Some Turks continue to see similarities in Turkey's limited ability to control international shipping traffic through the Bosporus and nineteenth-century European designs on Ottoman territory.

And with its bid for EU membership at a standstill, at least one component of the old Eastern Question—what should Europe do with Turkey?—remains unresolved.

The Struggle for Control of the Straits

The question of the Straits also lay at the very heart of many of the twentieth century's most difficult military and diplomatic questions.

Although the Ottoman Empire initially professed neutrality in the First World War, its decision to grant harbor to two German warships, the Goeben and Breslau, ultimately tipped the Ottomans toward an alliance with Germany.

The German vessels had avoided British naval pursuit and, in August 1914, passed into the Turkish Straits, challenging British and French domination of the Mediterranean and Russian domination of the Black Sea.

The American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Henry Morgenthau, wrote: "I am convinced that, when the judicious historian reviews this war and its consequences, he will say that the passage of the Strait by these German ships made it inevitable that Turkey should join Germany … and that it likewise sealed the doom of the Turkish Empire."

Winston Churchill proclaimed that, by drawing the Ottomans into the fighting and extending the war, the passage of the two vessels brought "more slaughter, more misery and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship."

Gaining control of the Straits was the goal of the Gallipoli Campaign, which from April 1915 to January 1916 unsuccessfully sought to take the waterways and Ottoman capital.

With involvement by such colorful figures as Churchill, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and the Anzacs (the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps), Gallipoli helped to forge a sense of nationhood not only for the besieged Turks, but also New Zealanders and Australians. Turks won the battle, but lost the war.

The Treaty of Sèvres (1920)—one of six treaties prepared at the Paris Peace Conference that brought an end to World War I—established an occupation over much of today's Turkey. It established a Zone of the Straits, comprised of Istanbul and other territory along the Straits, and placed it under the control of an international commission.

It also declared that the Straits "shall in future be open, both in peace and war, to every vessel of commerce or of war and to military and commercial aircraft, without distinction of flag."

For the Turks, the foreign occupation in the heart of their territory—with division of much of the Anatolian heartland among neighbors, European powers, and minority groups—became a symbol for Turkey's national resistance. Even today, Turks associate the term "Sèvres" with betrayal and selling out to foreign powers.

From 1919 to 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rallied Turkish nationalists to gain sovereignty over Turkish territory and the Straits.

Although the new Treaty of Lausanne (1923) gave Turkish nationalists most of the territory they sought, the treaty retained an international commission for the Straits, which remained demilitarized.

Over the next decade and a half, Ataturk—the name that he adopted in 1934—introduced sweeping reforms aimed at strengthening the new nation-state and consolidating his control.

Westernization reforms limited Islam's influence over politics, switched from the Arabic to Latin script for the Turkish language, and even mandated that men must no longer wear the fez, but European-style hats.

Ataturk moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara, transforming the latter from a sleepy, provincial town to the capital of the new nation-state—with broad boulevards, government buildings, schools, and his own pet project: an experimental farm.

As Turkey grew in strength and turmoil grew in Europe, Turkey pulled off one of its greatest foreign policy triumphs: revision to the regime governing the Straits.

The Montreux Convention, which remains in effect today, abolished the Straits Commission and once again returned authority over the Straits to Turkey. In addition to allowing remilitarization, Turkey could restrict the passage of ships during wartime. It was obligated, however, to allow the passage of merchant vessels during times of peace.

Ataturk's legacy of ambitious state planning has not only left a profound mark on the seven decades of Turkish politics since his death, but Turkey's approach to foreign policy and the Straits have been profoundly shaped by the treaties—Lausanne and Montreaux—that he helped broker.

The Bosporus in the Vice of the Cold War

After the Second World War, the Straits, especially the Bosporus, remained an issue of contention and a symbol of Turkey's place in the world. Turkey resisted any revision to the Straits regime that might limit its control over the waterways.

Eager to avoid the disastrous consequences of picking the wrong side like they did in the First World War, Turkish leaders pursued a precarious policy of neutrality aimed at averting direct involvement in World War II.

