Scholars in Context: Nihat Celik
Jadaliyya's Scholars in Context series consists of Q&As in which scholars of the Middle East describe their research and the paths they took to arrive at it. The series provides a platform for these scholars to highlight the significance of their work, identify the audiences they seek to reach, and outline their future research trajectories, giving readers an in-depth look at the latest research in a given field.
Jadaliyya (J): What is the main focus of your current research and how does it connect to or depart from your previous work?
Nihat Celik (NC): I am currently working on a book draft and proposal that address foreign policy decision-making processes in the Ottoman Empire. I had previously worked on contemporary Turkish foreign policy, as well as diplomatic history in general, and had an academic curiosity about the factors that led to certain decisions. Foreign policy analysis is a neglected field in Ottoman history. The difficulties of conducting research, such as the language barrier in accessing and understanding the documents in the Ottoman archives, have deterred international relations scholars from engaging in such research. Ottoman historians who can access these documents often lack the knowledge in international relations and decision-making theories. I wanted to form a bridge between the two disciplines by combining knowledge of history and the theoretical approaches of the international relations disciplines. I think my research will shed light on the inner world of Ottoman statesmen in the eighteenth century, the pressures they experienced when faced with foreign policy crises, and the mechanisms of decision making.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does it address?
NC: Consultation is a highly suggested procedure in the Islamic governance model. My research focuses on the ad hoc consultation councils convened by the Ottoman sultans as decision-making bodies. Contrary to the widespread belief that as an autocracy the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a powerful monarch who made all the decisions on his own, I aim to show that important foreign policy decisions were made with the participation of senior level bureaucrats; in some cases, even retired officials were invited to advise, from different branches of the imperial bureaucracy. Though consultation is strongly suggested in the Quran, there is no mention of a specific mechanism. For this reason, my study highlights the practice in the Ottoman Empire by providing information on its convention, participants, and decision-making rules.
In my study I use three specific cases—namely the Ottoman decisions to declare war against Russia in 1768, to accept the Russian annexation of Crimea in 1783, and to declare war on Russia again in 1787. By using unpublished documents from Ottoman archives, the works of official historians of the era, and secondary sources, I aim to show the processes which led to these decisions. The research highlights the tension between different branches of bureaucracy, largely the military and religious establishment, regarding foreign policy. In addition, I aim to show the sources of data for decisions, such as various reports from the Ottoman provincial governors at the borders and correspondence with diplomats in Istanbul, as well as the flaws in decision making processes, such as the leaking of secret information, the unwillingness of the participants to freely express their opinions due to personal fears, and the self-perception of bureaucratic elites as the protectors of the Muslim population.
In decision-making processes, it is at many times possible to see a conflict between the rational analysis of the foreign policy crises and the intervention of emotions emanating from “role conceptions,” a concept coined by K J Holsti, as well as military defeats and territorial losses. My research demonstrates that it is also possible to identify many instances of “groupthink” among the participants of consultation councils in this setting, as determined by Irving L Janis’ approach. I hope to contribute to the existing but limited literature on Ottoman diplomatic history and to the growing literature of foreign policy analysis on non-Western powers.
J: What brought you to this work? What was the source of inspiration?
NC: Firstly, I was inspired by Graham Allison’s seminal book, The Essence of Decision, which identified different models of decision making and analyzed the decision-making process of the Kennedy Administration during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. I wanted to apply this analysis to decision-making processes in the Ottoman Empire. Secondly, as my academic interest grew on the topic, I realized that there were very few relevant publications available; existing literature mostly focused on European sources, such as the works of the renowned historian A J P Taylor, and frequently ignored Ottoman sources and perspectives. This scarcity of sources triggered my early research into the Ottoman archives.
J: What audiences would you like to reach, and what kind of impact would you like your research and writing to have?
NC: As my research applies the theoretical approaches of the international relations field to case studies built upon historical material, I hope to reach a wide audience consisting of historians, political scientists, professionals, and students. Geographically speaking, it may be of interest to researchers and students interested in Russian expansion and aggression in the eighteenth century, the history of Eastern Europe and the Crimean Khanate, and the general history of Europe. I hope to show the importance of historical knowledge in the study of international relations, and that both disciplines can benefit from each other.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
NC: I have two papers in progress. One of them is on the impact of historical analogies used to compare the World War I era and contemporary Turkish foreign policy, especially regarding Turkish involvement in the Middle East, the perception of Turkish people of the Middle East, and relations with major powers. I hope it will help to explain the current polarization of Turkish public opinion on foreign policy issues. My second paper employs the concept of hegemony in the Gramscian sense and, by using the new law on bar associations in Turkey as its focal point, aims to show the methods used by the Justice and Development Party in co-opting civil society and professional organizations in search of legitimacy and intellectual support.