of Orientalism, which proved to be constitutive of Democrat stances vis-à-vis the Arab world. Meanwhile, and in contrast to conventional wisdom on the instrumentalisation of pan-Arabism by Egyptian leaders, I show that it was an early feature of their nation making projects before British withdrawal, perpetuated later by Israeli attacks. I compare these positions as different nationalist responses to the legacies of European empire in the Middle East. In this way, the book contributes new perspectives on postcolonial and anticolonial nationalisms in the global South, where existing literature has often focused on South Asia.

The book’s conclusions underline Turkish and Egyptian actors’ agency in the Cold War context. In the case of Turkey, although the Democrat leadership was participating in collective security schemes thought up variously by Britain, the United States, and France, its active efforts shaped the fate of each of these ventures significantly. Similarly, Egypt’s positive neutralist policy afforded it productive leverage between the superpowers, while its pan-Arabist practice garnered it the regional weight with which to sustain their attention, and in the American case, to suppress some of their more hostile designs.

Today, international politics are configured differently, yet the frameworks set up by the leaderships of the 1950s continue to resonate. In Turkey, the Democrats’ foreign policy choices have proved enduring, and they were formative of a centre-right tradition which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appropriated in his rise to power. Meanwhile, the 1950s experience in Egypt gave rise to the political tradition of ‘Nasserism’, which has been invoked and repurposed by Arab opposition movements from Tunisia to Iraq. In both Turkey and Egypt, the pursuit of nationalist commitments continues to animate foreign policy debate and practice. As we approach the centenary of the Turkish republic, and the ten-year anniversary of Egypt’s January 25th Revolution, the connections and alignments forged in the 1950s remain very much alive.

Reem Abou-El-Fad teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. Her new book Foreign Policy as Nation Making: Turkey and Egypt in the Cold War is now available. Her work has also appeared in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of Palestine Studies, and the International Journal of Transitional Justice.

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