With the inauguration of a new president in Washington at the start of this year there have been fears expressed about where the Trump administration’s determination to ‘make America great again’ might next see U.S. military forces committed around the globe. In Australia that speculation has been accompanied by concerns about whether any new adventures would involve an assumption that America’s allies should automatically become involved, too.

It is in this context that the situation which developed in Turkey after World War I holds special interest and relevance. In mid-1922, fighting between Greece and the Turkish state which was emerging from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman empire assumed dangerous proportions. The peace terms forced on the Turks by the victorious allied powers involved ceding large tracts of territory and the virtual partitioning of the country. This was bitterly resisted by nationalists under Mustapha Kemal, the wartime general who—just a year later—would proclaim a Turkish republic, with himself as first president.

In August, the Kemalists defeated and expelled Greek forces which had occupied İzmir (Smyrna) in western Anatolia. They then advanced rapidly on the ‘neutral’ international zone encompassing Constantinople (modern Istanbul) and the Straits of the Hellespont, lightly guarded by British and French troops stationed near the town of Chanak (today called Çanakkale) on the Asian side of the Dardanelles. By coincidence that town also featured strongly during the naval and military campaign fought by British (including Australian) and French forces during 1915.

Meeting on 15 September, the British Cabinet decided that it was essential that British forces maintain their positions in the face of the Kemalist build up around Chanak, both to maintain free passage of the straits for international shipping and to prevent war spreading to the European side of the waterway. Next day, a communiqué was issued in London threatening that Britain and its dominions would declare war on Turkey. This was a step which not only enraged the French government, which ordered its detachment to withdraw from Chanak, but took Dominion governments by complete surprise since there had been no prior consultation about any such action.

The presumption evident in the British ultimatum was quickly highlighted by Canada, whose redoubtable prime minister Mackenzie King made clear that it was for the Canadian House of Commons (then in recess) to decide whether there would be any commitment of that dominion’s forces. This superficially stood in contrast to the response by Australia and New Zealand, which both offered help. It became clear, however, when Prime Minister W. M. Hughes told parliament in Melbourne on 19 September that his government had been asked to contribute a contingent if necessary, and had acceded to the request, that the lack of consultation behind the British announcement was also resented in Australia.

Fortunately, the commander-in-chief of Allied forces in Constantinople, General Sir Charles Harrington, ignored his instructions from London and deferred issuing an ultimatum to the Turks to withdraw their forces. Equally fortunately, the Kemalists refrained from entering the neutral zone, thereby helping defuse a potentially dangerous situation. While conflict was formally averted by an agreement settled on 11 October, great damage had been done to internal relations within the British empire.

 

Chanak (Çanakkale) under allied occupation; General Harrington (centre) with his Italian and French counterparts at allied headquarters in Constantinople (Istanbul).

Following an Imperial Conference in November 1926 a statement of principles known as the Balfour Declaration was released which made clear that precipitate action by the government in London would not and could not be taken in the name of the dominions again. Following a further Imperial Conference in 1930, this declaration was incorporated in an Act of the British Parliament called the Statute of Westminister, which guaranteed the autonomy of the dominions as equal and independent entities within the Commonwealth.

Of course, this did not prevent or inhibit joint military action by the dominions with Britain in future, as occurred in 1939 with the start of World War II, but in theory it meant there would be no automatic or assumed commitment of forces. In reality, however, it still required a dominion to decide that its national interests were either separate or not served by joining in particular conflicts before it stood apart. And it certainly did not prevent Britain from treating its dominions, including Australia, as less than full allies in formulating  objectives and strategy for the conduct of wars in which the Australian government chose to participate. It remains to be seen how such matters will play out in future instances when Australia finds itself expected to again give expression to its relationship with the U.S.

It is purely coincidental that Turkey provides another historical parallel with contemporary relevance, following the holding of a referendum this month that is intended to transform the country from a parliamentary democracy to an autocratic presidency—not entirely dissimilar to the regime established by Mustapha Kemal back in 1923. The current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan no doubt argues that he is merely returning Turkey to its original roots, but the course of entrenching his authoritarian rule inevitably presents liberal democracies across the globe with some hard choices about future engagement. For years Australia has pandered to Ankara to secure access to the stretch of Turkish coastline that forms the basis for annual veneration of the Anzac legend. Whether this can continue following Turkey’s move to dictatorship, and how difficult it will be to maintain, again becomes problematic.