Turkey's wavering policy instead drew the ire of an increasingly powerful Soviet Union and the Straits became integral to Cold War strategic equations.

In 1945-1946, the Soviet Union insisted on a revision to the Straits regime that would allow it to maintain forces there and also pressed for claims to other Turkish territory. An eminent Turkish journalist proclaimed that "the old Eastern Question has risen from its grave."

In 1946, the U.S. Ambassador to Turkey observed that "control of the Straits … obviously is of much more importance" than any other Soviet demands.

The defense of Turkey and Greece from communism provided the public justification for the 1947 Truman Doctrine. The speech by U.S. President Harry S. Truman was then the clearest public enunciation of the U.S. policy of the containment of communism, which dominated U.S. strategy throughout the Cold War.

By the 1950s, the United States considered the use of mines on the Straits to deter Soviet submarines from entering the Mediterranean. Turkey's alliance with the West solidified with its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952.


As Turkey has deepened its alliance with the West, the Straits—and the Bosporus in particular—have become associated with new symbolism of Turkey as a bridge between cultures, civilizations, and continents.

Yet, the idea of a bridge over the Bosporus also has a literal meaning that reflected a long legacy of large-scale state planning in Turkey.

In 1957, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes announced plans to build the longest suspension bridge outside the United States—over the Bosporus.

The bridge was part of an ambitious urban revitalization project to raze "slums" (including historic structures) and build "modern" new housing, parks, roads, and highways in Istanbul. The government claimed it was "carrying out the dream of Kemal (Ataturk) to make Istanbul … 'most beautiful and modern,'" according to a 1960 New York Times article.

The bridge project was interrupted by a 1960 military coup—the first of several military interventions.

In 1963, Turkey became an associate member of the European Common Market. In 1967, the bridge project was finally revived.

Chancellor Willy Brandt—the architect of West Germany's own outreach to the Soviet Union, Ostpolitik—declared: "This bridge signifies Turkey's wish to join Europe."

In October 1973, two years after Turkey's second coup d'état, the Bosporus Bridge—with a total span of around 5,000 feet (1,500 meters)—was finally complete. Its status as the first bridge across two continents filled world newspapers along with clichés of Turkey as a bridge between civilizations.

Bosporus Bottleneck

The Bosporus Bridge did not solve Turkey's Bosporus dilemma, nor did improved relations with its eastern neighbors.

As thousands and thousands of migrants from across Turkey continued to flock to Istanbul each year, it was clear that a single bridge would not adequately address Istanbul's growing population and deadlocked traffic.

In 1987, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal, who led Turkey after a nasty 1980 military coup and promoted political and economic liberalization, opened a second bridge over the Bosporus: the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named after the Ottoman sultan who conquered Istanbul.

Since the 1990s, governments from across the political divide have been pushing for a third one, which has been held up by legal challenges from property owners.

Erdogan has also backed a $2.5-$3.0 billion rail tunnel project under the Bosporus, known as Marmaray, which has been under construction since 2004. He has sometimes chided archaeological excavations along the route for holding the project up.

Yet, solutions from beneath and above will not solve Turkey's biggest Bosporus problem.

The waterway is harrowing, with sharp curves, blind spots, and shifting currents. Ferryboats and private boats zigzag across the strait, which they share with giant oil tankers and the occasional cruise ship.

Traffic within the treacherous waterway has steadily increased over the years. Turkish authorities say that in 1936 around 4,400 vessels passed through the waterway. Today, that number is around 50,000 annually—a more than ten-fold increase.

Unsurprisingly, around 460 accidents occurred between 1953 and 2002, most collisions. These have included multiple spills.

In 1960, Yugoslav and Greek tankers collided, killing 20 and leaving a fire that burned for weeks. In 1966, two Soviet tankers collided.

Ferryboats have struck other vessels. Significant spills of crude, gasoline, and other chemicals occurred in 1964, 1966, 1979, 1990, 1994, 1999, 2002 and 2003.

In his speech, Erdogan referred to the 1979 collision of the Romanian-flagged Independenta with a Greek ship that killed more than 40 people and left a pile of wreckage that burned for weeks.

While Erdogan was mayor of Istanbul, a 1994 collision killed 29 and brought passage in the Straits to a halt.

As oil from countries of the former Soviet Union has increasingly made its way to world markets since the collapse of the U.S.S.R., pressure on the Bosporus has only increased.

In response, Turkish governments have encouraged pipeline projects, such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan to a Mediterranean port in southern Turkey. Another oil pipeline, scheduled for operation in 2012, will bring crude from the Black Sea to the same port.

According to Erdogan, more than 358 million tons of freight is carried on the Bosporus every year, including 4 million tons of liquefied petroleum gas, 3 million tons of chemicals, and 139 million tons of petrol.

These "dangerous materials threaten our Istanbul, the beauty of our Istanbul, and the people of our Istanbul every day and every hour," Erdogan proclaimed as he announced Canal Istanbul.

"From now on, the Istanbul Bosporus will return to its former days—a wonder of the world where the past and future live side by side …"

Ataturk's Dream, Erdogan's Dream

There are many reasons to doubt that Canal Istanbul will solve all of Turkey's Bosporus problems.

For one, Turkey has limited say over the passage of merchant ships as guaranteed by the Montreaux Convention, which on other occasions Turkey has so vigorously upheld.

"If passage is free through the Bosporus, then why would anyone use this canal?" Russia's ambassador to Turkey asked frankly in an interview with the Hurriyet newspaper.

Moreover, critics complain that the canal—which Erdogan says will accommodate 130-160 ships daily compared to around 150 on the Bosporus—could simply double the number of ships that can pass through the Bosporus chokepoint by offering an additional route.

Yet for all these obstacles, Erdogan—like Turkish politicians across the political divide—continues to press for ambitious, large-scale projects.

At a time that many Europeans are faced with stark austerity measures and American political rhetoric stresses spending cuts and limited government, Canal Istanbul is but one such project funded by state coffers.

Erdogan paid customary political lip service to Ataturk in announcing the project. But Erdogan's Bosporus project is deeply personal—and political.

The former mayor of Istanbul was once banned from politics even as his Justice and Development Party swept into single party rule in 2002.

Only through legal changes approved by a parliament dominated by his party and a special backwater election could Erdogan finally secure a seat in parliament and become premier.

Tactics such as those, his promulgation of conspiracy theories involving Turkey's military and political rivals, and heightened crackdowns on journalists—perhaps making Turkey the lead jailer of journalists in the world—have raised concerns about Erdogan's intent as a political leader.

Many critics have also expressed alarm at some of Erdogan's reforms, including proposals to replace Turkey's constitution, drafted under military direction following a 1980 coup, with a new constitution giving greater authority to the president—a position in which Erdogan has expressed interest.

Although critics and supporters differ on the nature of Erdogan's vision, it is clear that he envisions Turkey as a major world political and economic power.

Under Erdogan, Turkey enacted ambitious reforms and opened formal membership negotiations with the European Union in 2005, although those talks have since stalled.

Yet, there is little question that the country has prospered economically under Erdogan. With 6.8 percent growth in 2010, Turkey boasts the fastest growing major economy after China and India.

In his speech, Erdogan rattled off figure after figure aimed at impressing the Turkish electorate: Per capita income had nearly quadrupled over the past decade—from $2,300 to over $10,000—and Turkey strives to become one of the world's ten largest economies by 2023.

Canal Istanbul is but one part of that broader economic agenda.

Erdogan emphasized that the project for Istanbul—the economic heart of Turkey that holds 40 percent of the country's wealth—would benefit all of Turkey.

"Canal Istanbul will also provide for a new place to live with centers for conferences, festivals and fairs, hotels, and sports facilities. Istanbul's urban transformation will continue along with the projects we will carry out around the Canal. We will build Istanbul's biggest airport here," he said. "The Third (Bosporus) Bridge will also go over this canal."

Ironically, the construction of the Canal will transform the European section of Istanbul into an island surrounded by the Bosporus on one side and the canal on the other—perhaps further isolating it from the rest of Turkey.

Erdogan, meanwhile, has been hush about where exactly the Canal will be, its cost, and construction, saying such disclosure might lead to unjustified criticism.